Current rhetoric depicts them as impervious, majestic and rampant. Pep Guardiola accedes the figurative tactical throne of a character-fixated media coup d’état victim in Antonio Conte, while the monikers of Sterling, Stones and Delph are restored to credibility only months after searing mainstream criticism. Outlandish statements of their invincibility over a 38-game league season are rapidly becoming the status quo of nationally-broadcast punditry. Yet this is not a hallucinatory spectre; fourteen victories, 46 goals scored and only ten conceded amidst fifteen rigorous matches in the inception of utmost efficiency in the Premier League’s 25-year heritage. In the context of their apparent ambitions, the world-renowned Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-04 stand just eighteenth in those standings, having procured an entire eight fewer points at an equal nigh-on-midway stage of the season. Is it realistically tenable, however, to even suggest the concept of a rejuvenation of the prowess evident in a side respected as the most incisive in English professional footballing history? Approaching a schedule that takes no prisoners in its relentless winter demands, amidst possibly the most physically exacting era in any league title contenders’ exerts, whether Guardiola’s contingent can actually emulate their star-studded, but also astute, hopeful predecessors will establish the extent of power capitals in a sport that has, on face value, altered demonstrably since Arsène Wenger’s last league title. Certainties may become perilous statements at this relatively formative stage, yet when comparing the circumstances of the sides, much can be ascertained.
The differences, generally, between the sides are incomparable. Ederson – Brazil’s archduke-like incarnation of Manuel Neuer’s German goalkeeping throne – contrasts considerably to Jens Lehmann, whose game relied on a long-established organisation of those ahead of him; Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré, Ashley Cole and Lauren, who themselves had complex roles entirely divergent to the modern facets of Nicolás Otamendi, John Stones, Kyle Walker and any of the varied names employed by Guardiola at left-back. From Fabian Delph, Fernandinho, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy – prior to injury – the Spaniard has fostered a range of abilities and options within a role, at full-back or occasionally wing-back, that is renowned as so fundamental to his general footballing philosophy; burdened with an onus on inverting when in possession, complementing the supreme confidence of a free-scoring outfit. Yet these individuals encapsulate the tactical fluidity that has defined few prior domestic champions; Guardiola employing 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 formations throughout the four months, to date, of the 2017-18 season, and profiting abundantly from the versatility he has instilled in his trusted contingent – even more so evident than the reversible attributes of Wenger’s side. Seldom, even in our age of tactical innovation and exploration, can any sides, even at the pinnacle of the Champions League, turn their hand to a range of shapes, and single nuances that may last a season at most prior to elimination from contention. Definitive of this era, the scope of tactical challenge is considerably more diverse, regardless of the ideological orthodoxy espoused by some rigid managerial administrations.
As Chelsea and Tottenham – excelling the previous the season in ostensibly similar interpretations of a 3-4-3 rarely witnessed since Rinus Michels’ 1970s Ajax tenure – falter in the fallout of 2016-17’s overall domestic dominance, and the gradual adoption of the system by Arsène Wenger is being exposed in another season of Emirate-based inconsistency, it is blatantly obvious in the fortunes of Manchesters City and United – the latter, in a testament to José Mourinho’s pragmatism, able to revert fluently between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 concepts – that tactical reversibility predominates the era. Theories derided as predictable, one-dimensional and universally flawed, emerge also in Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Didier Deschamps’ French national team and even arguably Zinedine Zidane’s previously heralded Real Madrid – of whom a global monopoly of silverware was temporarily accredited. It is no longer sufficient to expect reward for the proficiency of a squad in a single tactic, even if presumed faultless by its resolute innovator.
Would it be fair to proclaim that tacticians – Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino – who, for some, are at the forefront of 21st century proceedings, have been found out in the Premier League? Did it seriously take just twelve months for players of the international quality of N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, World Cup winner Cesc Fàbregas, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen and the presently unfavoured David Luiz, to be exposed to the extent of disparities of five and two points at the same stage (gameweek 15) of the 2016-17 season? Evidently not, given the factors of Chelsea’s current position – only three points behind Mourinho’s side – and the six draws and two defeats suffered by early December of Pochettino’s 2016-17 Spurs; albeit in what was a period prior to the Argentine’s full-scale implementation of a 3-4-3, coincidentally in a GW16 3-0 victory at Hull. Many more factors contribute to a temporary fall from grace, and it is certainly not the case that this duo have been embarrassed in their inferiority to emergent challengers; a phenomenon perhaps only otherwise evident in José Mourinho’s 2015-16 capitulation, while leading reigning champions Chelsea to a position just one point clear of the mid-December relegation zone in the statistically poorest title defence since Blackburn Rovers in 1996-97, with just 13 points accrued by their seventeenth match. A lack of reinvestment, fatigue from international involvement and continental competition, the mental impact of aforementioned disastrous title-defending notoriety, internal character conflicts and the distraction of asset courtship attempts from afar are all viable excuses for the short-lived proficiencies of 21st century outfits, and it is practically impossible to avoid to a series of these snares in the present environment. Contingency plans may be drawn up, and attempts at stability enacted, but unless managers profess the domineering influence of Sir Alex Ferguson – a rare managerial quality as the engineer of a dynasty, while unafraid to impose drastic overhaul measures to preserve long-term pre-eminence – however attentive the scouting campaign, or rigorous the pre-season schedule, many will perish. Returning to incisive excellence under a reimagined 3-5-1-1 formation, Conte’s side may yet procure silverware this term, yet when adrift so far early on to alternative inspiration, the Italian’s outfit have diminished undoubtedly in stature.
