“Do you think I said something tactical in the first half?” , asked Pep Guardiola on Thursday night during the 15-minute reveal period about everything that has pushed him up the wall at Manchester City in recent weeks.
With his team losing 2-0 at home to Tottenham after quick goals before half-time, the tactical tip only came at the end – after he told them exactly what he had told the rest of the full-time players.
Tell them they have no chance of winning a title this season if things don’t change, that they are playing without passion, that their fire is out.
There was clearly a reaction to this – City scored four goals without reply in the second half – but it wasn’t enough to prevent Guardiola from revealing the concerns that were nagging him.
The turning point, according to those who know him, was the Carabao Cup loss to Southampton a week ago – one of City’s worst performances in his six-and-a-half seasons at the club.
He was happier to apply his players as they lost the derby to Manchester United three days later than that encounter at St Mary’s, but interestingly, it was there, in the away dressing room at Old Trafford, that his players decided to take it. Action.
Ilkay Gundogan expressed his concerns publicly after the Southampton match and said something was “off”, and that a “special element” was missing. After another setback, albeit one with a better feel about it in regards to Guardiola, the players sat down and took turns airing grievances and giving views about things going wrong.
And according to a number of sources close to the team, the mood has begun to change. This week, the captain has passed a message to the club that they would like to go out for a meal with the team soon to try and improve the mood even further.
However, Guardiola was appalled by what he saw at Southampton and the first-half events against Tottenham were the final straw: after telling his players in no uncertain terms that they needed to sort things out, he doubled down and also told the world.
This way, there was nowhere to hide. No positive headlines about a boisterous comeback, no kind words about them overcoming their recent malaise and putting their fears behind them, no more ‘happy flowers’ – as he put it to sum up the whole club’s current attitude to life.
He wanted the world to scrutinize his players, not only in the home game against struggling Wolves today (Sunday) but also in the FA Cup tie against league leaders Arsenal on Friday night. So after winning 3-0, thanks to Erling Haaland’s fourth hat-trick of the season, You have things improved?
Guardiola said afterwards: “Things are getting better, but it’s just one day. I have to wait, I have to wait.”
He was asked about this reaction four times and each time, while addressing various variations on the same topic, he would always repeat the words to the effect of, “Today we’re getting better, but that was just today; we’ll see what happens in the next matches.”
There is little point in criticizing their performance without knowing Guardiola’s standards.
Of all the really good things City did against Tottenham, how many of us would have singled out the players’ failure to take on their opponents after fouls on 18-year-old defender Rico Luis as the main reason for Guardiola’s annoyance?
City played well in the first half here. They passed the ball well, sometimes straight forward, sometimes switched plays quickly and accurately, and linked up with Haaland better than they did in the derby.
More than anything else, they have played with a higher intensity than in recent matches, with more “emotional” energy. Gundogan, in particular, was all about loose balls.
The fans, who were also criticized by the manager, seemed to raise their game as well.
The second half was a bit slick, all in all, City led by three with two goals early in the second half, which obviously isn’t a bad thing, but after that, they had plenty of chances to counter-attack only to find ways to screw them up.
Guardiola spent a lot of time sitting on his back as Wolves raced in on the other end. Mind you, he’s been doing this for years, even when he’s safe knowing his players are on full gear.
After the match, he said that their first half performance was similar to the first against Tottenham. Football was good then. Not their best level, but a step in the right direction. The stand looks better too.
However, behind-the-scenes concerns remain.
He may never mention it publicly, but there have been anxious conversations about his lack of leadership in the dressing room, and sources say there are traces of that in his criticisms of his players for failing to protect Lewis. “Fernandinho will have” an easy finale to come up with.
They are a very strong group, just lacking a big voice like that of their former captain, who returned home to play in Brazil after last season – and one of those has been needed in recent weeks.
As for the players’ reaction to Guardiola’s public statements, there was little shock or recrimination, which isn’t surprising given they had been told the same thing to their faces beforehand – and more importantly, given that most of them had worked with him all together. for several years.
This manager, after all, has repeatedly exclaimed, “This is the Premier League!” To turn up the heat during a light training session, largely featuring unused substitutes, the day after last season’s win over Wolves.
It wasn’t a particularly brutal disembowelment of them, even if it was somewhat remarkable in terms of where it was handed to the media, and how he did it in several interviews.
Guardiola didn’t let any players off the hook – “at the moment, it’s impossible to play well without Nathan Ake”, he said, but put him on the bench today anyway – but was careful to point out that he had no doubts about her quality. He even said he fully sympathized with their struggles to keep up with Arsenal’s motivations.
“I won four titles in a row as a Barcelona player,” he said during the off-limits section of his press conference on Thursday. “Fifth, I wasn’t the same. Sixth, I wasn’t the same. I wasn’t starving enough. (It was all) caviar.” How good am I?! Madrid beat us to fifth and sixth.
“So I understand them, but I’m here to make them do it.”
And so, on Thursday, he felt he had one last chance to set things right before City’s season dragged too far, in the Premier League, in the FA Cup and in the Champions League too.
If his actions in recent weeks have done anything, it has shattered the illusion that many players are a certain starter.
Their previous squads showed Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo had to do more than just battle rust after the World Cup. Aymeric Laporte, Kevin De Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva all sat out against Tottenham, as did Phil Foden, although it became clear after also missing the Wolves match entirely that he was struggling with a foot injury.
But the result is that hardly anyone in this squad feels comfortable starting the next game – and Guardiola likes to change his side from game to game at the best of times.
The problem with teams struggling with complacency and consistency is that they can look good one game and bad the next, so the Wolverhampton game only provided a certain number of answers.
The message was taken on board – whether enough to see.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)