City ‘dark arts’ claim angers Guardi­ola

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - By James Ducker

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

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