One of the most remarkable scenes in ‘All or Nothing’, Amazon’s fly-on-the-wall series which followed Manchester City two seasons ago, comes a few days after the team has shipped three goals in 19 brutal first-half minutes at Anfield which saw their Champions League campaign go up in smoke.
Even within the limits of a club-approved film, you would expect a modicum of apoplexy from Pep Guardiola, yet he dims the lights in the conference room where his players are sprawled before him, mildly suggests more aggression is necessary and does his best to put their minds at rest after the 3-0 thumping.
‘I don’t want to see bad faces, guys. We’ve worked too much during these 10 or 11 months to see bad faces in this room,’ he says, later telling the camera crew that he holds the referee responsible.
Pep Guardiola cut a frustrated figure, as his City defence failed to deal with Liverpool again
City’s defence – including left back Angelino (centre) – struggled with the Reds’ front three
A little more fury would surely have helped, because Sunday’s defeat bore uncanny similarities.
Back then, there were also three goals in the space of 45 minutes, with Kyle Walker, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho being made to look ordinary by Mohamed Salah for the first before a long-range effort made it 2-0.
Delve into Guardiola’s past, though, and it is very hard to find any explosion about defensive inadequacies, which generally get exposed as City reach the business end of the season.
When the team lost 3-1 in Monaco to exit Europe in 2017, he ripped into the team for the failure to play ‘the City way’ rather than for technical ineptitude.
Manchester City’s defensive statistics make for grim reading after three months of the season
Later, he blamed himself for not picking Otamendi — a defender we know now to be very ordinary — rather than those he had fielded. ‘Why the f*** didn’t I play Otamendi?’ he fumed in a backroom staff meeting witnessed by authors of The Making of a Superteam, a new book about his City methods.
Everywhere you look in the game, there is evidence of forwards and midfielders whom Guardiola has made better — from Raheem Sterling to Nolito, flourishing at Sevilla.
But defensive technique is a very different currency.
‘I don’t train tackles,’ he said after a win at Leicester a few years ago. ‘I train to keep the ball and defend well.’
Argentinaean centre back Nicolas Otamendi was an unused substitute at Anfield on Sunday
The City boss dishes out instructions to centre back and £50million signing John Stones
It is a defender’s failure to pass the ball out of defence well that incurs Guardiola wrath, not a failure to keep it out of the net.
The Netflix Barcelona documentary ‘Take the Ball, Pass the Ball’ revealed centre half Dmytro Chygrynskiy failing to locate Xavi, as Guardiola had instructed, on his debut following a £20m move from Shakhtar Donetsk.
Chygrynskiy was substituted in the second half, barely played for Barca again and was sold back to Shakhtar a year later.
‘We signed guys who we know can keep marauding up and down their touchline,’ Mikel Arteta tells the new City book’s authors, in a chapter on full backs in which a capacity to tackle or close down does not enter the conversation.
Guardiola and Arteta value ball-playing defenders more than traditional back-line personnel
The book charts the fleeting excitement about Fabian Delph’s possibilities as a full back.
Guardiola’s former assistant Domenec Torrent says he spotted this and ‘Pep agreed that he saw possibilities’.
After several defensive errors, the last against Tottenham in last season’s Champions League, Delph was sold to Everton, where he is back in midfield.
City signed Brazilian Danilo for £26.5 million at a time when ‘half of Europe wanted him’, according to Torrent. That didn’t work, so they sold him after 11 appearances.
They then spent £58.5m on Juventus’ Joao Cancelo, who has been eclipsed by Oleksandr Zinchenko, a converted midfielder, who was free to leave for Wolves 18 months ago.
Zinchenko, unconvincing against a very modest Everton team, six weeks ago, was injured on Sunday but still Cancelo did not start.
Joao Cancelo was bought for big money in the summer but did not make the City starting XI
This is a recurring theme. When it comes to acquiring defenders, the track record of City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain has been weak. Eliaquim Mangala (£42m), Otamendi (£40.1m), Martin Demichelis (£4.5m) and Stefan Savic (£10.8m) have been varying shades of poor.
Guardiola’s decision to sell Joe Hart seemed bold until Claudio Bravo’s inadequacies, glaring again at Anfield, came into focus.
Virgil van Dijk’s emergence onto the market for £75m, after Southampton’s reluctance to sell softened, seems significant in retrospect. City felt the price was ‘ridiculous’ and Aymeric Laporte was signed instead.
Begiristain has said it’s just not easy finding defenders who can play a high line, pass and also defend, in the Guardiola way.
Pep Guardiola has undoubtedly missed the influence of injured Aymeric Lapote at the back
For a time, at Barcelona, Guardiola did have such individuals: Carles Puyol, Gerard Piquet, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano in a system that worked for a while. But it’s been blind spot ever since.
Injury to Laporte hasn’t helped. But Benjamin Mendy’s absence from the squad for Liverpool, whilst fit to face Atalanta last week, asks questions about how Guardiola really regards him.
‘Play my way and you don’t need to worry about the mistakes,’ Guardiola told Laporte when he signed. ‘That will be on me.’