Leroy Sane came in for particular praise for his impressive performance in Saturday's 3-1 triumph over Newcastle United that restored a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola expects tough times ahead for Manchester City as teams pack their defences against them
Pep Guardiola has suffered for his success before. “It happened all my career as a manager at Barcelona and the last period in Munich as well; most of the teams defend like this,” he reflected after beating Newcastle United on Saturday 3-1. Manchester City are starting to encounter blanket defences more often.
It may not make for much of a spectacle but the intellectual challenge of piercing packed rearguards appeals to Guardiola. “When opponents pose you that kind of problem, it is how you solve them,” added the Catalan. “We are learning attacking in that way.”
If the first step was to develop a possession-based, positional game in normal circumstances, the next stage is to finesse strategies against sides that come purely to defend.
“The most difficult thing is attacking 10 players in the box because there is no space,” Guardiola said. “We are improving in that situation. That is why I am happy.”
So while 3-1 scarcely ranked as the most spectacular scoreline of City’s season, there were nonetheless reasons to savour an immediate response to defeat at Liverpool. Most obvious was the sight of Sergio Aguero with the ball tucked under his left arm, departing the field after scoring his 11th City hat-trick.
A specialist predator is of particular value in a packed penalty area. “A life legend,” said Oleksandr Zinchenko, who made an assured first Premier League start.
Jacob Murphy eluded the young Ukrainian to score Newcastle’s goal; otherwise, however, the merits of using a player Guardiola described as a “No. 10 or 11” at left-back were apparent.
But the defining contributions came further forward, and not just from Aguero. Guardiola has a focus on the collective, but he encouraged individualism as a way of disrupting Newcastle’s organisation. “Those who have the ability to dribble, dribble; those who have the chance to shoot, shoot,” he explained.
Leroy Sane has the ability to both dribble and sprint. He took on four Newcastle players, turning the unfortunate DeAndre Yedlin one way and another, before setting up Aguero for his third goal.
“He made an amazing action,” added Guardiola. “But I don’t want to tell him very nice words because I have a feeling he has a lot of things to improve.”
If 2017 amounted to a breakthrough year for the German winger after, in Guardiola’s words, “he suffered in the first six months of last season,” 2018 offers the potential to be better again.
Guardiola has shown a capacity to bring exponential improvement to players and it was notable that the beaten manager, Rafa Benitez, identified Sane as a game-changer.
“The difference is a couple of players that, on their own, can make the difference. Like Aguero or Sane did here,” he said.
Sane is newly turned 22. The sense is that Guardiola has spliced together a team from different generations. Five of the starters against Newcastle are 24 or under; the 18-year-old Brahim Diaz came off the bench. Others are more seasoned but the 4-3 setback at Anfield – Guardiola, in an instructive slip of the tongue, described it as 4-1 – brought suggestions City may falter.
“I can imagine if we drop points and are nine or 10 points in front of [Manchester] United, the people start [to question City], so it was so important to see the personality of the team,” Guardiola said. “I am so proud to be their manager.”
He spoke of emotion, as he often does, but also of numbers. For the first time, he indicated he had done the maths of what City need.
“Still we have 14 [games to go] and to win 10 or 11 will be tough,” he said. Especially if City face more 11-man defences.