Thursday, July 18, 2024

Euro 2024 is not a rebellion against Pep Guardiola’s football – it’s a vindication of his ideas

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Much of the discourse from the first week of the European Championship, particularly regarding England, seems to have arisen because many people have an axe to grind with Manchester City.

That may sound particularly tribal but think of all the online reaction about how nice it is to see a tournament with no Pep Guardiola-influenced football, with lots of long-range screamers, end-to-end football and City players struggling away from Guardiola’s system.

We know that a lot of people have had enough of City’s dominance, that much was clear at the end of the season when the previously ‘best ever’ title race became ‘boring’ because the ‘right’ team didn’t win it.

The fact that the club’s 115 Premier League charges have not yet been resolved only adds fuel to the fire, and then you factor in the news from early June that City are in the process of suing the Premier League.

So what we have seen over the past week is plenty of people taking the chance to hit back at the dominant force in modern club football.

As a result there has been lots of talk about ‘system players’, with Phil Foden bearing the brunt of the analysis.

In particular, the ‘return’ of the classic No 9 has been celebrated, with Hungary’s Martin Adam embodying the argument better than anybody. Other big men examples lighting up Euro 2024 include Niclas Fullkrug, Wout Weghorst (both used as substitutes, by the way, like Adam) and Rasmus Hojlund, as well as Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandr Mitrovic both turning out for Serbia.

Fullkrug celebrates scoring against Scotland (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

But the idea that the tournament has witnessed a turning back of the footballing clock is largely nonsense. The vast majority of teams in the competition are playing out from the back, as clear a demonstration of Guardiola’s influence as any. The idea that a target man No 9 is un-Guardiola-like falls down as soon as you remember the hulk of Norwegian granite that he has shoe-horned into his beautifully crafted passing team for the past two seasons.

The two most impressive sides so far, Germany and Spain, have Guardiola’s fingerprints all over them. Julian Nagelsmann has talked about Guardiola being his ‘model’, and if having a central midfielder drop to left centre-back is not ‘woke’ football, then what is?

The best thing you can say about Germany is that they look like a club side, and by that we mean the kind of club side that uses broad Guardiola principles like playing out from the back, organised pressing (of differing intensities) and dominating possession.

Rodri has impressed for Spain at Euro 2024 (Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Spain, needless to say, are similar. Granted, they have two very direct wingers, which is something that Guardiola has moved away from in recent years — although, again, Jeremy Doku says hello.

There have been so many goals from cut-backs, too, which is something that Guardiola’s City really exploited in the 2017-18 season and something that is embedded in the approach that so many fans are spending summer 2024 deriding. And which player scored the most long-range goals in the Premier League last season? Yes, it was Phil Foden.

There is a wider point about what people want from their football these days, something that was raised by The Athletic towards the end of the Premier League season. It is based around the idea that a sizeable amount of Leicester City fans were openly complaining about Enzo Maresca’s possession-heavy, play-out-from-the-back style midway through 2023-24 — at a time when the club were well clear at the top of the Championship.

Guardiola’s principles have been incredibly successful and therefore more and more teams, even on lesser resources, have looked to replicate them. If people are becoming bored of that then it might pose a few interesting questions in the seasons to come, but the idea that this tournament is free from Guardiola’s shackles is a strange way to make the point.

There is something to be said for most of the games at the Euros — the ones not involving England, that is — being quite open, or at least containing sustained periods of excitement in them, which is something you do not always get with City matches. Often that is because Guardiola wants to control the bits of games that neutrals enjoy — counter-attacks, set pieces — and sometimes it is because their opponents park the bus. Generally at the Euros, for understandable reasons, both teams have been trying to win.

When it comes to England, it was notable that the main complaints following the draw against Denmark on Thursday were that the star players are not replicating their club form and that the team has no clear identity.

What they might need, dare it be suggested, is the kind of system that half of their defence (Kyle Walker and John Stones), their holding midfielder (Declan Rice) and two of their front three (Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka) have had drilled into them by Guardiola and Mikel Arteta for years.

Declan Rice has not replicated his Arsenal form so far at Euro 2024 (Kevin Voigt/Getty Images)

Unless Carlo Ancelotti is available to take over as England manager for the next few weeks, it is surely more viable to play to these players’ strengths.

Another idea which ties into all this is that City’s players apparently played badly during the opening round of fixtures because they are ‘system players’ who struggle when not playing for Guardiola.

Firstly, that is probably worth bearing in mind next time there is a discussion about City’s dominance, and the next time Guardiola is accused of being merely a chequebook manager.

One of the reasons why Guardiola is so good, though, and why he does not need to prove his abilities by managing Bolton Wanderers, is because he does all that incredibly detailed preparation so that his players have an advantage on the pitch. He wants the likes of Foden — all of his attacking midfielders in fact — to get the ball in space, on the half turn, either in a one-against-one with his direct opponent or with that opponent already compromised by a run from somebody else.

If there is no immediate advantage they generally do not force it, so they just play the ball sideways or backwards again and wait for the next opportunity. Germany’s 94 per cent pass completion across their opening two games suggests they have taken notes.

The reason that City are so good at controlling games, and why so many of their players have played the best football of their careers at the club, is because Guardiola works to find a system that emphasises their qualities, and drills the importance of patience into them. They do not just have goalkeepers who are merely comfortable playing out from the back, for example, but players all over the pitch who give them countless options so the ‘keeper is not left stranded.

(Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

If the goalkeeper does go long, like City have done more in the past two seasons, then the target (a massive striker, remember!) is surrounded by players to win the second ball. Compare the isolated Harry Kane trying to control Jordan Pickford’s punts against Serbia with Kevin De Bruyne and, previously, Ilkay Gundogan sniffing around Erling Haaland for a loose ball.

One of the reasons that City lost the FA Cup final last month was because Guardiola miscalculated, by his own admission, giving his team one extra player behind the ball and not enough in attack. Those advantages that get the best out of their talented players had been removed both by United’s approach and City’s. But Guardiola’s system generally gets the best out of his players, not just at City but at his previous clubs. That is how coaching is supposed to work.

But it is obviously not the case that those players — or the others who play better for their clubs than their countries — cannot stand on their own two feet, and the idea that City’s players are struggling without their legendary club coach has started to look incorrect in the past few days anyway.

Foden was one of England’s better players against Denmark, Rodri pulled the strings for Spain against Italy, and there were great performances from Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji, who probably sealed his player of the match award with a late goal-saving clearance against Scotland, but already looked a cut above the rest with his composure on the ball.

Akanji was the player of the match in the Switzerland vs Scotland game (Harriet Lander – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Akanji is not always considered one of City’s most gifted defenders in possession, and in fact his performances when stepping up into the ‘Stones role’ in midfield left a lot to be desired, but seeing him out ‘in the wild’ it is obvious just how high his level is.

And sometimes there are different correlations entirely. If De Bruyne struggled for Belgium — and he actually seemed to play reasonably well against Slovakia — then it might be related to the fact that he struggled for City over the past couple of months, too.

There is no need to shoehorn Guardiola into Euro 2024 discussion at all, really, but right now the football at the tournament is more a reflection of his ideas than a rebellion against them.



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(Header photos: Getty Images)

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