Football

Pep Guardiola still looking for more despite Man City’s near-perfect display in Portugal

The joint-biggest winning margin in a Champions League knockout phase away leg. The joint-biggest European away win in the club’s history, too. Five unanswered goals including, by your own admission, one of the best that you have ever seen. All in all, “a dream of a result”. But you’re Pep Guardiola, so you are still not entirely happy.

“Don’t misunderstand me, I’m more than delighted,” the Manchester City manager insisted in the bowels of the Estadio Jose Alvalade after this crushing 5-0 victory over Sporting Clube de Portugal that has made the return leg at the Etihad in three weeks’ time little more than a formality.

But as anyone who can recall his “happy new year” post-match interview back in 2017 after a particularly hard-fought win over Burnley, and the manic grin that briefly appeared on his face, Guardiola’s definition of “happy” is slightly different to most people’s. It is happiness, but an anxious kind of happiness, forever wary that one misstep could bring it all crashing down.

It should be said that after the final whistle in Lisbon, Guardiola was nothing like he was during that interview. He was genuinely pleased with the result, which will provide him with some headspace at a time of the year when the season enters its final straight and everything gradually begins to intensify.

But for a happy manager, he spent a lot of time picking at the few imperfections in a near-perfect City performance.

“We defended well and got an incredible result, but we have a duty as a manager and team to analyse exactly how we performed,” he said. “Not the result, the result was a dream, but performing? We can do better.”

Guardiola was not especially pleased with City’s retention of the ball, despite ending with more than 60 per cent possession.

Dominating possession is as much a defensive tactical choice as it is an attacking one to Guardiola. This was, surprisingly, City’s first Champions League clean sheet of the season but that was at least a little fortunate, according to their manager.

“We are not a team that defends well,” Guardiola said of a team that, in the Premier League, has conceded only 14 goals in 25 games. “You analyse individually, you are not defenders. We are so offensive in most departments. We defend with the ball and we have to take care of the ball better than we did today.

“One of the principal rules I have is when you have the ball, try to pass the ball to the guy who wears the same T-shirt as you. This is the first.” He did not like how often his players gave the ball away when under relatively little pressure.

“When they are alone and lost the ball, it makes no sense, and this happened many, many times.” He was not entirely happy with the attack either, for that matter.

At one point during the first half, with City two goals up, Guardiola left his technical area and nearly entered Sporting’s in a mad, desperate effort to relay instructions to his players attacking that end of the pitch. Ruben Dias had to extend and repeatedly shake a thumbs up in his manager’s general direction to let him know they understood.

In the post-match press conference, Guardiola played down the scale of City’s victory, reducing the aching chasm between the two sides down to the few centimetres that meant Kevin De Bruyne was onside while assisting Riyad Mahrez’s opening goal, which was awarded after a lengthy VAR review. “The difference between both teams was not 0-5, that’s for sure,” he insisted.

“Sometimes football is the margin of the first goal – offside or onside. When VAR took 30-45 seconds I thought maybe the margin of offside was like this [closes thumb and finger]. Sometimes the margin to win games is like that, and all the analysis of how good one team is and how bad the other one is is from that margin.

“Maybe you have this duty but I have another one: to see how they perform individually as a team and if we did the plan well or not.” The more Guardiola spoke, the more you felt he believed the latter. “Don’t misunderstand me: it’s a dream, a perfect result and so good for the second leg, but we can do better.”

On one level, it is lunacy. Of those who watched City’s display in Lisbon, 99.9 per cent would only have seen a team wiping the floor with their opponents because that is what it was. Even if Sporting had scored early on the counter, City would have had the structure, system and the talent in place to move back into the ascendancy. Their manager, of all people, must see that.

As strange as it may be though, you cannot help but feel that Guardiola’s refusal to sit back and admire the sheer excellence of the team that he has meticulously pieced together is a vital part of that excellence. City would not be this good if he saw and read the game like the rest of us.

Guardiola is a perfectionist and all perfectionists are doomed. Unless he can one day win a game and keep a clean sheet with a 100 per cent pass completion rate, there will always be something to pick at and you sense he will never be fully satisfied. But while there may be no end to his pursuit of happiness, the football it produces can be a delight to behold.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts after Phil Foden scores

Xural.com

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