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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Highly combustible but Pep Guardiola is Manchester City's master problem solver

Catalan loves nothing more than figuring his opponents out, whether it's West Ham's blanket defence or teams who like to attack

Pep Guardiola, left, gives David Silva instructions during Manchester City's match against West Ham at the Etihad Stadium. Silva would score an 83rd minute winner. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters
Pep Guardiola, left, gives David Silva instructions during Manchester City's match against West Ham at the Etihad Stadium. Silva would score an 83rd minute winner. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters

Pep Guardiola is cerebral. Pep Guardiola is emotional. That combination, and juxtaposition, helps explain why the Manchester City manager is one of the more fascinating managers in English football’s landscape. The last two games at the Etihad Stadium have shown both sides of his character.

His impassioned outburst at Southampton’s Nathan Redmond, made in the aftermath of Raheem Sterling’s 96th-minute winner, led to an admission from the Catalan that he cannot always control himself in the heat of the moment. He has to explain a Pep talk with a difference to the English Football Association.

It is fair to say his comments after Sunday’s 2-1 win over West Ham United will not lead to disciplinary actions. It was, however, another game to feature a late winner and another where Guardiola had to plot a path past obdurate opponents.

It was a fourth game in a row to feature a late winner. Guardiola, a man indelibly associated with a quest for technical perfection and total domination of the ball, and thus the scoreline, is appreciating other qualities.

He is savouring the spirit his side are showing. His competitive juices are flowing. He welcomed the compliment of the comparison with "Fergie Time," Manchester United’s habit of pilfering dramatic deciders under Alex Ferguson that became testament of a never-say-die attitude.

But the strategist in Guardiola was considering the causes. Raheem Sterling, who has delivered three of those late goals, is one. Gabriel Jesus, who has helped change games as an influential substitute on successive Sundays, is another. Fortunate as he is to have such high-calibre players at his disposal, it goes beyond the personnel, however.

Guardiola has an intellectual’s interest in ideas for ideas’ sake, a scientist’s curiosity to explore theories if only to discover what they take him and a non-conformist’s willingness to eschew the orthodox. He can think what was the unthinkable, either for him or the wider world.

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It was an understatement to say eyebrows were raised when he removed Vincent Kompany to introduce Jesus at Huddersfield Town. It left Nicolas Otamendi as the only real defender on the pitch, given that Fabian Delph is a converted midfielder and Kyle Walker a full-back who doubles up as a winger. But Guardiola rationalised that, with Huddersfield’s lone striker Laurent Depoitre marking Fernandinho, his centre-backs were unoccupied.

He acted sooner against West Ham, bringing on Jesus at half time. It gave him a formation familiar to long-term watchers of English football, but not one he has often used. “We don’t normally play with two strikers and two wingers but we did so it is a lesson,” he said. It is a way of accommodating both Jesus and Sergio Aguero.

It is also a reaction to opponents’ defensive tactics. West Ham’s David Moyes copied Southampton’s Mauricio Pellegrino, fielding a 3-5-1-1 formation that, with triumvirates of defensive midfielders and centre-backs, helps congest the central areas. It is as good an answer as anyone has formulated to stop City so far.

Equally, an agile thinker like Guardiola was always going to enjoy the mental challenge it created. He spent much of Sunday’s second half using Kevin de Bruyne as a holding midfielder. The more defensive players his opposing counterpart selects, the more attack-minded presences he can crowbar into a side.

He has a nimble mind and unchanging principles. Few should doubt that his ideal shape remains the 4-3-3 beloved of Ajax, Barcelona and his mentor Johan Cruyff. It is the system he will probably use against Manchester United on Sunday and in games where against sides who are prepared to attack.

But against some of their inferiors, City may continue to suffer for their success. They will encounter more blanket defences configured by managers desperate to avoid a hammering. It is not in Guardiola’s nature to be impassive in such situations. He will continue to respond, whether with weird-and-wacky ideas or tried-and-trusted tactics, the new or the old in attacking gambits.

The title could be won by his players’ heart or his brain.

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