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Pep Guardiola's psychology: Why draw with Liverpool was so special
Last Updated: 20/03/17 12:58pm
Pep Guardiola risks ridicule with his pride at a "special" draw with Liverpool but it is all part of the psychology, writes Adam Bate.
In Marti Perarnau's book Evolution, chronicling Pep Guardiola's time at Bayern Munich, there is a passage that particularly resonates right now. In light of the Manchester City coach's description of his team's 1-1 home draw with Liverpool on Sunday as "one of the most special days" of his life, it gives a telling insight into his reasoning.
"Guardiola earned his players' trust and affection not just because of his brilliant tactical planning and in-depth knowledge, nor because he helped them play better, more effective football," writes Perarnau. "No, they loved him for his loyalty. At times, Pep would make preposterous claims to the press, such as 'I'd love to have a thousand Dantes in my team'.
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"His intention was to give the Brazilian a boost at a particularly difficult time and his players were impressed. They appreciate their manager's willingness to risk criticism and ridicule to defend one of his men. But more than that, they understood that this was a man who would always support them through thick and thin. And that mattered. A lot."
The British media have already become accustomed to Guardiola making outlandish claims in support of individuals. The decision to describe Claudio Bravo's ragged debut against Manchester United as "one of the best performances I've ever seen" was obvious nonsense and he followed it up with further praise when Bravo hit his lowest ebb earlier this month.
After seeing Bravo ironically jeered by his own fans after making an all too rare save in the 5-1 FA Cup fifth-round replay win over Huddersfield, Guardiola responded with typically over-the-top praise. "The performance from Claudio was amazing," he said. "The people cannot imagine how good a goalkeeper he is. I am delighted with him."
How about the efforts of Sergio Aguero, Manchester City's top Premier League goalscorer and the man he had dropped from the starting line-up to accommodate teenager Gabriel Jesus in the weeks prior to that game? Guardiola called his display against Championship opposition "the best performance I have ever seen" by the player.
There is an important caveat to this. The words of praise did not stop Guardiola selling Dante to Wolfsburg and it has not meant a Premier League recall for Bravo in favour of long-time back-up option Willy Caballero. That underlines the fact that Guardiola is not a soft touch. Ultimately, his actions will prove more significant than his words.
But the comments do reflect the fact that he is absolutely determined to keep the group together in the aftermath of a challenging week - not only the first time that Guardiola himself has failed to reach the semi-final stage of the Champions League as a manager but also what could be perceived as a backward step for City too, given that they reached the final four last season.
His frequent references to team spirit are calculated. So while Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness suggests that Guardiola might row back on his remarks in the cold light of day, quite rightly pointing to those two Champions League wins as a coach, do not expect that to happen. Those triumphs are in the past. Guardiola needs these players now.
The game against Liverpool was always going to be a test of character given events in Monaco, particularly after their first-half no-show that suggested the players were not entirely clear what the plan was supposed to be. While the support for Guardiola from above is unwavering, it was still the sort of evening that could erode a little bit of belief.
This was the team's response and Guardiola's praise for his players will have been laced with relief. There were times when City looked tired in the second half against Liverpool, understandably so given that the Reds had enjoyed a free week to prepare while Guardiola was busy gambling and losing in Monte Carlo. They might well have been punished too.
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And yet, when things were going against them they found the reserves from somewhere. Kevin De Bruyne, in particular, shrugged off two sloppy passes to put in a devastating cross for Aguero's equaliser. Much-criticised defenders John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi battled away. City actually finished the match as the stronger of the two teams. They kept going.
One does not have to look far to see signs of sapped confidence elsewhere. City's next opponents Arsenal have lost four of their last five and delivered a rather less convincing response to their own Champions League travails in losing 3-1 at West Brom. The Gunners are looking suspiciously like a side gripped by uncertainty over what happens next.
Manchester City might have mustered only one point more than that, but Guardiola got to see a team still fighting for him and still listening to him. That's why he will be content with a home draw. That's why he will be confident there are better times ahead. And that's why he will keep risking ridicule if it means keeping this team together.