Ken Early, writing in the Irish Times on Monday, suggests that disgruntled Manchester United supporters should not necessarily welcome weekend newspaper reports of Pep Guardiola’s apparent wish to coach at Old Trafford.
Early’s argument centres around his claim that strong parallels can be drawn between the preferred playing styles of the Spaniard and the much-maligned Louis Van Gaal.
The self-styled “flame-haired, flamethrower of truth” even goes on to state that United fans should instead call for the appointment of management tyro, Ryan Giggs, if they want their club to revert to the so-called “United way”.
An excoriation of this mythical “United way” represents the balance of Early’s article. On this front, he is certainly standing on solid ground. Early correctly claims that memories of the supposedly swashbuckling attacking football that ex-United pundits apparently participated in are somewhat faulty, to say the least. He rightly points out that many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s more recent triumphs were primarily built on the foundation of a solid defence, with eye-catching play often at a premium.
However, that’s where the accuracy of Early’s most recent missive begins and ends. Implementation of the playing style of Pep Guardiola, were Manchester United lucky enough to recruit him, would represent a huge upgrade on that which is practiced under the current regime.
It is true that both Guardiola and Van Gaal believe in the primacy of possession control; that is, that maintaining control of the football over long periods is the best way of disrupting the opposition defence on a consistent basis.
Early is right to point out that Pep also had his detractors during his first season in Munich (2013/14), with ex-players also painting his possession-oriented style as dull and uninspiring – particularly in the aftermath of their destruction of the hands of the Real Madrid counter-attack in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
However, aside from that core belief, comparisons between the two couldn’t be wider of the mark. The key differences are tempo, fluidity and risk; and all three are linked.
Guardiola knows that merely passing the ball continuously in front of your opposition is benign, results in few quality chances, and is relatively easy to cope with for massed defences. The Spaniard instead advocates attacking in numbers down one flank to draw the opposition in, before quickly switching the play to the opposite side to stretch the defensive line. Players are also encouraged to move the ball quickly over short distances and to interchange positions to further bamboozle opposing markers.
Could that description possibly sound more divorced from what Manchester United observers have been subjected to over the last season and a half? Van Gaal’s Manchester United do not move the ball quickly (tempo). His players – in keeping with the testimonies of those who played under Van Gaal in the past – are forced to adhere to rigidly delineated zones on the pitch (fluidity). Full-backs and deep-lying midfielders are not sufficiently encouraged to get ahead of the ball and contribute in the attacking phase (risk). Dribbling with the ball is clearly discouraged (risk).
United lie 17th in the league in both the shots per game and dribbles per game tables. Bayern, by way of contrast, in Guardiola’s first season at the club, topped both. The only real similarity between the two is their positions at the summits of their respective possession per game leagues.
Early is absolutely right to hold the eulogising nostalgia of Paul Scholes et al up to serious scrutiny. But, to suggest that the same ex-players, and other Manchester United stakeholders, would be equally dissatisfied under any potential future Guardiola regime does not hold any water whatsoever.