Luxury players, or Baggio-esque fantasista as the Italian-referencing romantics amongst us would label them, define the attacking qualities of Guardiola’s current entity. It is particularly notable that Leroy Sané, possessing the potential to be lauded as the most electrifying winger of his generation, has contributed his six 2017-18 Premier League goals and five assists almost entirely exclusively – to the tune of a respective five goals and four assists – in 5-0, 7-2, 3-0 and 2-0 City victories. The only exception to this rule is a 3-2 win fought out at a tenacious West Brom, yet with roughly 73% of his decisive scoreline contributions arriving at home, in dominant team performances against Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Stoke and Burnley, you have to question the viability of players like Sané in the various match situations and challenges that arrive for squads with title aspirations. Certainly, he is prolific when dispatching the opportunities that arrive from total midfield dominance, and applies his explosive pace and adept finishing abilities to incisive extents, but if expecting an individual of his ilk – rarely likely to cede possession of his starting left-wing role to Bernardo Silva, or Gabriel Jesus in a tactical alternation, especially if approaching a match with a more defensive mentality – to produce match-winning quality at least every second game, is Guardiola realistic of his squad’s capabilities? May complacency befall the side to capitalise a potentially unbeaten title-winning season?
As explored in earlier stages of this argument, the tactical diversity and fluency of the modern Premier League demands extensive preparation and mental stamina of those attempting to survive, let alone finish as the season’s victors. With the first Mancunian rivalry of the season fast approaching this weekend, Guardiola is presented with the opportunity of a managerial lifetime; seize the occasion, and defeat their both literal and mathematical closest challenges, thus deposing arguably his only tactical equal in present footballing environs, let alone within English employment. Caution will obviously be advised in the wake of United’s clinical dispatch of a possession-dictating, goal-peppering and altogether naïve Arsenal side with little ability to convert beyond a steadfast defensive population and supremely impervious David de Gea last weekend, yet with Mourinho the host of the event, an emphasis is upon his shoulders to seize control, and enthuse the Old Trafford faithful. Potentially bereft of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones through injury, and lacking the aggressive talismanic abilities of Romelu Lukaku’s August incarnation, United start the underdogs. It is certainly not a role Mourinho has shirked in the past.
History will not define 2017-18’s title struggle as definitive of footballing folklore. This Mancunian-based duo are not the tactical revolutionaries of yesteryear, but the exponents of previous decades’ fallibilities, and of the qualities expressed in finely-tuned present playing assets in countering the depth of modern talent. Although Guardiola may be observed by broadcasters both perceptive and sensationalist to profess an unprecedented fluidity and quality of competition, he has recently been ousted as less of the prophetic figure his second season proficiency would have led many to believe.
During what emerged as a challenging year of realisation in the wake of Conte’s more refined and negotiable tactical adaptation to the Premier League, arguably the Spaniard’s fundamental influence within the Etihad’s surrounding infrastructure featured the drastic developments that arose of potentially costly home-grown talents. Nurturing the likes of Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fabian Delph – the latter particularly, alongside Fernandinho, as a formerly steadfast midfielder now equipped to execute a role in total opposition to the modern wing-back status quo of reckless defensive abandon – Guardiola only further consolidated a pedigree formed amidst no mean feats during reigns of unparalleled domestic dominance in Barcelona and Munich. Noting alumni of the ilk of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves, Pedro and Thiago – all originally periphery squad figures, with the first promoted from the Barcelona B side he helmed prior to a 2008-09 hiring, the subsequent duo signed in the same season and the latter duo mere respective 20 and 18-year-olds when granted serious senior action – this reciprocal appreciation is perhaps far beyond that capable at any other club in professional competition. Take his first season in the notoriously pressurised senior ranks of Barça; waging a deliberate campaign of tactical defiance at the Catalan club upon appointment, he could easily have replaced the unfavoured Deco, and ageing World Cup-winning contingent of Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram and Ronaldinho – a Ballon d’Or awardee only three years previous – with equally established profiles for record-breaking fees, but instead opted to both cultivate existing abilities, and employ the unheralded aptitudes of Sevilla’s Alves and Seydou Keita, alongside what amounted to be erroneous expenses on Brazilian Henrique, Arsenal’s Alexander Hleb and the former Southampton centre-back Martín Cáceres; €36.3 million of upfront outlay that amounted to only 32 sum La Liga appearances. In a position of such considerable external influence, we are led to presume not all of these were under his prerogative; yet reputation, and the respect to solely dictate transfer policy, is only granted when providing a divine service.
