Manchester City, Chelsea and Competing With Perfection
For a few weeks, around this time last year, English soccer found itself in a heartfelt, sincere discussion over whether the time had come for Éderson, Manchester City’s goalkeeper, to start taking penalties. Questions were asked on television. The subject was weighed in newspapers. Soccer’s commentariat chewed over the idea’s merits.
It had all started with a joke. Some time in 2019, the otherwise all-conquering Manchester City had developed a curious tick. Suddenly, Pep Guardiola’s team just could not score penalties. No matter who stepped up to take one — Kevin De Bruyne or Ilkay Gündogan or Raheem Sterling — they seemed to lose their otherwise impeccable nerve.
True, the damage was limited: At one point, in 2020, City missed four in a row, though only one had any real bearing on a result. But still, it was intriguing enough to become something of a leitmotif: How could a team of such wondrous technical ability, a group of players who could score almost any sort of goal, be so bad at penalties?
At this point, Guardiola, with a dash of mischief, suggested that the best penalty-taker in training was, in fact, his goalkeeper. If everyone kept missing, perhaps Éderson might be next in line? He was not, as it turned out, serious. Guardiola is no great respecter of sacred cows, but he would have known that such a public indictment of his outfield players would have essentially guaranteed a mutiny.
And then, a few months later, he raised the idea again. City’s penalty record had not improved. Clearly, now, he regarded it not so much as random chance but as a clear pattern. The idea of calling on Éderson, he said, had now been promoted to a “half-joke.”
It still did not happen, of course. But this time, his suggestion attracted the attention of the talking heads and the moving mouths and the tapping keyboards that comprise English soccer’s opinion-industrial complex. And most striking of all, it was not dismissed out of hand. People were, it turned out, willing to at least consider the idea that a goalkeeper might take the penalties.
That was markedly different to the environment Guardiola had encountered when he first moved to the Premier League. Then, he had come in for fierce and sustained criticism in his first season in England for dropping Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper, in favor of the error-prone Chilean Claudio Bravo.
There was more than simple jingoism at play in that reaction. Guardiola’s rationale seemed, to many, absurd. He did not think Bravo was better at saving shots than Hart. He did not think he was more commanding in the air. He preferred him, it seemed, because Bravo was better with his feet. He had dropped a goalkeeper and selected a playmaker.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can tell that Guardiola was simply accepting a short-term loss for a long-term gain. He was trying, in that first season, to instill his way of playing in his squad. To do that, he needed a goalkeeper capable of building play. Bravo was the best he could get on short notice. He was little more than a stand-in until a more suitable figure, someone like Éderson, became available.
The contrast between the incidents, though, is instructive. Five years earlier, English soccer still found the idea of a goalkeeper being involved in open play almost comical. Now, it was more than happy to have a conversation about whether a goalkeeper should take penalties. And that change can be attributed, in no small part, to Guardiola.
In those early days, it was determined that the great challenge facing Guardiola was whether his methods, the ideas simmered, reduced and distilled at Barcelona, would work in the Premier League. What would become known as “playing out from the back” was the great litmus test. Received wisdom said teams could not succeed playing that way in England. Guardiola wanted to do it anyway.
We know how it ended: with three Premier League titles in four years — and a fourth on the way — and a slew of broken records left in his wake. But that is not Guardiola’s only legacy in England.
Thanks to Guardiola, the debate about whether teams should play out from the back is, in effect, over. Teams at all levels have adopted the style that he came to represent; last weekend, Swindon Town, which plays in England’s fourth tier, even had the nerve to try it against Manchester City. (It did not work; the debate over whether teams should play out from the back in all circumstances remains a valid one.)
That is not the only conceptual shift he has inspired. When Manchester City went into this season without a recognized center forward, it was seen not as madness but a bold, if slightly risky, call; playing with a fluid front three is no longer anathema. The idea that fullbacks can switch places with midfielders and serve as playmakers has been internalized and imitated, too. He has ushered in an era of open-mindedness in which, yes, actually, maybe goalkeepers could take penalties.
His statistical impact has been as great as his stylistic one. Guardiola, just as he did in Spain and Germany, has changed what it takes to be champion. Placed in charge of the most lavish sporting project ever envisaged — well, joint — and given control of a club that could afford to establish itself as best-in-class at almost everything it does, Guardiola has shattered our conception of the possible.
It is no surprise that the four highest points totals in English history have come in the Guardiola era: two of them for Manchester City, and two of them for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the one team that could, for a while, keep pace. A fifth is within reach this year. Each one of Guardiola’s title-winning seasons at City has included some impossible run of consecutive wins or games unbeaten.
How much of that is down to him and how much of that is down to the money at his disposal is an ongoing debate, though in his favor is the fact that he did precisely the same thing in Spain: Just as he has credited the challenge of Liverpool for forcing his team to new heights, there is little doubt that the need to outstrip Barcelona inspired Real Madrid to claim 100 points in 2012.
Either way, it has become clear that even to approach Guardiola’s Manchester City requires a rival to be nearly perfect. That has not happened this year. Liverpool lost ground over Christmas and New Year, a couple of creditable draws and a dispiriting defeat against a weakened Leicester City casting Klopp’s team adrift. Chelsea, should it lose to City on Saturday, will suffer the same fate after a stuttering, stumbling winter.
That may have consequences. Should — as appears likely — City streak away with the championship over the next few months, both Liverpool and Chelsea will have their flaws picked apart, their vulnerabilities exposed, their defects uncovered. Players might find their places in the team under threat, or their reputations diminished. It is not entirely impossible that Blues Manager Thomas Tuchel, at least, might even find his job in jeopardy should Chelsea finish the season 10 or 15 points behind.
