As Manchester City clocked up eight fouls by half-time on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, West Ham fans howled in frustration. And there were ironic cheers when Hammers defender Fabian Balbuena became the first player to be given a yellow card.
West Ham were outclassed in a game they eventually lost 5-0 but there had been moments in the first half when they seemed capable of giving the champions some trouble. However, they just could not escape the straitjacket that City place on opponents.
Leading the charge was new City signing Rodri, who made three first-half fouls. “Commanding, highly-skilled, shithouse, ideal,” as one Blue-tinged wag put it on Twitter. The summer signing from Atletico Madrid looks custom-made for the Pep Guardiola plan.
Domenec Torrent, Guardiola’s long-time assistant, gave away something of a trade secret this summer when talking about his new role at New York City FC. “When we lose the ball it’s very important for Pep to press high in five seconds,” said Torrent, who had worked with Guardiola since their days with Barcelona B.
“If you don’t win it back within five seconds then make a foul and go back.”
That approach makes life so difficult for opponents and when combined with fast passing and often dazzling attacking, City can become unplayable. And it has been that way since Guardiola stepped into senior coaching. Johan Cruyff, from whom so much of Guardiola’s philosophy derives, was also an advocate of winning the ball back by foul means when fair had failed. Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 1990s, in which Guardiola was the deep-lying playmaker, was a combination of raw silk and heavy steel when required.
Ahead of this weekend’s Premier League matches, City were third in the table for fouls committed, behind Sheffield United and Wolves, and having made 27 fouls to 11 suffered, as opposed to Liverpool, in 20th place, with 15 fouls to 19 suffered. Meanwhile, City were tenth in the table for cards received, suggesting that their players know when and where to commit their fouls.
Of course, that is a tally collecting on a small sample of just two matches. Last season, they were 19th in the table on cards received, with only Liverpool receiving fewer, consequently the same position in table on fouls. However, within the rest of the Premier League, City have a reputation for what has become known as the “tactical foul”, something former Manuel Pellegrini, hardly known for embracing controversy, made mention of after the West Ham game.
“Every time we tried to arrive in their box they committed fouls,” he said, picking up on a theme that Jose Mourinho first brought to public attention as his Manchester United team watched City head over the horizon. The pair’s rivalry, for a while the hottest in the game, had many flashpoints but leading the Portuguese’s irritations was the idea that his team were the arch-pragmatists and Guardiola’s were warriors of the light.
And especially when Guardiola’s Barcelona featured a player of such cynicism as Sergio Busquets. In a match that came to define the pair of them, Mourinho’s Inter Milan’s Champions League semi-final with Guardiola’s Barca in 2010, Busquets’ dived to the floor after Thiago Motta wafted an arm in his general direction. While Motta was being sent off for a perceived act of violent conduct, Busquets, prostrate on the ground, opened up his hands for the peekaboo that launched a million gifs.
Mourinho, whose team progressed from that tie, rarely let up on his criticism of Barcelona from that point. After a red card for Celtic’s Scott Brown in 2013, received after a foul that Neymar made much of, Mourinho, then back at Chelsea, happened to be watching on television called it “sad” in that week’s press conference.
It received a furious, and telling, reaction from Busquets. “Play-acting? It’s not play-acting, it’s being smart. It’s a debate we shouldn’t be having because that’s not the real issue. It’s all too easy to label people.”
These were words delivered when Guardiola was no longer Busquets’ manager, and there is something of an omertà when the issue is brought up around the Catalan. “Sometimes situations happen but we are a team that always try to attack, to defend well, to try to play our game but never having to think about making actions like that.” he said last season when both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Gary Neville pinpointed the fouls his team made, with Neville labelling Fernandinho a “smiling assassin”.
Fernandinho, like Busquets at Barca and Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich, has carried out those fouls, which if they are not part of the instructions, have become a definite facet of his team’s play.
It is less than noble, but then again, it would be difficult to name a great team in the game’s history that did not contain that glint of steel.
Even Brian Clough, someone always on the referees’ side and who did not allow backchat of any sort, had the fearsome Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd in his Nottingham Forest team. And the fall of Arsenal from being one of the best teams in the Premier League era to also-rans was not helped by Arsene Wenger preferring those players who would be decent sons-in-law as well as nice ball players.
The days have long gone when teams’ hatchet men were celebrated. The late Tommy Smith was “the Anfield Iron”, Chelsea had Ron “Chopper” Harris, Leeds’ Norman Hunter “Bites Yer Legs”. Nobby Stiles was a national hero for hacking his way through the 1966 World Cup. None of them would last more than ten minutes these days, such has been the lowering of the threshold for fouls.
The 1970 FA Cup final, between Leeds and Chelsea, featured 46 fouls and at least another 50 that the referee Eric Jennings did not give. It feels like a different sport, and when it was watched again by David Elleray, these days the head of IFAB, in 1997, he concluded that the sides would have received six red cards and twenty yellow cards between them.
That was a harder, very different game and one that was fundamentally unsafe. Meet a former footballer of that era, and you are likely to meet someone with a pronounced limp, and so the game had to change. Yellow cards are waved for any number of minor offences, play to be stopped for the merest infraction.
Almost 50 years on, though, cynicism has not departed. Guardiola’s teams use the game’s softer centre to their advantage, by making those minor, quick fouls that break up opponents’ momentum in areas where a yellow card can be avoided, namely within that five-second threshold within which players are encouraged to make fouls.
It serves to make Manchester City so difficult to play against, and though opposing managers, players and fans have started to pinpoint those ‘tactical fouls’ there appears little that officials can do, unless they wave a yellow card for everything.
And though he maintains it does not happen, his team’s proficiency at this skullduggery is actually another indication of Guardiola’s mastery.