Much has been written lately about the trials and tribulations of Manchester City, the victims of consecutive defeats in cup and league football at the hands of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, with the latter leaving them 22 points behind runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool.
Coach Pep Guardiola has now seen his charges suffer six league defeats this season, which already equals his worst-ever campaign as a coach (his first season at City in 2016/17). Newspaper reports claimed his players accused him of tinkering too much with his selections and formations in the wake of the 2-0 defeat to Spurs.
That loss hinged, to a large extent, on the sending-off of left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko on the hour-mark in North London with the score at 0-0. Already on a yellow card, Zinchenko barged Harry Winks off the ball as he sprinted towards the halfway line. Referee Mike Dean had no choice but to reduce City to 10 men with half an hour of the game to go.
Zinchenko’s action comes under the “tactical fouling” category of football misdemeanours – a sensitive subject when it comes to any discussion of the reigning Premier League champions. Faced with City’s brilliance over the preceding two seasons, City’s rivals have regularly alleged that Guardiola’s team gets away with too many tactical fouls. City supporters dismiss this as being the by-product of jealousy and resentment on the part of rival fans desperate for any stick with which to beat them. A bit like the current conspiracy theory suggesting that Liverpool’s present omnipotence has been aided by favourable VAR calls.
Spurs scored twice with 11 minutes of Zinchenko’s sending off, making his decision to carry out the tactical foul a costly one, as the North London club suddenly sensed the mood of the game had changed. It was not the first time this season that such an action has cost City. In fact, I would argue there was an earlier example that has been hugely disruptive to City’s campaign.
On January 21, defender Aymeric Laporte returned to the City team for the league game against Sheffield United. It was his first appearance since he suffered a serious knee injury against Brighton on August 30. In Laporte’s absence, City have struggled to rediscover the defensive solidity that underpinned their consecutive title-winning campaigns and this point has been made by countless fans, journalists and pundits.
However, I have to take issue with the way Laporte’s injury was reported at the time and also subsequently. Indeed, as recently as this week, I read a story that described the loss of City’s best defender as a piece of misfortune. Now, while I agree the timing of it was unfortunate, as it happened just as the Transfer Window closed, I’d say the injury itself could have been avoided.
Laporte’s injury came about in the 37th minute of the Brighton game, with City 1-0 up and laying siege to the Seagulls’ goal. On a rare counter-attack, Brighton defender Adam Webster took advantage of a missed tackle by Rodri and burst across the hallway line. He was some 40 metres from goal, in the right-hand “channel” and far from threatening the City goal when Laporte came across from a central position and took Webster out with what looked like a mistimed attempted tackle.
It was soon clear that Laporte had hurt himself. He also received a yellow card for the challenge and that caused me to look closely at the replays. My conclusion? For a defender who ordinarily times his tackles superbly, this was a clumsy effort, with the “wrong” leg and I suspect it came about when Laporte decided at the last minute that he couldn’t win the ball and therefore had to “take out” Webster with a tactical foul. I must stress, that was simply my opinion at the time and it still is now, having viewed the incident over. Referee Jon Moss presumably felt the same way, as he deemed the challenged worthy of a caution.
Laporte paid for his clumsy intervention in a way that was far harsher than a booking: the injury to his anterior cruciate ligament requiring surgery and a lengthy spell of rehabilitation. I have already detailed the harm Laporte’s absence has done to City’s league campaign this season.
Now, for the sensitive part of my argument: were it not for an insistence of the part of City’s coaching staff that players commit tactical fouls whenever the opposition breaks over the halfway line, I believe Laporte might have been able to avoid injury. Webster was far from goal, Laporte had defensive cover behind him and he could have pulled out of the challenge. Yet, he didn’t. And his late decision to awkwardly clip Webster’s legs led to his own injury.
I am a huge fan of the way Pep Guardiola’s teams play football, in the way his players are drilled to press, to hunt in packs, to recycle the ball and to be brave in the way they accept the ball and seek out passing angles. These good footballing habits are so deeply ingrained in Guardiola’s City players that they at times seem to be playing a different game to most of the other teams in the Premier League.
Yet, I fear that a mandate to commit tactical fouls, to break up play, is emphasised just as strongly on the training ground as all those mantras about progressive football. In my opinion, this has backfired on Guardiola’s team a couple of times this season.
Now, given Pep’s intense, methodical approach to football, he may well have decided that the odd backfire is acceptable in the grand scheme of things, or as long as the team is broadly successful. Let’s not forget, City can still win three trophies this season. Also, even if Laporte had not been injured and Zinchenko not been red-carded, it would be nonsensical to suggest that City would be level with or even ahead of Liverpool — so remarkable has been the Reds’ form.
Yet, imagine if the gap between the two teams was, say, a mere two points right now. Then, it would be even more valid to discuss tactical fouling as a being more risky than rewarding for an otherwise brilliant team.