Manchester City are slick, but not pure

Pep Guardiola knows how to stop the opposition from playing as much as his sides know how to put the ball in the back of the net. (AFP)
Updated 12 December 2017
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Manchester City are slick, but not pure

LONDON: “Pragmatism against purity” is how a Premier League TV commentator framed the contest between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola some 50 seconds into Sunday’s Manchester derby.
Manchester City are a spellbinding team. They pass better than any of their domestic opponents, they play higher up the field, are more focused on the opposition’s box. Statistics bear witness to their strengths in these areas, strengths their Catalan coach has worked with characteristic intensity to amplify.
An eleven-point advantage banked courtesy of their 2-1 away win means only a collapse of unprecedented scale can prevent City from becoming champions. Guardiola’s men could embellish their title with a cascade of records added to the current sequence of 14 straight victories. We can all look forward to watching hours of beautifully technical football in the process.
Purity, however, is not one of City’s many virtues. Less than two minutes after that commentator talked up Guardiola’s methods, Kyle Walker threw both legs into a high-velocity challenge on Ander Herrera. His right leg took none of the ball, his left leg took a lot of the Spaniard.
It was one of a litany of tactical fouls, designed by City’s coach to cut counter-attacks off at source. When well executed these are both precise and thrilling. They are also the weapons that most concern him.
“I want the ball,” said Guardiola. “That is my main principle. And after that, when you don’t have the ball, to be well organized to recover as much as possible, knowing that the opponents  want to punish you to use their magnificent counter-attack.
“The teams from Jose Mourinho ... Chelsea, Madrid and here, they are a master of that. They are so good at running and runs in behind. And when you lose the ball in the position you attack they punish you with one action. And they win the game.”
This game was decided by three “disgraceful goals,” Mourinho’s description as appropriate to the not unexpected errors of Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph as to the uncharacteristic defending before and during City’s set-piece strikes. “We won because we were better in every department,” claimed Guardiola. He could certainly be satisfied by how his forward stopped counters.
Watch the match again and you’ll see Raheem Sterling thrice take out opponents in their own half as they seek to start attacks. On 68 minutes, Ashley Young steals a pass from Sterling and feeds Anthony Martial. Sterling chases back, throwing his body into the Frenchman near the area. His fourth cynical foul of the game; no booking.
By half-time Gabriel Jesus has tripped Martial and gone through the back of Herrera to halt transitions. The Brazilian is accused of throwing himself to the ground in the area in an incident that some argue would be a better test of England’s new “Simulations Panel” than the penalty which cost Oumar Niasse a two-match ban. Like Delph — who appeared to deceive to win a free kick from which City equalized the previous weekend — Jesus cannot be punished.
In a 19-minute spell, David Silva defends City’s lead by kicking the ball away as Herrera makes to play a free kick into space vacated by a protesting Delph, scissor tackling his international team-mate, making another tactical foul on Nemanja Matic, then barrelling through Jesse Lingard. His punishment is one yellow; the same as Marcus Rashford receives for dissent over an Eliaquim Mangala challenge.
Every one of these fouls allows City to get every man behind the ball and in proper defensive shape. It mitigates the risk involved in their attacking overloads and helps them apply another of their key offensive weapons, their press. Go through City’s campaign and count the number of chances created from the free kicks awarded after such tactical fouls — you’ll come up with a tiny number.
It is as Mourinho points out “a strategy that they have.” Other Premier League coaches agree. Guardiola, who is philosophically and emotionally wedded to the idea that possession football is the correct way to play, deployed it at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Some think he has amplified its application in England where referees tolerate more fouls.
As obsessed with winning trophies as Mourinho, the Catalan applies other tactics that enable him to do so. On Sunday, he swapped striker Jesus for center back Mangala as soon as City were ahead, moved Silva to a defensive false nine role, and had his team time waste and play keep ball in the corners.
Credit to the manager who can convince an individual of Silva’s qualities to foul like Sergio Busquets. It is not, though, purity.
Asked if there should have been a late penalty when Otamendi blocked off Herrera, taking none of the ball, Guardiola attacked Mourinho (pictured). “Last season it was the same — we won here and it was the referee. Yesterday he spoke about the referee. We are an honest team. We have on average 60, 65, 70, 80 percent of the ball possession, that means we want to try to play and we did it.”
Asked if his players go to ground too easily, Guardiola shrugged. “That is not true. That is not true. We want to play. Normally when you have the ball the others have a defender, but that is not true. Sometimes they are quicker, they are faster, but that is not true. That is not an argument I believe.”
In Guardiola’s world possession appears to be nine-tenths of the law. His football can be great to watch, but it’s not the only football that can entertain. And it certainly is not pure.