Guardiola is not the faultless figure many broadcasters depict; his limitations are, in fact, the most resonant of any in the managerial industry in the past decade. Transfer acumen, more widely attributed to the ultimately unsustainable, much-derided three-year stints of a certain Portuguese adversary, is not the forte of City’s helmsman, and nor should it be. Derived from Barça heritage – a product of the famed La Masia framework in both playing and managerial vocations – and temporarily confined within these morals, the adaptation to Bayern Munich’s effective monopoly over the Bundesliga market required sentimental compromise. Further so does the elevation to Mancunian backdrops in the midst of the Premier League’s global economic revolution. Yet to fixate so coherently, and patiently, on the fundamental structure of any potential title pursuit demonstrates sincere ethics, and adept mental clarity; especially in the context of savage media character degradations, particularly of Stones. It is no coincidence that, while imposing tactical innovation far beyond the capabilities of any prior opponents, those critics have become becalmed, and now profess the pivotal qualities of Stones’ expansive defensive interpretations. It is no coincidence that his authoritative presence in the Citizens’ backline has only been lacking in 359 minutes of their league campaign to date; a successive trio of arguably fortunate 2-1 victories against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, and 89 minutes of a fellow 2-1 win, again achieved late on, at Bournemouth in late August. Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, both ineffective when partnered with the similarly physical unit of Otamendi and arguably beyond salvaging from successive injury crises and unreliable form, do not compare in the slightest.
Fundamentally, these are the concerns that afflict the fabled Blue Moon’s fulfilment of an unbeaten league season. Arsène Wenger’s early 2000s side possessed far fewer vulnerabilities that those that have the potential of hindering an imperative statement of indisputable domestic dominance. The Frenchman, while manufacturing an unprecedented tactical brand in the years preceding that 2003-04 season, relied extensively on a vast reserve of talent. Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, José Antonio Reyes, Edu, Pascal Cygan, Gaël Clichy, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and the unheralded Jérémie Aliadière made just 65 league starts between them, but amidst 71 substitute appearances were able to apply the stamina the fatiguing legs of respected first-teamers required to accomplish ultimately decisive late results. Each was highly experienced, and fully trusted in performing to the exacting standards Wenger demanded. In a season where they were single-goal victors on fourteen occasions, and accrued an average of 1.5 bookings every match, this depth was paramount.
Seldom does the same confidence in squad capabilities impose opponents and viewers in the present City side; Kompany, Mangala, Danilo, Bernardo Silva, Yaya Touré, İlkay Gündoğan and the rotation-prone Gabriel Jesus presently the most likely bench fodder, yet inspiring none of the impervious compatibility or reliance that Wenger’s effective supporting cast did; despite, on average, being 1.905 years elder than those replacements who collected champions medals for Arsenal, and housing 28.83 more international caps in personal memorabilia confines. Considering the recurrent injuries of captain Kompany and playmaker Gündoğan, the declining years of Touré, undermining inconsistencies of Mangala and lack of faith demonstrated in either summer signature – a £26.5 million Danilo or £43.5M Silva – as of yet, exacerbated by the unfortunate loss of Benjamin Mendy to long-term ACL impairments, the trepidations of a December schedule that – while preceded by tonight’s 3,538-round mile Donetsk excursion – includes both Mourinho and Pochettino’s frays, sandwiched by a faltering Swansea City side, in the space of a mere six days, appear fraught with hazard. In an age of heightened fitness, both the competitive stakes and potential rewards are accentuated, especially considering the multiple demands compared to an early 2000s era; not of fixtures, but of commercial and media duties, while players now have a recognised and serious threat of excessive mental burden.
Encouragement, also, should not be neglected. Romantics, and optimists, as I may consider myself if it wasn’t for my spite of City’s financially emboldened status amongst a modern European, and global, elite, will regale the circumstances of Wenger’s administration an entire fourteen seasons past. Parallels, quite admittedly, do emerge when considering Le Professeur’s revitalised and emboldened demeanour in that Invincibles season; he embraced the defiance of Manchester United the season prior, as Ferguson’s squad romped from an eight-point deficit to purloin silverware, to strengthen institutional resolve, with the twelve league draws of that fêted season serving as the resounding testament to this.
