Pep Guardiola passes first Premier League test, barely, as Man City win
MANCHESTER, England -- After years of pursuing his services and a summer of heavy spending, Manchester City might have expected rather more of Pep Guardiola's debut than this. A narrow 2-1 win at home to a Sunderland side perennially haunted by relegation is not the sort of thing that was in the brochure. The fact that the three points were only secured by a Paddy McNair own goal in the closing stages adds to the faint feeling of anticlimax, but this is the Premier League. It has no respect for reputation.
"I realise how difficult it is," Guardiola grinned afterwards when asked what he had learned about English football. "Definitely. We are not safe until the referee says 'Okay, go home.'" David Moyes, who came within three minutes of winning an unexpected point, will certainly concur.
Guardiola's feats in Europe make him an obvious target. Opposing managers want to take him down while everyone else in English football is intrigued to see if he's as good as they've been repeatedly told he is. The Spaniard can certainly expect a testing relationship with the press, who will put every big decision under the microscope. But on his first day in this most unforgiving of leagues, he didn't duck any of them.
England goalkeeper Joe Hart was dropped, replaced by Willy Caballero. Guardiola insisted repeatedly that this was merely the decision he had made for this game, primarily because Caballero had had more training sessions than Hart and that he had looked "confident" in preseason, but rumours persist that he is less than enthused by the England goalkeeper's distribution.
Caballero's nervous early moments, comprised of some uncertain handling and one pinpoint pass to Sunderland's Duncan Watmore, didn't entirely vindicate the decision, but a fine first half clearance well outside the area as Jermain Defoe prepared to pounce, went some way to redeeming it.
There were other risky calls. Yaya Toure, a club stalwart and one of its highest earners, was left out of the matchday 18 altogether. With doubts over Nicolas Otamendi's fitness, left-back Aleksandar Kolarov was deployed in the centre of defence. Had it been Moyes making such eyebrow-raising decisions, the reaction would have been merciless. But Guardiola's methods have always worked for him in the past.
It is unwise to read too much into the first game of the season, but if Saturday's victory demonstrated anything it was that no one should expect him to have it all his own way in England. Firstly, because the style of football he wants to cultivate relies on high levels of fitness and understanding, two areas in which City were understandably found wanting here, and secondly because the processions that Barcelona and Bayern enjoyed in their respective leagues when facing lesser opponents are rarities in the Premier League. Sunderland, driven back by a first half onslaught, never stopped believing that they could take something from the game.
"It was gut-wrenching," said Moyes afterwards. "We'd done a great job in containing them as best we could; the players had done great. We knew we wouldn't get an awful lot of the ball, but we'd just about done the job. But just about is not enough."
Moyes' players gave a good account of themselves and were rightly afforded an ovation by their travelling support. Indeed, the Black Cats actually started much the brighter, capitalising on obvious nerves and forcing Caballero into a scrambling early save. But their spirited offensive lasted only three minutes. A powerful header from Fernandinho sent Raheem Sterling racing into the penalty area and he was brought down by Patrick van Aanholt. Sergio Aguero converted the spot kick and the whole Manchester City side, players and fans alike, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
Now the world could see what Guardiola planned to bring to the Premier League. It was fast, it was fluid and, for much of the first half, it completely flummoxed Sunderland. City's formation changed dramatically in and out of possession, two shapes that had as much in common with each other as Optimus Prime the warrior-robot and Optimus Prime the run-of-the-mill red juggernaut.
When City were out of possession (which didn't happen very often) they were relatively orthodox with a back four, a middle three, helpful wide men and that trademark Guardiola intense press that always follows the loss of the ball. In possession, it was a very different story. Full-backs Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna moved into the centre of midfield. The original midfield three were split, with Fernandinho dropping back between the centre-backs, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pushing up to support Sergio Aguero. On the left and the right, Nolito and Raheem Sterling went high and wide to try to stretch Sunderland to their breaking point.
It was impressive to watch and hard for Moyes' side to contain, but the deluge of goals that was threatened failed to materialise. Good goal-scoring opportunities were thin on the ground as Sunderland held strong, running tirelessly to cover the movement. Their tenacity was rewarded when they levelled in the second half through Defoe and they looked set for a point until Jesus Navas' 87th-minute cross ended up in the back of the net via the unfortunate McNair.
Nevertheless, Guardiola declared himself pleased with the performance and was generous with his praise to individual players, most notably Fernandinho, but he did acknowledge that City were slow at times and found the going tough.
"That is normal in the moment we are," he said. "These kind of things must happen for us to learn, to be better."
Guardiola spent a considerable portion of the press conference justifying his decision to drop Hart, which he did calmly but firmly, and this will not be the last time he finds himself under cross-examination. This is the problem with sustained hyperbole: It demands justification at all times. Guardiola is no stranger to that, coping well in both Barcelona and Bavaria. It will be just as intense here.
And, of course, Guardiola is right. It's normal for a team under a new manager to be require time to gel, especially after summer tournaments and when so many players are such different levels of fitness. But if he didn't know before, he knows now that there will be very little margin for error in England and very little patience if he fails to match such high expectations. Points could very easily have been dropped here.
Guardiola is one game into a 38-match season. The other 37 will be just as hard as this.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.