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If anything shows just how conflicted the opinion on Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is with fans and the British press, it is his selection in midfield over the past two games.
In the 3-1 Champions League defeat to Monaco, which saw City knocked out on away goals, the absence of Yaya Touré was said to have been a contributing factor. Against Liverpool on Sunday, a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium, his inclusion was supposedly the issue. On both occasions, the argument was the same: Guardiola was not providing enough protection for his defence against dynamic, intense and forward-thinking opponents, leaving his side exposed.
Touré has had to alter his game since coming back into the City team this season. Under Roberto Mancini, the Ivorian was afforded more freedom in an advanced midfield role, while Manuel Pellegrini played a double-pivot, deploying Fernandinho next to him.
During both spells, his work-rate was questioned. Guardiola, though, requires Touré play alone in midfield, behind an attacking foursome. Such an open formation requires a powerful presence, which the former Barcelona man has, but at times the risky system can backfire, with or without him.
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His contract is up at the end of the season, and a new deal is not yet in the pipeline. Guardiola’s tactics are what define him, and there are certain positions in his sides that decide whether they will be successful or not.
Throughout his career, the Catalan coach has always used a single-pivot. Sergio Busquets played that role at Barcelona, Xabi Alonso at Bayern Munich. In reality, City are still looking for their equivalent.
Injury to summer signing Ilkay Gündoğan has probably forced Guardiola into a rethink. The Germany international joined from Borussia Dortmund, appearing as the perfect man for the team, able to control the tempo of a game with his passing range, but also offer discipline in a positional sense. He will return eventually, but until then, City will continue to struggle defensively because of the physical and counter-attacking nature of the Premier League.
A style so defined needs time to develop, and with the building blocks already in place for Guardiola, the summer transfer window will be key to get to the next level. Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud has been linked with a switch to the Etihad Stadium in the Daily Mirror, and the 21-year-old certainly fits the bill as someone who can give balance to the team, but impact games in attacking sense, just as Guardiola demands from every one of his players on the pitch.
Linked with Liverpool in the past, Dahoud is ideal for the Premier League. Averaging four defensive actions per game in the Bundesliga this season, he holds his position fantastically, but he has also won almost half of his individual duels without receiving a single card.
City have lost five league games this season and a major criticism has been their inability to take on Guardiola’s ideas effectively. High pressure, close control and movement are imperative in his philosophy. While Touré offers other attributes, he can struggle when doubled up on, as he was against Liverpool at times, but more so in the 4-0 defeat at Everton in January.
Dahoud is a brilliant dribbler with great close control who can drive forward from deep. There are so many myths that surround Guardiola’s coaching career and style, the main one being his inability to adapt. Some claim he only wants players who can pass a team to death, like his Barcelona side did so often in his four-year spell.
But such an accusation could not be further from the truth, because Guardiola tweaks and improves on his basic philosophy, which centres on keeping the ball, and his teams are far more diverse than that. If they weren’t, he would not have won 21 trophies in under a decade.
This season, for example, City have kept an average of 58 per cent possession, compared to 63 per cent with Bayern in the Bundesliga last season. Keeping the ball and tiring the opposition out is not as effective a tactic in England, such is the physicality of the game, and Guardiola is slowly understanding this. But by playing Touré in a deep midfield role, City are often too slow in the build up, and Dahoud would offer a greater link between defence and attack, despite only having 79 per cent passing accuracy this season — ten percent lower than his prospective predecessor.
Throughout his career, José Mourinho has been Guardiola’s managerial nemesis. Now at Manchester United, the Portuguese shares a number of similarities with his neighbour, but one major difference is his personal preferences to have positional specialists throughout his team, where as Guardiola wants more rounded players he can develop.
His ability to improve players on the training pitch is also so often overlooked, despite his track record of evolving the games of world-class players. At his young age, Dahoud’s career would be like clay in the hands of arguably the world’s best sculptor, and he certainly has the ability to fill the role in question.
Pep Guardiola is still getting used to English football, just as English football is getting used to him. Using a single-pivot can be seen as suicidal, but that is his way and he is a manager who has always accepted mistakes as being part of the learning process. In Mahmoud Dahoud, though, the City boss would get the perfect man to play that role for many years to come.