You might think that at this stage of the season, with the games ticking down and the focus narrowing to just the two teams at the front, that the only thing that matters is the result. Because who cares how well you play when the difference between a win and a draw is the difference between first and second, between leading and chasing, between exerting pressure on your opponent and allowing them to pressure you.
But on this issue like on every other, Pep Guardiola does not see it like other people. The one thing we know about Guardiola is that his principles and ideas always come first. What he wants, more than else, is adherence to his style of football, what he calls “the way that we play”. Winning is just a by-product.
At the end of Saturday’s game at Bournemouth, Guardiola was charging around the pitch with a look of uncontained glee on his face, grabbing each of his players in turn in celebration. He looked like a man not quite celebrating winning the title, but one who felt that now, for the first time in months, City were favourites again.
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So was it the three points and that lead over Liverpool that sparked such joy inside him? Not quite. As he explained in his press conference, it was the performance that made him happy. Even now in March, with just nine games left.
“The reason why, is we played incredible”, Guardiola said in his post-match press conference. “We made an incredible performance today. One of the best performances we ever played.”
Never mind the fact that City only won 1-0. That they were vulnerable until the end to one Bournemouth breakaway or lucky bounce in the box. For Guardiola, the scoreline is almost irrelevant. What mattered is the total dominance City enjoyed: 82% possession. 23 shots to Bournemouth’s nil. Forcing Bournemouth to do what they never do and park the bus, spending the whole game on the front foot peppering their box and still never letting Bournemouth in on the break. It takes a very good team to defend that high up the pitch and still not get done on the counter. Eddie Howe said afterwards that he spent all game waiting for City to make a technical mistake and they never did.
In that sense it was similar to City’s 1-0 defeat of West Ham United in midweek. Those two scorelines could easily look like City are grinding it out right now but look deeper and City are playing better than ever. Across those two games they have taken 43 shots and faced just two. They may only have scored twice, but that is just a small part of the story.
“We did not concede one shot on target,” Guardiola said. “This shows how they are committed, on defensive set pieces, throw ins, free-kicks, corners, the second balls. How they run backwards. Every time we lose the ball, there are three or four guys going there to pick up and recover the ball and play. It’s not easy, they are incredibly well organised, 11 players in the box. There are really no spaces, and we found them. We created a lot of chances. It is incredible how good they played together, the same as West Ham. Then we had four chances in six minutes, West Ham had one shot on target, today Bournemouth had zero. We always create more than the opponent. The way they help each other, the way we play, it’s fantastic.”
Of course despite that dominance, City could easily have not won this game. That is the way Guardiola’s high risk football works, it only takes one ball over the top to Josh King or Ryan Fraser for the house of cards to be blown apart. But Guardiola insisted that he could still be relaxed around that risk of disaster. “When they played the way they play, I am calm. Always it can happen, but what can I say if they scored a goal? I never regret this kind of situation.”
What Guardiola fears is not the risk that is baked into his way of playing. It is when his players do not play that way at all. He would be happy with these dominant 1-0 wins forever. “I regret when we play like we did at Newcastle. After one goal, we forgot to play, we forgot to defend, we forgot to run backwards. And after that, we are in trouble. But what just happened, I know I was a football player, I know how difficult it is to attack against 11 players there. With long balls to the wing, to [Josh] King, that’s all, all the time, 11 players back, back, back. It is not easy to find it, but we found the spaces.”
City now have a rare empty midweek before they host Watford in the Premier League, Schalke in the Champions League, and then head to Swansea City in the FA Cup before the international break. Who knows how many trophies City are going to end with this season but all Guardiola can ask for is what he got on Saturday, obedience and application. Focus on the process and the outcomes will take care of themselves.
“April, after the international break, is scary. But it is nice to be there, believe me it is so nice, winning two titles already this season, the Community Shield and the Carabao Cup. Today we are leaders of the Premier League, in a good position in the last-16 of the Champions League and we have the Swansea game. Maybe we are not going to win, but no complaints, no regrets, and that is the most important thing you can feel as an athlete, as a sportsman. If Liverpool win, big congratulations, but the important thing is what we do every day. After what happened last season, never give up. And to do what we have done is incredible. This is a special moment for all of us.”