Yes, it’s St Pep who I’m blaming for Wednesday night’s defensive capitulation at Newcastle.
It’s all down to him.
So not unreasonable for you to ask me why.
Pep’s free flowing Barcelona side from 2008-2012 captured the imagination of the world’s football fans. Players, coaches, pundits, cynical old hacks and football fans alike. The way they played the game seemed to redefine football, turning it from mere sport to a sub-division of the entertainment industry.
Barcelona were showbiz. Barcelona were Hollywood in polyester mesh.
Barcelona were either the team you loved or the team you wanted to love. With Guardiola, Messi and the midfield pairing of Xavi and Iniesta ruling the heavens.
Whilst making everyone else feel that they and their team were sat in the depths of footballing hell.
It must have felt that way for the management and players at Manchester United.
The 2008/09 season saw them win their eleventh Premier League title, thus, in doing so, retaining the status that they had also won at the end of the previous season. Their playing squad included the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Vidic and Ferdinand.
Their dominance was so total that, come the end of that season, six of their players were named in the PFA Team of the Year whilst one of them (Vidic) was named Premier League Player of the Season. In addition to all of that (and there’s more but I won’t bore you with the list of awards and accolades), Sir Alex Ferguson won the Manager of the Year award for the tenth time.
Little wonder, therefore, that his latest and very nearly greatest team of delights got to the final of the Champions League at the end of the season, seeing off, in doing so, opposition of the proven calibre of Villarreal, Inter Milan, Porto (don’t mistake that vintage with the shambles that turned up at Leicester earlier in the week) and Arsenal in the process.
Barcelona then, in the final. A fitting final people said; the two best club sides in Europe.
Except you wouldn’t have thought so as you watched the game, witnessing, in the process, Guardiola’s side deal with their opponents with contemptible ease; their 2-0 victory as convincing and dominant a win by that scoreline as you will ever see.
It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters at their peak. Toying with the opposition, teasing and taunting them, and, ultimately, winning with both ease and good grace. Winning almost apologetically, winning as if they had hoped that their opponents would at least give them some semblance of a game but, as it wasn’t to be, well, they’d just get on with the job in hand.
The old fashioned number nines in football’s seventies and eighties heyday used to be asked if scoring a goal was better than sex. Refreshingly, one, at least, in Frank Worthington replied that no, it most certainly was not. But most, strangely, concurred. Yes, scoring a goal really was better than sex.
Well, come the naughty noughties, if football was great sex, then Barcelona were playing it. And making it last.
And that is where the trouble begins.
Because fans of other clubs started wondering why their team wasn’t playing like Barcelona as well.
It wasn’t about the winning or the dominance. Most pretty much accepted that there wouldn’t be any of that.
But they could at least be entertained.
And it caught on.
Club owners, most of whom are fans at heart, began to think the same way.
And, slowly but surely, discontent at players and managers started to move from not being happy because their clubs weren’t winning matches to expressing dissatisfaction that the team wasn’t playing ‘entertaining’ football.
Fans started to claim that they’d rather lose a thrilling encounter 4-3 than bore and grind their way to a tedious 1-0 win.
Sam Allardyce, in particular, started to feel the wrath of the West Ham support.
Under Allardyce, the Hammers had a more than reasonable 2014/15 season, ending it in 12th place with victories against Liverpool and Manchester City along the way.
The sort of season, you suspect, we would all love to have in the Premier League. But I’ll come on to that shortly.
Yet, despite all of that, rumours surrounded Allardyce’s tenure at the club from the off.
He was too dour, the football was too dull. We are, the fans pointed out, West Ham.
Entertain us. Like it was in the days of Martin Peters, Ken Brown and John Bond.
David Gold and David Sullivan listened. They do, after all, have a successful track record in knowing exactly what keeps middle-aged men happy when it comes to entertainment.
Out went boring old Sam. And in came super sexy and sophisticated Slaven Bilic.
He’d bring style, sophistication and a sense of panache to the club. And then some.
