City ‘dark arts’ claim angers Guardiola
It is the moment when purism meets pragmatism. Manchester City’s football may be as bewitching as anything seen on these shores, as Southampton could discover at the Etihad Stadium today, but their success is also founded on carefully packaged cynicism.
Jose Mourinho was the first to pinpoint City’s use of so-called tactical fouls when he sought to stoke the fires before the derby at Old Trafford last December and it is a theme being picked up by others.
After watching City’s 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley on Monday, Gary Neville, the former United captain, claimed City commit deliberate fouls to kill rival counterattacks at source when unable to win the ball back fairly.
Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, who suggested the Premier League champions were becoming “masters of the dark arts”, pinpointed their “smiling assassin”, midfielder Fernandinho, as the principal culprit. Even Pep Guardiola’s former No2, Domenec Torrent, seemed to admit over the summer it was a deliberate tactic when City have not won the ball back within five seconds.
Both Neville and Keown were expressing admiration for the cleverness with which City repeat the trick, none more so than Fernandinho. Neville suggested he had made an art of the way he “trips people up, picks them up, smiles and gets away with it”.
Guardiola insists he has never instructed his players to foul. Any freekicks his team concede are the by-product of an aggressive approach to recover the ball quickly, he says.
“Sometimes situations happen, but we are a team that always try to attack, to defend well, to play our game but never think about making actions like that. I’m completely not agreeing with comments that we are a team looking for these kind of situations because it never happened in Barcelona, it never happened in Bayern Munich and it can never happen at City.
“I’m not disclosing a secret when I say that when the opponent has the ball, we’re going to press them to regain the ball to attack more. But people have to know, and Gary Neville knows perfectly because he was a former player, the opponents play, too.
“Normally when for every 10 minutes you have the ball, for seven of them there is less option to make fouls. I don’t think we’re a team that make a lot of fouls in games, but never in my life did I say to my players, ‘You have to do that to make problems to the opponents, to not let them be who they are’. We take the ball to play again.”
It took time for City’s players to grasp Guardiola’s demands in his first year, but having sauntered to the title last season with an unprecedented century of points, they are not just becoming more miserly in defence, they are denying opponents much of a sniff at their goal. The Spurs win was their sixth league clean sheet in a row, and in 10 top-flight matches, they have conceded only 17 shots on their goal, from which just three goals were scored
“We defend well because everybody runs,” Guardiola said. “I accept a lot of things but the guy who doesn’t run for his team-mates, who doesn’t run with desire to regain the ball to play, with me he has no chance.”
‘Smiling assassin’: Fernandinho was singled out as being a master of the ‘dark arts’ something denied by Pep Guadiola