The psychological inflections and tendencies of a title-pining season are fascinating to immerse oneself in the analysis of. Rather than impede unbeaten ambitions, established squad hierarchies, coupled with Pep’s renowned fervour for rotation, could favour City in a campaign of attrition. As such, the intrigue around Sunday’s post-match comments intensifies, with much revealed by Guardiola’s admittance; “I learned to attack a bit differently. Normally we don’t play with two strikers and two wingers. Maybe to attack this kind of defence it is much better.” Reverting to what was effectively a 4-2-4 formation – or 4-1-1-4, with the indefatigable Kevin de Bruyne as the more withdrawn midfield asset – in a demanding second half against the Hammers, further versatility was encapsulated by the individuals at City’s disposal, and to pivotal repercussions to maintain a 13-match winning run when approaching possibly the most decisive fixture in their entire campaign. By no means is this solely on the basis of mere proficient form. Performances demonstrate much more resonance, and the three consecutive late victories salvaged from the challenge of fluency-disrupting and creativity-stifling defensive performances of sacrificial bodies under the direction of David Wagner, Mauricio Pellegrino and David Moyes – the latter duo of whom certainly adept, from results excessive of financial constraints at Alavés and Everton, of coordinating defensive strangulation – prove tactical tinkering fully effective within the City boss’ armoury. These opponents may have not been to the standard of United’s counter-attacking capabilities, but to unnerve a global monolith of the Red Devils’ stature with the points procured with hard late graft is no mean feat, and should prove pivotal in the pre-match psychological engagements.
To paraphrase one of the many infamous neologisms of Andy Tate; “ten days, make or break a season.” While the circumstance is certainly not as extreme as in the context of what unfolded as an extremely perceptive prophecy of ‘Moyseh’s’ ‘make-or-break your career’ late-March 2014 run against West Ham and Manchester City – predictably only returning three points, before culminating on the calamitous tone of a 3-0 home defeat to the Citizens – the fortunes and repute awaiting a league season of resounding invincibility are fully unprecedented. The opportunity to be referenced for generations to come, and lauded as the pinnacle of this era’s domestic talent in just the second such occurrence of impregnability since Preston North End’s 1888-89 campaign, mounts as an unparalleled prize that truly transcends the societal microcosm of sport. The barrier that once was insurmountable in the professional era was rendered attainable, or at least within the realms of possibility for the absolute zenith of footballing organisation, by Arsène Wenger’s seamlessly-aligned circumstance and administration; never, perhaps, will the accolade hold such testimony. Regardless of Guardiola’s aspirations – striking his audience as the derivation of personality that strives only for perfection – the pre-emptive gushing of acclaim that rears in City’s direction will have a definitive impact on a generation of footballers more immersed in external media than any before them. Just as Wenger was not the sole puppeteer of a fêted 2003-04 campaign, Guardiola will not be the decisive force in any invincible achievement – the resolve of individuals within the squad at various stages, particularly in nearing any potential summit, will provide exacting standards never before encountered, especially for as relatively youth-inclined a team identity as the Citizens’.
Indicative mathematical probabilities insist the opportunity is slim. Unless applying true divination, it is wholly unlikely that Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus or Fernandinho – indicative exponents of the system – will evade the serious injury that so nearly afflicted the first following an Amsterdam taxi crash and a fractured rib in late September. Effectively irreplaceable individuals – certainly in respects of quality, considering the potential resorts only of a false nine or Crystal Palace-style winger-cum-striker, and the perpetually plagued Gündoğan, in their absence – the trio possess particular value, and may, if observing with a rather cynical rhetoric, receive unfavourable opposition treatment in the season’s decisive rivalries. If only Roy Keane were still sporting the red of Manchester…
In a city renovated by high rises funded from opportune overseas investors, and housing the two most commercially advanced footballing institutions in Britain, what better stage for a summit of the year’s proceedings at Old Trafford this weekend. While far from even half of the exploits required to forge an unbeaten domestic season, the ramifications for City could be history-defining. Never may another manager as gilded as Guardiola greet the Etihad in our lifetimes, and nor may there be the chasm of tactical competition of their closest, and outed, rivals. Spurn the occasion, and their place in history will be capitalised. Perspective, and humility, will be fundamental to any such prospective accomplishments. The former of these may be evaluated by the political observations of the prophetic George Orwell; ‘whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.’ Though the physiological exploits of the season may win matches, underlining any potential ultimate achievement will be courtesy of psychological resolve. Whether Guardiola’s nucleus prove capable will indeed unveil in shortly upcoming proceedings. In the meantime, it may be considered, through the perception of reality, that even Joseph Stalin – callous and unrivalled – once lamented that ‘history shows that there are no invincible armies.’ Invincibility, indeed, is only an eternal optimist’s sport.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!