Premier League roundtable: Pep Guardiola is on the ropes


This weekend in the Premier League, Chelsea beat Leicester comfortably despite some off-field drama while Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side were handed their worst loss of the season against Everton. In our weekly roundtable, FanSided’s soccer staff share their reactions. 

Chelsea keep winning despite distractions

Peter Johnstone, @9PniJ2

The prospect of the Premier League’s past two champions squaring off on Saturday evening was an exciting one. The game, however, was not. Leicester entertained Chelsea at the King Power Stadium in a game that was far from entertaining. In a match where the result almost seemed a formality, a couple of talking points emerged. The most important one is that Antonio Conte will get the job done, no matter what it takes.

In the build up to the game on Saturday, all the attention was on Chelsea’s star striker, Diego Costa, who was dropped from Conte’s squad after speculation in the English press he’d been unsettled after receiving a big-money offer from China. Many thought this would force Chelsea and their manager’s hand and possibly make life difficult for the Blues. The 3-0 victory for the London club suggests it only gave Conte an opportunity to better understand his team.

It also showed that he won’t be strong-armed by any player in his team — even his talismanic 14-goal striker. Conte’s celebrations for each goal showed his passion lies with his team and not any individuals. His post-match interview reiterated this, as he congratulated his side for their performance and Marcos Alonso for his goals, while almost paying no heed to the unexplained subject of Costa.

After a poor season last year, Chelsea are back on top and it’s all thanks to Conte’s managerial brilliance. He took over a disjointed team, and has taken them out to a seven-point lead at the top of the table.

On Saturday, it was almost as if the roles of the two clubs had been reversed from a year previous. Chelsea looked a team; Leicester looked like a collection of overpaid, disinterested individuals. It’s almost like Conte has been managing in England his whole life. That he’s been there only five months makes his achievements all the more impressive.

Further testament to his managerial prowess is the way he has transformed some of the Chelsea players. Last year, Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard, Costa and others looked like shadows of the players who had stormed to the league title under Jose Mourinho in 2014-15. At the start of the season, nobody would have thought Pedro and Victor Moses would become two of Chelsea’s most important players. Now indispensable to the team.

Finally, Conte has managed to do all of this while maintaining, for the most part, a happy squad. Under Mourinho, Chelsea were a tough side who knew how to win games, but it always felt like it was about the Special One rather than the players. Under Conte, the reverse is true.

Chelsea’s third goal emphasized this, with Pedro pulling off a ridiculous flick inside the box before finishing off the move with a delicate header. That goal was created and scored by a team of players who, right now, look happy. That may not sound hugely significant, but given the ride this squad has been on over the past couple seasons, and the extra, unneeded obstacle with which they were confronted heading into the weekend, it could be enough at this point to carry them all the way to the title.

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Guardiola reaches new low in Everton defeat

James Dudko, @JamesDudko

Everton 4, Manchester City 0. It’s a scoreline that makes for depressing reading for City manager Pep Guardiola, and not just because it marked a fifth defeat of this Premier League season. Not because it was yet another defensive horror show in a campaign so far full of them.

No, Guardiola’s malaise should come from the knowledge he’s to blame for City’s current struggles. And it has nothing to do with style and philosophy.

Guardiola’s problem at City is not a failure of tactics. Instead, it’s a failure of spending, albeit not for lack of trying. City spent big when Guardiola officially took over this summer, but none of his big-money imports have improved the ageing squad with obvious flaws he inherited from predecessor Manuel Pellegrini.

In fact, the disappointing return on City’s summer of heavy investment should be read as a cautionary tale for every big club trying to buy success. In the modern game, that means all of them.

How could Guardiola think it was a good idea to spend £47 million on former Everton center-back John Stones? It might have been justified had City made it after the 2013-14 campaign, a season when Stones showed immense promise for the Toffees.

But surely two seasons of alarming regression not only knocked some of the luster off Stones’ reputation, but also shaved some pounds off his price tag? Clearly not for City, who shouldn’t be in the least surprised Stones has failed to improve a defense missing ultra-brittle skipper Vincent Kompany.

Guardiola knew Kompany rarely stays off the treatment table for long, while Nicolas Otamendi has flopped since arriving from Valencia in 2015. Smarter spending would have netted the Citizens two reliable center-backs they still need.

City’s money hasn’t been well spent in other positions. Not when Guardiola shelled out around £20 million to bring Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund. Despite his obvious talent, there were two problems with the Gundogan deal.

The first concerned his lengthy injury history. Gundogan once missed 13 months with a back problem while at Dortmund, and he arrived at City still needing to get over a dislocated kneecap.

Is anyone surprised City’s designated deep-lying playmaker is out for the season while he nurses another knee injury? Considering how well City know the cost of persistent injuries at key positions from their experiences with Kompany, Gundogan was always too big a risk.

Then there was City not being in dire need of another midfielder who is comfortable in possession. Not when Fernandinho boasts quality on the ball. Not when Yaya Toure still has an eye for goal. Not when David Silva remains a wizard conjuring chances.

City’s money would surely have been better spent adding more established match-winners in the final third to ease the burden on striker Sergio Aguero. Of course, Guardiola did invest in a forward, to the tune of £37 million, on Schalke 04’s 20-year-old Leroy Sane.

To be clear, Sane is a player of immense promise. He’s blessed with terrific pace and impressive close control. But was it a good idea to spend £30-plus million on a young player still developing, one who has barely featured in the City starting XI? Sane has made a mere seven starts in all competitions. Hardly getting your money’s worth there, Pep.

In other words, Sane hasn’t improved City’s squad, something he has in common with most of Guardiola’s signings.

The result has been a manager still adapting to the pace and rigours of England’s top flight, but with an ageing group of players past their best. Consider the familiar bunch turned over so easily by Everton.

Guardiola miscast 33-year-old Toure as a defensive midfielder, while 31-year-old full-back Pablo Zabaleta tried to be the Gundogan-style conductor. At the back, 31-year-old Gael Clichy continued at left back.

What do Toure, Clichy and Zabaleta have in common? They all played in City’s title-winning squad during the 2011-12 season. So did a forlorn Aguero and swarmed-on Silva, neither of whom could torment Everton. Maybe that’s because teams have read the City script before. Many, many times.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Guardiola, with his inverted full-backs, sweeper ‘keeper and relentless pressing, is trying to defy conventional wisdom. It won’t work, though, not without more new players. Specifically, the right new players.

Given City’s recent track record when the manager opens the chequebook, just don’t count on Guardiola buying those players.