Brave, foolhardy or puzzling? Perhaps Guardiola’s diatribe was all of them
Manchester City manager might not have ripped into his team had they lost to Spurs but his outburst could be what they need
Pep Guardiola’s discarding of his role as cheerleader-in-chief for his Manchester City players is a first peek behind the Catalan’s urbane public mask since the tetchiness of his opening season.
Then, as now, the cause of the manager’s ire was a misfiring team. After a tight win over Burnley in January 2017 Guardiola knew the fight was for a Champions League place, not the title, and when asked by reporters this uber-winner could not contain his disgust.
Thursday night’s reveal after the 4-2 win over Tottenham was different in two respects from the mini-meltdown of six years ago that also featured an awkward interview with the BBC’s Damian Johnson (for which he apologised).
Firstly, Guardiola now has the ballast of four Premier League titles in five seasons on the CV and, in his seventh season, is versed in the trials and tribulations of English football. And secondly the criticism of his multimillionaire charges was not an off-the-cuff venting of spleen but a calculated psychological ploy (or mind game) to try to arrest listing performances as City reach the 19-match halfway mark.
Guardiola is no scheming managerial Machiavelli but he is a clever man who knows that the way City stank out the Etihad Stadium in the first half to trail 2-0 was the latest in a concerning sequence of displays that caused losses to Brentford and Manchester United and a draw with Everton in the taking of seven points from the previous 15 available.
If Tottenham deserve plaudits for crowding out the hosts inside their own territory when in possession before the interval, it was still strange to witness Guardiola’s usually fluid, ruthless blue machine being unable to beat the initial press as they so often do via their high-end technique and clever movement. The champions were jeered off at the break and cheered off at the end as Julián Álvarez, Erling Haaland, and Riyad Mahrez (twice) put Spurs away in the second half before Guardiola turned on them and everyone else in-house.
The decision to call out the very constituency all managers’ job security hinges on – his players – might be analysed as brave, foolhardy, a gamble or puzzling. Perhaps all. Particularly when he skewers, too, the home faithful for being “silent for 45 minutes – I want them back” – the club staff and the “whole organisation” in a diatribe delivered with a scattergun mix of passion, disdain, urgency and humour and which ended with the memorable scoff that City are a “happy flowers” team.
A UAE dirham for the thoughts of Khaldoon Al Mubarak, his calm and calculated chairman, about being placed on the naughty step, or Sheikh Mansour, the billionaire owner and deputy prime minister of the Emirates who pays his salary and whose largesse has given the 52-year-old the squad to make Guardiola’s era one for the generations.
This brings us to the searing question: why did he do it? Why turn the cannons on your own? A glance at the table shows City’s victory takes them five points behind Arsenal, who have played a game fewer. If City beat Wolves on Sunday, then Manchester United defeat the leaders later that afternoon, the gap is two. But Guardiola snorted at this glass-half-full scenario: “We have an opponent in Arsenal who have the fire. Two decades without winning the Premier League. I am explaining the reality. Everything is so comfortable [at City] but opponents don’t wait. I don’t recognise my team: they [previously] had the passion and desire to run.
“In 14 years I won 11 league titles – that’s a lot. So that means every day I see things you do not because you are not [there]. It’s not a single player, it’s everyone.” This, of course, is Guardiola’s job: to keep on winning and put a rocket under those who however subconsciously ease off in this pursuit. And the obvious answer to “why?” is that Guardiola assessed the shower City were before the break on Thursday and, after being dumped from the Carabao Cup by Southampton last week, saw how the next month could break – or make – the quest to avoid what occurred in that debut campaign: a trophyless season.
After Wolves, Arsenal have the chance to knock City out of the FA Cup in Friday’s fourth-round tie, then there is the return league fixture against Spurs (5 February), the first title showdown with the Gunners at the Emirates (15 February; the return in April should be a classic), and the resumption of the Champions League at Leipzig at the end of the same month.
Will Guardiola’s scathing takedown of everyone at City backfire? As he spoke on Thursday a sage in the row behind suggested there would have been no evisceration if Guardiola’s team had not staged the comeback. The analysis has some currency, the theory being that the attack on (mainly) his squad was more powerful after a win – and received better as a justifiable call-to-arms. In other words, the last thing his players needed if they had ended humiliated was more humiliation heaped on them given what this might do for morale and the manager’s ability to “beat Arsenal” to the championship.
Guardiola will have a first answer to whether he has been smart or silly at about 4pm on Sunday when the final whistle is blown on Wolves’s visit. Victory is desired, of course. But, to take him at his word, Guardiola also wishes to see his team “back” as the slick pass-and-move merchants who are as keen to run and harry their opponents.
You can understand why: this is how the supreme Guardiola City that have ruled the domestic game operate. Return to this mode and Arsenal and the rest could be blown away.