And maybe he has? Yet, at the time of writing, Bilic’s team are 18th in the Premier League. They’re still entertaining people mind you. In their six league games played so far, their fans have witnessed 23 goals being scored, a healthy ratio of nearly 4 goals a game.
Which is all very well. But sixteen of them have been scored against them.
I bet their fans would like some Big Sam-type stability and organisation right now. Plus a few 1-0 wins.
Entertaining football is all very well. But you’ve got to be able to get away with it.
John Bond entertained us all with Bacchus-like abundance when he was Norwich manager.
But he could afford to do so; given the calibre of players he had available to him during his time at the club.
Peters, Paddon, Neighbour and Suggett to name but four. Plus Kevin Keelan. Yes, even the goalkeeper was an entertainer first and footballer second.
I was lucky enough to spend a morning in the company of Kevin Bond not so long ago. Much of the talk was, naturally enough, about his father. And I wasn’t particularly surprised when Kevin said to me, in the course of our conversation, “…we never did much defensive training under Dad”.
Fast forward now to the 2012/13 season. Chris Hughton’s last full campaign in charge at the club.
As things turn out, it ends up being the Canaries second best ever season in the Premier League as well as the sixth best ever league finish in the club’s history.
Not too shabby you would say. The sort of campaign we would, dare I say it, yearn for and treasure forever if it was to happen next season. Providing, of course, we get promoted this time around.
Yet we weren’t particularly appreciative at the time.
Hughton was, for most of that season, labelled as a dull and unadventurous manager. The football being played at the club was, according to many, the “worst” they had ever seen from a Norwich City team.
He was too dour, the football was too dull. We are, the fans pointed out, Norwich City.
Entertain us. Like it was in the days of Martin Peters, Ken Brown and John Bond.
We certainly had entertainment on Wednesday night. Seven goals and chances galore. A game to delight the neutral. A bit like the one we played at Carrow Road against Liverpool last season.
Entertainment in abundance. But it only works if it goes your way. If it’s an entertaining game and your team loses, do you still go home happy?
I don’t. I just want to win. Every. Single. Game.
If we entertain in the process, then great. Fantastic. Yet, given the choice of losing 4-3 or winning a turgid game 1-0 then I’ll take the latter.
Pep Guardiola has, through his efforts at Barcelona, changed how many fans perceive the game. Our expectations have grown; our sense of self entitlement has gone through the roof. We want it all and we want it now.
That ‘Pep effect’ is filtering down to all levels of the game.
Portsmouth sacked Andy Awford as their manager in 2015. I was assured by two friends, who are Pompey season ticket holders, that one of the major reasons he had to go was that the football on offer was dull, boring and unimaginative.
We are Portsmouth. Entertain us.
Everyone is doing it. Everyone wants entertainment.
During the film Gladiator, the coach of Maximus has a quiet word with him before one of his fights in the arena.
“All you do is kill, kill, kill. They don’t want a butcher, they want a hero. We want them to keep coming back. So don’t just hack them to pieces. Remember, you are an entertainer”.
Minutes later, after dispatching six opponents with no little flair, Maximus imports that immortal line to the crowd.
“Are you not entertained?”
The arena was, after all, show business. And the gladiators were the performers of their day. Today’s footballers and football stadiums are the modern day equivalent.
Entertainment first, results second? It would have seemed so, even back then.
Maximus Decimus Meridius brought entertainment to the fictitious masses eighteen hundred years ago.
Pep Guardiola has done the same today.
And we all want a little bit of it. But at any cost?
I for one never liked watching barca. It was utter drivel only given that touch of showbiz by Messi. I don’t see that as entertainment. I see putting effort in for the entire game as entertainment. Players like howson and Murphy are entertainment for me because they care. Your Bradys, naismiths, Bassongs, Martins and ruddys of this world ruin that entertainment for everyone. Not a barca like expectation.
Ps. Many managers haven’t been given the gig at clubs because their football didn’t match the clubs philosophy long before pep. Strange theory.
Gary Field says
Interesting perspective Ed.
