A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Pep Guardiola launched a fledgling managerial career at Barcelona in 2007 and brought an intelligently administered possession-based football back into vogue, similar to the style played by Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974 and the Barcelona side he played for in the early 1990s.
A playing career under the tutelage of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff placed Guardiola in the traditions of pass and move, flexibility of position, and the importance of holding on to the ball. Guardiola became a Barcelona regular in 1991, coinciding with Cruyff’s efforts to build what would become known as the Dream Team. This was a conglomerate of talent that nobody could deny was a cut above the rest, and remained so for several years. Featuring the likes of Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Romario, Barca’s Dream Team played a magnetic brand of football that was nigh on impossible to take your eyes off of.
Guardiola successfully transferred what he learned as a player to the coaching pitches, first at Barcelona and then at Bayern Munich. When he reached the shores of England in the summer of 2016, however, the cry went up from many directions: “That sort of thing will never work here.”
Faced with blanket defences, Guardiola’s City at first made light work of the fuss, winning 10 straight games to start last season. On Oct. 2, however — ironically just two weeks before City would dismantle Barcelona in the Champions League — City’s game plan was dismantled thread by painful thread,.
Tottenham, using a high press and direct, energetic tactics, trampled all over City’s aristocrats. A benchmark had been set and was followed by several others after that autumn undressing.
The landscape has changed, as is always happening in football. Leicester and Chelsea have won the league title using basic but highly effective shape and tactics. Fast-flowing football is designed to punish recovering sides on the counterattack, with no qualms about a direct ball forward to whoever is best-placed.
Guardiola begins his second season with what many would see as a dilemma: Does he ditch possession-based football and join the new revolution? Or to trust his instincts and drive forward with his own well-calibrated plans? Given his well-known stubborn streak, that question answers itself.
The evidence from City’s opening-day, 2-0 win at Brighton on Saturday is clear.
Faced with a massed defence from a team making their season debut in their own noisy ground, City produced a remarkably composed display. Brighton, full of the vim and vigour that comes from a sunny opening day 34 years after their last top-flight outing, were predictably focussed but could not break clear of City’s tight grip.
City’s possession was suffocating, hovering around 78-79 percent throughout the match. To illustrate how it flattened any hopes the home side might have harboured in the first 45 minutes, Brighton’s first touch inside City’s penalty area came one minute before half-time — a weak header from an erroneously awarded free kick on City’s left flank.
Up to this point, City keeper Ederson’s only view of the ball had been watching it travel between his defenders and his midfielders like a shuttlecock in an evenly contested game of badminton.
It took the home side an entire half to have a single touch in the opposition area.
Despite Brighton’s extremely blunt attack, there was plenty of enthusiasm from the south coast side. However, their 23 percent possession underlined just how dominant City were. Goalkeeper Mat Ryan made more passes (27) than anybody else in his team. Meanwhile, City worked their way through 768 passes.
So the patient possession game continues. However, based on Guardiola’s recruitment drive this summer, we can expect it to be allied to a much more dynamic approach from the flanks. With Kyle Walker launching himself on a box-to-box run just three minutes into his debut, it is clear what his effect will be. On the other side, City fans await the sight of Benjamin Mendy doing something broadly similar.
Where this will leave Saturday substitutes Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane remains to be seen. Although both are fast and dynamic, neither is comfortable in the wing-back position that demands such energy and commitment at both ends of the pitch. Walker, in his frequent shuffling back to snuff out what tepid danger Brighton could produce, showed how this will work.
With the likes of Chelsea and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United showcasing a more direct and robust style of play, it will be fascinating to see which philosophy comes out on top. Early signs point to a more vigorous challenge from United than in recent years. A fight at the top between Manchester’s twin giants, playing markedly different football, is most certainly a lip-smacking prospect for all.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.