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Pep Guardiola and penalties: Blind spot for the details obsessive?
Pep Guardiola's teams have long had issues with penalties so could this be his blind spot? It is possible given his mentor Johan Cruyff believed practising them was pointless, writes Adam Bate
Last Updated: 26/02/20 3:12pm
Manchester City’s season now rests on the cup competitions and that means the margin for error is small. So the sight of Sergio Aguero crashing his penalty against the legs of Kasper Schmeichel should be a concern. That goalkeeper Ederson is now seen as a viable solution is a source of amusement but also indicative of City’s problems from the penalty spot.
They have missed four penalties in a row now. Raheem Sterling even took his twice against Wolves but saw both of them saved before finally scoring from the rebound. Gabriel Jesus had one kept out against Sheffield United. Ilkay Gundogan blew his chance at Tottenham.
Clarity is needed but appears to be lacking. After Gundogan's attempt was saved by Hugo Lloris, Pep Guardiola suggested it was the players who decided the kicker. But he himself had claimed he would be the one to reflect on the situation following Jesus' earlier miss. The Brazil forward insisted it was the manager who put the list on the board.
Responding to this latest disappointment from the spot, Guardiola was in philosophical mood. "Maybe we will shoot a penalty when we need it to win something," he said.
It seems curious Guardiola would be so passive about an element of the game that is so important. After all, he is not oblivious to the fact penalties can be the detail that separates success and failure - particularly when the stakes are at their highest.
"In the knockout stages, it's so important because these kind of details make the difference most of the time," he said on the eve of the Champions League game against Real Madrid.
How could he not be aware of that? Penalties have cost him dearly in the competition over the years. Just last season, Aguero's inability to convert in the first leg of the quarter-final against Tottenham robbed City of a precious away goal. It proved to be the difference.
In 2012, Lionel Messi struck the bar with his spot-kick in a Champions League semi-final for Guardiola's Barcelona against Chelsea. In doing so, he squandered the opportunity to put Barcelona ahead against 10 men in the second half of the second leg at the Camp Nou.
In Guardiola's final season at Bayern Munich, it was Thomas Muller who missed the chance to put his team ahead in the second leg of their semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Once again, Guardiola's team were beaten. Once again, Champions League glory was denied.
"When you play like this you have to be very proud," he said. "I don't have any regrets."
Obsession with detail
But why is it that the ultimate details man appears reluctant to devote himself to this particular detail of the game?
This is someone who once locked himself away with a dossier to work out how to beat Cologne. The man who missed his daughter's concert because he lost track of time while studying videos of Getafe.
Guardiola has a plan for the first corner of the game. A plan for the first wide free-kick of the game. He sees football as chess - even discussing the subject with Garry Kasparov. There is a counter-move for every move by the opponent. Three team-talks for every game.
He has worked extensively with Raheem Sterling on his body shape. He noticed when Rafinha needed to adjust his starting position by just two metres. He has even been known to straighten the dictaphones in front of him before a press conference begins.
"He is absolutely obsessed with detail and doesn't let faith decide over anything," said German coach Kenan Kocak after a study visit to the Manchester City training ground.
With the possible exception of one detail. Are penalties his blind spot?
Perhaps it is here that faith does dictate.
Guardiola's faith in the church of Johan Cruyff.
Influence of Cruyff
Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards and a penalty consultant, sees signs the Manchester City coach's view of penalties has been shaped by Cruyff.
"Anyone who works in football is a product of their environment, especially in their formative years, and Pep Guardiola has made no secret of the influence Johan Cruyff has had on his philosophy," Lyttleton tells Sky Sports.
"The worry for Manchester City fans is that this seems to extend to his attitude to penalties. Cruyff famously believed they were not a trainable skill, which in turn led to decades of penalty trauma for the Holland national team."
Cruyff is seen by some as a penalty expert for one reason and one reason alone. He is the scorer of one of football's most famous 'penalties' - the moment in 1982 when he squared the ball to Ajax team-mate Jesper Olsen before stroking home the return pass.
This was Cruyff's take on the penalty, subverting the genre long before Thierry Henry and Robert Pires' woeful pastiche ruined the idea for a generation.
But he was far from a penalty expert. This was the only one he ever took for Ajax. It would be more accurate to say that Cruyff had contempt for the penalty.
Theories as to why Cruyff felt this way vary. Some say he simply was not very good at them and this dictated his reasoning. For all his talents, he did not have the most powerful of shots. Others say the penalty was too reductive for a man of his talents.
This plays into the mythology that surrounds Cruyff. Why would a man whose game was all about angles find beauty in something as rudimentary as this? A stationary ball sat on the spot. Waiting for the referee's whistle.
His words on the subject have fuelled the notion he regarded the whole enterprise as beneath him.
"Honestly, you can't prepare, taking penalties in training is useless," he once said. "The penalty is a unique skill outside of football."
As with so many utterances of the game's footballer-philosopher, his word is gospel and has had a profound impact on Dutch thinking about penalties.
Naturally, peers such as Wim van Hanegem have argued this same point vociferously. More recently, Bert van Marwijk did not believe in practising penalties even though his Netherlands side were minutes away from contesting a shootout for the World Cup itself in 2010.
The national team's record in shootouts is miserable. The Dutch departed three consecutive European Championships in this fashion. Each time, they bemoaned their luck. No wonder there are those who have challenged the Cruyff orthodoxy on the subject.
Netherlands’ penalty shootout record
1992 European Championship vs Denmark – LOST
1996 European Championship vs France – LOST
1998 World Cup vs Brazil – LOST
2000 European Championship vs Italy – LOST
2004 European Championship vs Sweden – WON
2014 World Cup vs Costa Rica – WON
2014 World Cup vs Argentina - LOST
"Maybe it is time to switch off when Cruyff talks about penalties," suggested Auke Kok. He was not only Cruyff's biographer but was writing those words in the Dutch magazine Johan at the time.
"Not because it's terrible that he rarely took them," he added, "but because, even if the truth bears little resemblance to what he says, everyone blindly accepts it."
The scale of Cruyff's influence can be shown by the fact when Gyuri Vergouw wrote a book called De Strafschop - The Penalty - detailing his country's problems with penalties, he was derided by many Dutch players even while a section of the public lauded his insight.
Vergouw compared himself to Galileo - the astronomer who was persecuted for telling the world that the earth revolves around the sun.
Setting yourself in opposition to Cruyff comes at a cost.
Change of approach?
Guardiola, of course, remains a disciple. "He has had the biggest influence on football out of anyone in the world," he once said of his old coach at Barcelona, the man with whom he would reunite each year for a supper at the famed El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia.
But he is no Judas Iscariot if his opinion deviates from his mentor on this matter. For the details man, this is a detail that matters. It is out of character to see it any other way.
"The coaches and clubs who choose to work with a penalty consultant are those who believe that penalties are a trainable skill that can be improved," says Lyttleton. "I happen to believe that but I understand and respect that not everyone has the same opinion.
"The concern for Manchester City is that Guardiola has been burned by big penalty misses in previous Champions League knockout ties. The stakes are now so high at this stage of the Champions League, Manchester City fans must be praying that there is a strategy in place should any of their Champions League ties go to a penalty shootout."
Guardiola need not leave this to prayers.
But if he does not act to address it now then he surely never will.