Personally, I think you’re being a tad harsh on Pep, with the main culprit being Sky.
Not only did they introduce the showbiz razzmatazz of Monday Night Soccer, they also brought with it oudles of cash.
Footballers became like movie stars, earning (perhaps I should say, receiving) mega bucks salaries.
The showbiz add ons increased the demand from fans to be entertained. And who can blame them when the costs of entering these gladiatorial arenas has similarly gone skywards?
Good points Gary and worthy of a future piece.
If Barca are occasionally a little too ‘showbiz’ then are they merely being swept along in the euphoria?
Doubt any coach there will ever be allowed to win games without there being that element of joy involved.
The problem is that other clubs are expected to follow their lead, all too often unrealistically.
Agree too, Jeff. Give me the player who cares everyday. Hucks and Grant Holt examples of that here.
General Melchett says
The bottom line for me is that football is there as a form of entertainment. Some like the writer find mearly winning entertainment enough. Others want to see their idea of good football. For some unlike Jeff and myself, that maybe Pep’s tiki taka football. For others it will be direct attacking football like that, that Lambert brought us.
Precious few would profess to truely enjoy watching McCathy, Pulis or any other hoofball merchants football. At first they can have their appeal as wins for a losing side represent an improvement. But long term who wants to watch dire football? We all hanker after the holy grail that is entertaining football with winning. Is it too much to ask for? Maybe, maybe not.
This is where it can be difficult for a club such as ours. To attack and play good football with our budget in the championship should be a given, to then do so against the big boys in the PL is difficult, we certainly do not have as good a players. Can a game plan successful in the Championship then work in the PL with only a modest improvement in playing personnel? Must we lose all ambition and try to sneak wins? Or can we try to actually build a playing philosophy that can bridge the two? Swansea managed, Bournemouth too. Right now we look confused at what we’re doing at champioship level so whilst I feel optomistic that we can still go up again, right now the managers limitations would suggest another confused and ultimately failed attempt to stay up. No side that has such a soft under belly can surely survive. But we must like others find a way, but whilst playing football, because you only have to visit CR or read the other MFW article about our current crowd noise to realise the manner of playing is every bit as important for many as the results.
I think we could have accepted the result on wednesday night with a good deal more grace if it had panned out a little differently. i.e. if we had exchanged goals to 3-3 through the match and conceded in the 83rd minute and had a good go at pinching an equaliser, or even been further behind and come back. maybe even level for 10 minutes before a late winner, but 3-1 and the nature of the timing of the goals feels like such a familiar story of recent past failings.
Nail hit on head General (5).
You need the players capable of playing that sort of football to do so effectively. John Bond made sure he had them. Ron Saunders will always be saddled with the reputation of having a “hard working” squad at his disposal (ie) honest grafters, but then he made the most of what he had and understood their limits. It won him a Second Division title.
Agree re.Wednesday. The nature of the defeat is what hurts so much, not the fact it was a defeat. I sometimes wonder if I’d rather be completely outplayed and lose 5-0 rather than lose as we did earlier in the week!
One of my frustrations with Hughton was the fact that he seemed to focus more on the opposition than on his own side. He was more determined to nullify the opposition rather than make us perform better. I appreciate that most weeks we were playing supposedly better sides but this is accepting you are inferior rather than saying we are equal and to me was negative.
Alex Neil in my opinion is totally risk adverse, as soon as he gets a lead he tries to protect it, which might work if based on solid defensive foundations. Sadly I cannot remember when we last had solid defensive foundations! He is the type that as soon as his bet was in a winning position he would cash out!
This negativity to me then causes unease in the team as they realise the game has suddenly changed to backs against the wall stuff and the inevitable nerves and mistakes creep in.
When we are ahead it is ok to adopt a slightly more cautious approach but you must also carry a goal threat yourselves. One “big guy” upfront is rarely the answer (again just my opinion) as he is often surrounded by three or more defenders with little support and invariably loses possession due to lack of support and options.
Surely a better way is to play counter attacking with pace. Stick one of the speed merchants up front (Murphy, Canos, etc?) and give their defenders something to worry about.