India and Pakistan ready to renew rivalry in Dubai showdown

Updated 18 September 2018
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India and Pakistan ready to renew rivalry in Dubai showdown

  • India brace for Pakistan after surviving stern test against minnows Hong Kong
  • Usman Shinwari: Any player who performs well in an India-Pakistan match will find his career reaches a new high

DUBAI: As delirium sweeps the UAE ahead of the mouth-watering encounter between arch rivals India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup, it seems one man — at least outwardly — is not as excited as the rest of the country and cricketing fans the world over.
India captain Rohit Sharma played with a straight bat when asked about the biggest clash in world cricket, set to take place today at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. On his first Asia Cup media outing the 31-year-old seemed unconcerned by the impending showdown with their fiercest opponents, his focus instead on facing Hong Kong, who Sharma and Co. had a big scare against on Tuesday.
“Right now, we are not focusing on Pakistan as (first) we are playing Hong Kong,” Sharma said on Sunday. “Obviously we have to focus on that particular team but once we have finished that game we will focus on Pakistan and what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
These are clearly the words of a man so media trained that by now he could easily be on the other side of the desk, asking the same questions he and his colleagues sometimes enjoy batting back with crafted clichés that speak of focusing on “one game at a time” or the like.
Sharma was clearly right to not take his eyes off the ball with Hong Kong — they are not here to merely make up the numbers, as their brilliant, battling performance on Tuesday illustrated. But at the same time, Sharma will be all too aware that as India skipper the one match you do not want to lead your side to defeat in is the one against Pakistan, regardless of competition and location.
Clearly India are not leaving Pakistan preparations to the 14 hours or so (sleep included) between the close of the Hong Kong clash and the toss prior to resuming Indo-Pak cricketing rivalry. To suggest they are would be naive at best.
A year on from Pakistan’s show-stealing Champions Trophy final victory over the old enemy in June last year, and a whole five years since the two sides met outside of an ICC or ACC event due to strained political relations, the appetite for the first of potentially three matches at this year’s Asia Cup is huge and one borne out of starved hunger.
Pakistan’s Usman Shinwari, fresh off defeating Hong Kong on Sunday, was more candid than Sharma.
“Any player who performs well in an India-Pakistan match will find his career reaches a new high, and every player dreams of doing well in this contest,” the fast bowler said. “I took three wickets (against Hong Kong), I hope that can be five wickets against India.”
Shinwari’s sentiments were echoed by his captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, who is absolutely clear on the levels of expectation that this fixture demands from fans on both sides of the border.
“The passion is always there,” said Sarfraz. “When you play against India everyone wants us to win as it’s against India.
“The fans say that whatever happens you have to win but as a captain I have to win against every team. It would be the same for India whose fans want them to win. It has happened in the past that any player who performs in the Indo-Pak match becomes a national hero.”
UAE cricket fans cannot wait for the clash. It took just a few hours for the first batch of tickets to be snapped up, the second bought in equally ravenous fashion. It has left a huge number of tickets now being touted across online marketplaces, social media platforms and, ultimately, will likely see the inflated resales being pawned outside the stadium on matchday too.
An expected 25,000 fans will swell the Ring of Fire, set to deal not only with cricket’s most fierce rivalry but also with all the unpredictability that will be thrown their way.
The famed traffic jams around Hessa Street, leading up to the stadium, and local entrances of Dubai Sports City will heave and efforts have been made to ease the burden of vehicles that will cart both sets of fans in and out of the area. Gates will open from 12p.m. local time, a whole three and a half hours before the first ball has been bowled. In an emirate where the last-minute rush is a daily fact of life, this will be not be an easy thing to execute but that, alongside the immense presence of volunteers and security, should prove welcome additions to the day’s running order.
This, though, is India vs Pakistan. Anything could happen.