That is how soccer works. It is a zero-sum game, in which only one team can be deemed to have won. And yet, in the context created by Guardiola, that paradigm does not — or should not — really hold.
It is conceivable — probable, even — that Chelsea will have an extremely admirable, creditworthy season, and still find itself in Manchester City’s dust. That is a consequence of Guardiola’s excellence. It feels, though, as if that has not yet been factored into how we gauge success and failure.
Just as Guardiola has changed the way we think soccer should be played, he has fundamentally altered the standard to which we hold the teams trying to cling to his coattails. A tally of 80 or 85 points in a season is, suddenly, not good enough. We do not seem to care where the bar is, only whether anyone can pass it.
It is an approach that does not take into account quite what Guardiola has achieved, or quite how close to perfection the team he has built at City comes. He is exceptional. We know he is exceptional. It is time we started to factor that into how we discuss those who are condemned to endure it.
M.L.S. Gets a Star. Europe Gets a Reality Check.
Lorenzo Insigne’s decision that he will leave Napoli, his hometown team, when his contract expires this summer was a surprise. Choosing to depart for Toronto F.C., last seen finishing bottom-but-one of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, probably classified as a shock. More startling than both, though, was the fact — buried in the celebratory reports of his impending transfer — that Insigne is apparently now in his 30s.
Only barely, but still: Insigne was one of those players who possessed a strange, intangible Peter Pan quality, who always felt like he was just about to fulfill his potential, who it was easy to assume still had time on his side. Lorenzo Insigne was 24, and he had been 24 for a decade or more, and he would be 24 for years to come.
Quite why that was is difficult to express. Perhaps it was because he had spent all of his career — a couple of loan spells aside — at Napoli; because he had never moved, it seemed as if he could not have aged. Perhaps it was because he never quite became the player he might have been when he was 19. Perhaps it was because he never lost that spontaneous streak, that youthful exuberance, under the crushing weight of a system.
His arrival at Toronto qualifies as a considerable coup. He is, we should not forget, captain of a team competing for the Serie A title, and a current Italy international, part of the squad that lifted the European Championship this past summer. There is a reason he was at the top of the list of players the team might rebuild itself around that Bill Manning, the Toronto president, presented to M.L.S.
That Manning was in a position to land his prime target, though, is not merely testament to his ambition or to Toronto’s appeal or to the growing esteem in which M.L.S. is held. It is a measure, too, of quite how much and how quickly the economics of soccer in Europe — certainly outside the Premier League, and with the exception of the state-run few — have changed.
There are, of course, teams in Europe that would have loved to sign Insigne. He would command a place in the vast majority of teams in the major leagues. Thanks not only to the coronavirus pandemic but the growing stratification of the game in the Old World, though, those who would want him would not have been able to pay him even a fraction of what he will earn in Canada.
That reality opened the door for Manning, for Toronto, for M.L.S. There is a class of player in Europe, now, that suddenly exists on a salary from another age. Insigne is more than just a bolt from a clear blue sky. He is, quite possibly, a harbinger of change to come.
An admirably direct question from John Drake to kick us off this week. “When will the world return to three substitutions?” he asked. This is not quite a universal question — the Premier League, in its great and in no way self-serving wisdom, has remained wedded to three substitutions throughout the pandemic — but it is not far off.
The short answer to the short question is: It won’t. Probably not, anyway. Soccer, as a rule, does not revert; it is hard to imagine that managers in the leagues that have adopted five changes a game will not decide that they actually quite like having that extra opportunity to shape events on the field. Soccer, for a long time, was a players’ game. It is now a coach’s one.
David Haye has been thinking about major issues, too. “How about we keep the Africa Cup of Nations in its beginning of the year slot whenever possible, simultaneously schedule all the European international matches — qualifiers or Nations League — over the same time period, and call a midseason break to the European leagues?”
This makes sense, David, and is therefore just about as likely as teams voting to switch back to three substitutions a game.
There is one other point I should have made on the Cup of Nations, though. I do wonder whether playing it every two years does not do much to embellish its reputation. As we have seen with the Copa América, the more a tournament takes place, the less soccer’s establishment is likely to hold it in high regard. The African championship is as important as the European championship, obviously. But is it twice as important?
A welcome return to confessed penalty denier Daniel Portnoy, who has a clarification to issue. “The shape of the penalty area is unimportant,” he writes. “What is illogical is that the same dimensions are used for determining where a goalkeeper can legally use his hands, and where a penalty kick for other fouls is awarded. There is no reason that they should be the same. There already are two boxes: add a third, change their shape or size, or define them differently.”
Now that is something that we do not talk about enough: What role does the six-yard box really play in the 21st century? Nobody kicks the ball long any more anyway.
And finally, Dimitri Bourilkov has a question that is so far up my street it is practically on my doorstep. “You wrote that there are three acceptable profiles of central midfielder. I was wondering who is on top of your list for each type?”
For current players, the “slight and inventive” category fits the likes of Luka Modric, Marco Verratti and Joshua Kimmich. “Dynamic and industrious” might be N’Golo Kanté, Fernandinho or Jordan Henderson. And “physically imposing” would run the gamut from Nemanja Matic to Denis Zakaria, with perhaps a dash of Rodri thrown in. Some, of course, fit into one or more category. Only a handful, like Sergio Busquets — slight and imposing — are difficult to classify.
That’s all for this week. Further suggestions of midfield categories, and anything else that’s on your mind, are more than welcome at [email protected]. If you fervently disagree, feel free to yell at me on Twitter. The whole vibe on Set Piece Menu is a little more refined: We discussed Eurocentrism this week. You can add further intrigue to your listening pleasure by working out how long it took me to remember Concacaf.
Have a great weekend,