I am not even going to discuss the selection of personnel in the starting line up against the Magpies except to repeat a certain Einstein who said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results!
I am not a MOG, I am pleased that we are second in the league but am a little concerned that this is a false position. We have only really performed well in the league once (be honest, how many of the other games were convincing?) and that was against early season whipping boys! We have much harder games ahead than the ones we have played, with the exception of the Geordies!
We are all thinking that it is not a bad thing that we are playing poorly but still getting results, “sign of a good team”, but what if this is our level? What if there isn’t a top gear?
I still back Alex, I will always support the team but I am not convinced that all is well and Delias recipe for promotion will make the top table.
Cosmo P. says
If you’re going to blame Pep, then you have to blame Cryuff who mentored him and Rinus Michels who mentored Cryuff?
Not sure Pep is in it to provide entertainment for the fans. He wants his sides to play their best football irrespective of the opposition and if they can do that, they’ll more than likely win titles and trophies. A refreshing philosophy compared with a Mourinho who certainly doesn’t give a hoot about entertaining the ‘customers’.
The defeat to Newcastle was all about a struggling defender (formerly player of the season) being roasted by a Premier League-quality striker (as happened last season). Let’s hope Klose’s injury is not too serious.
Thought provoking piece as ever Ed, although possibly a bit harsh on Pep! What constitutes ‘entertainment’ at a game of football is something I’ve debated on too many occasions to remember, still don’t think I’ve got a definitive answer either… I remember the game that really got me hooked on visiting Carrow Road which was a 3-2 loss to Oxford in the league cup back in the 90s so I don’t think a win is a must to really enjoy a game. And indeed I’ve left some 1-0 wins feeling pretty flat about the whole experience. As a Norwich fan you get used to the fact that you’re gonna win some and you’re gonna lose some so I’d always err on the side of style over substance (always hoping for a bit of both though!)
One thing I will say about a result like Wednesday’s, as disappointing as it was, it doesn’t half get you pumped up for the next game! OTBC
Keith B says
I think the real disappointment on Wednesday was that conceding the third goal gave the ball back to us, and yet we could not find a way to hold on to it for 60 seconds. It’s easy to blame the back four but Newcastle should never have had the ball to set up their fourth in the first place.
As for “entertaining” – it depends to some extent what division we are in. We should expect to win the majority of Championship games and if sometimes we have to battle it out a bit I’ll live with that as long as we do indeed get the results. It helps though if we have someone like Huckerby in the side i.e. someone with a bit of individual flair to make up for periods of less attractive fare.
In the Premier League, whatever system we play we’ll struggle – at least until we start matching the wages of the likes of Southampton or Palace. So frankly I would always prefer we have a go for it when we are in that league in the Lambert style rather than follow Hughton’s approach. The 3-2 home defeat to Liverpool under Adams was a case in point – at least we gave them a scare and produced a game worth attending. Merely setting up to frustrate them probably wouldn’t have earned any more points.
Where we really should be looking for our entertainment though is in the cups. I’m delighted at our progress in the LC this season, long overdue. I hate this “save it for the league” attitude. We have 7 subs to pick from these days and can use 3 if people need a breather; perhaps it made sense when you could only name and use 1, but not now.
el dingo says
A great article and some excellent comments.
#7 Yarmy 73: I agree with you entirely – especially the bit about the futility of expecting us to sit on a lead. We had no outlet at the end on Wednesday night, and boy did we pay for it.
Louis Thompson could have been brought on instead of Bennett. Shelvey needed someone tight to him. Oh well, on to Wolves.
Pep’s Barcelona team made very, very few mistakes, that was how they held on to the ball so long. Some people found that boring, which I understand but don’t agree with. I loved watching them.
Without players of that quality we have to be organised to cover the eventuality of mistakes being made. No one can score at will so we have to be able to defend any lead we have.
At this level, at a minimum players should know their jobs and carry them out, if they don’t then don’t be surprised when basic errors are punished.