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Never, ever get comfortable. Watching Pep-era Manchester City cruise through the past five years of beautifully engineered success, backed by perhaps the most supportive, frictionless, economically impregnable environment ever created in English football, it has at times been hard to avoid one key question. Mainly: why all the drama?
City travel south to play Chelsea in Saturday’s delicious-looking early kick-off. Aside from the more meaningful pre-match noises off, there has once again been a sense of a peculiar kind of micro-fuss being played out around City’s manager.
This time around, the issue – or rather non-issue, anti-issue – was a self-igniting mini-spat between Pep Guardiola and City’s own fans. This is all pretty well-rehearsed by now. Ten days ago those same supporters who love Pep, who back the owners, who have embraced almost without question the total transformation of the essence of the club, were accused by their own manager of lacking passion for the project. Well, it’s certainly a bold motivational strategy, Pep. Let’s see if it works.
At issue was the failure to fill a midweek stadium in the doldrums of early autumn. “I’d like more people to come on Saturday, we need the people,” Guardiola said after the home game against RB Leipzig, wearing that familiar jazzed-up, happy-not-happy grin, and gesturing around the Etihad stands that had contained just under 40,000.
Needles to say, fans hate this kind of talk, a line that feeds into the daily banter-battles over “the Emptihad”, the idea of City as the arriviste interloper. From your own manager it is both a needless humiliation and a startlingly ignorant take on the reality of following a modern football club at a time when the cost of living is inflamed and people across the country are struggling.
As ever there has been a suggestion this is all a media creation, part of the ongoing plot to derail this endlessly lauded and cooed-over champion team. In reality those reporting this faux-beef were as nonplussed as City’s fans, not least by Pep’s own relish for the battle.
Three days later a near-capacity 52,000-plus were present for the goalless draw with Southampton, but not before Guardiola trailed the idea of his own huffy departure (“When people are not happy with me, I will leave”). It remains the weirdest of escalations: a backlash over a non-backlash to a non-issue, a man picking a fight with his own shadow.
And perhaps there is a clue in this. The Chelsea game comes on the back of a mild start to the season for the champions. City had 64% possession against Southampton but only one shot on target. They were smooth but a little underpowered in a 1-0 win against Leicester. But Stamford Bridge is the bookend to a vertiginous week, with a trip to Paris on Tuesday followed by another to Liverpool five days later.
Time, then, to get into character, to get that game face on. There is a sense here of fuel being put on the fire, a manager who just needs to feel what he is doing is in some sense vital, pure and fretted with high-stakes tension, even if this involves feeding off a little man-made stress. There is something of a pattern here, a football club where mini-disasters keep on not happening, where dramas continue to non-erupt, where the manager keeps on not-leaving.
A year ago City were on their way to one of the great illusory on-field crises, product of a tactical tinkering that brought 18 goals in their first 12 league games, but which gave way in December to that sublime title-sealing run of 21 straight wins. The previous autumn brought injuries, midfielders in defence, contortions on the Anfield touchline, followed by the threat of a two-year ban from Europe. At the end of which City finished second, won a cup, scored a lot of goals, and basically kept rolling on, lawyered-up and ready to spend in the summer.
Those twitches in high-stakes games feel like a symptom of this pride, the desire to win with meaning
It is a recurrent dynamic these past five years: hints of mini-crisis, culture-clash, Pep-exit; accompanied, in the wider view, by serene progress, positive reinforcement, happy players and all the rest.
At the centre of this there is the basic paradox of Guardiola and City. Watching the most intense man in football thrashing about in this utterly supportive environment, at a club where even minor failure, second place on the big stage, really isn’t much of a drama, has been like watching the troubled antihero in piece of absurdist fiction. Here is a manager who is obsessed with football, with the purity of competition, installed at what is essentially a project club, a machine designed to promote the interests of its owners with no expense spared. Absurdist antiheroes are condemned to seek meaning in a world of soft edges. Absurdist antiheroes flail about and beat their fists at the sky. Absurdist antiheroes often wear black roll-neck jumpers.
There is something of this desire to create tension even in the nuts and bolts of teams and tactics. Those recurrent twitches in high-stakes games feel like a symptom of this same kind of pride, the desire to not just win but to win with meaning. It is at least one way of explaining the last time City met Chelsea, Porto in June, when Guardiola sent out a team with an entire position, the defensive midfielder, erased – an attempt at some kind of victory for the ages, an attacking midfield masterpiece to end attacking midfield masterpieces.
It is tempting to conclude this yearning for the grand notes, for ultimacy, reflects his own founding experiences. Barcelona will do this to you: the idea of football as identity, as Catalan nationalism, as the search for Cruyffian tactical perfection.
Football has been everything to Guardiola, who left his parents aged 13 to attend La Masia, who played and managed at a club where support is an act of supplication. If he finds it odd City don’t block out their stadium three times a week then he is perhaps not comparing like things. Guardiola doesn’t really do wry self-awareness, or not being really there.
So on to Stamford Bridge, and the first really meaningful engagement of City’s season. Both teams have only one real change from the summer. For Chelsea this is a missing piece in Romelu Lukaku, for City a strengthening of what is already there in Jack Grealish.
There will be a temptation to see the effects of City’s failure to sign a centre-forward. Guardiola will be more concerned with what Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea already had: the ability to make an opponent play badly, to interrupt patterns, to defend without conceding an advantage to the attacker.
It was this quality that drove those three Chelsea victories over City from April into May, games that offered a kind of tactical dance, a call and response of shifting shapes and formations. City will be bolstered by the return of Phil Foden and 90 minutes for Kevin De Bruyne in midweek. We should expect a game of fine details and, of course, drama.