John, The Cornerstone – CDZ 022

Arguably the finest manager player partnership to grace English football is Brian Clough and John McGovern. Clough knew the key to success, which culminated in his Nottingham Forest side becoming the first British club to retain the European Cup, wasn’t just a character such as Peter Taylor in the dugout balancing his eccentricities, but a character on the pitch to balance the teams approach.

Clough and McGovern first worked together at Hartlepools, during the former Sunderland forwards first venture in to management at the novice age of 30. McGovern himself was only 16. Hartlepools were a lowly fourth tier side at the time, but Clough transformed them from bottom feeders to promotion hopefuls.

He knew full well if he could pair his managerial approach with a talented squad, it would be the perfect recipe for success. After leading Hartlepools to a respectable eighth place finish Clough took the reigns at Derby County and recruited McGovern to join his team, and worked with him again at Leeds (during a damned 43 day spell at Elland Road) and finally at Nottingham Forest.

John McGovern played for Brian Clough three times in his career
John McGovern played for Brian Clough three times in his career

Undeniably, football has changed drastically since Clough’s era; players adhere to stricter diets, their training is more conditioned, medicine and physiotherapy has advanced significantly, pitches are maintained to better standards and as we investigated in Corazon De Zaba 021 the array of technology and data analysis in the game today was unimaginable back in the seventies. Nonetheless, managers such as Clough, Bill Shankly, Malcolm Allison and Matt Busby all wanted to play football in an attacking and entertaining way.

Did they have their differences? Of course. But look at todays Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Can it be said they all attack first, every single game? Absolutely not. Even though football has advanced, they all play on a level playing field, so to speak. The difference is their coaches.

Whilst it may not be appropriate to compare Clough and Pep Guardiola, there is a common thread in this new look City team and some of Clough’s sides – the recruitment of a ball playing centre half. In addition Guardiola has invested in the goalkeeping, midfield and attacking departments, but the change in style has pivoted on the addition of John Stones. Where Clough signed an unfashionable McGovern, tried him and tested him in the lower leagues before utilising him as part of a title winning side, Guardiola has signed a rough diamond having never worked with him before but plans to use the Barnsley academy graduate as a cornerstone of his success.

Although the pressing nature of City’s full backs is considered Guardiola’s revelation for the Premier League, this too hinges on Stones’ development. No question, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager could rely on the proof within, he did inherit a strong squad, and could be forgiven for continuing building on Manuel Pellegrini’s legacy, as Gus Hiddink will his in Bavaria. But no, no more papering over the cracks of failed signings at the back (Manuel Pellegrini expenditure on defenders was hardly pocket money, used to enhance Roberto Mancini’s back four which included failed experiments such as Stefan Savic and Mataja Nastasic, as well as Jerome Boateng’s import and export from and to the Bundesliga).

Alternatively, Guardiola has shipped out Eliaquim Mangala and transformed Aleks Kolorov to a finessed centre half. Arguably, there is no room for Vincent Kompany, considered one of the weaker passers in City’s defensive unit.

Stones isn’t the missing piece of the puzzle; Guardiola simply isn’t building that team anymore. This is the Catalan’s piece de resistance. Bayern Munich continued to dominate German football under Guardiola’s tutelage, and Guardiola evolved Boating in to one of the finest defenders in Europe whilst hinging the team on dual liberos Xavi Alonso and Javi Martinez. This of course followed the successful transition of Barca’s second team in to treble winners, completed in the totalitarian football style of Pep’s mentor Johan Cruyff.

Pep Guardiola first job in management was the Barca B team
Pep Guardiola first job in management was the Barca B team

In neither of those sides did Guardiola sign a player and build a team and style around them in the way he is doing with Stones. At Barca he restored Gerard Pique to the side following a spell at Manchester United, a player who originated from Camp Nou, like most of the academy players he brought through, he’d worked with them and could trust them.

Munich were treble winners, made up of Frank Ribbery, Arjen Robben, Philip Lahm, Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer. Players added came mainly from Europe’s top clubs; Alonso, Martinez and Kinglsey Coman.

Signing a player to compliment a side, or to enhance it is nothing new, but purchasing a player who couldn’t get near England’s failed Euro 2016 side, to become the second most expensive defender in football history, aged 23, having experienced just one season in European football, in order to build a team around that plans to scale Europe around him, hasn’t been done before.

The transfer throws up two major questions; does Guardiola have the coaching ability to get what the team needs from Stones? Most pressing of all; is Stones good enough? Whilst we have evidence to answer our first question, time will tell on Stones’ capabilities. His early displays in City blue leave plenty to get excited about, but tests greater in scale than the Manchester derby will follow.

Does a price tag of £47m mean instant delivery? Arguably it should, but that’s simply because of the pressure fans and journalists will place on players and teams for immediate success, just ask Raheem Sterling. Perhaps immediate success isn’t necessary. Pep’s project won’t be rushed and whilst he imprints his philosophy on the players the development of John Stones, and the other youngsters in the squad is exciting to watch.

City look more of a team than they have since winning the championship in 2012; the front line presses harder to spare the defence as much as it can from the pressure of the opposition. There have several changes per match and each player is taking their opportunities when they arise and there has been minimal dummy spitting. When defiance is evident, it’s cut out from the atmosphere of the dressing room environment, as demonstrated in the case of Yaya Toure’s exile.

Back in Corazon De Zaba 12 we looked at an urgent need to refresh a successful squad that needed fresh competition. The management, club and fans were too sentimental and City lost momentum. Whilst there has been a much needed clear out, is it a bridge too far?

Currently, Guardiola’s stock is high with the club and the fans; in his short tenure Toure appears out in the cold for no other reason that his agent’s verbal diarrhoea. Guardiola has been outspoken about Dimitri Seluk’s actions and if he believes Toure is pulling the strings behind his agent then his openness in press conferences on the matter should reflect that view. Otherwise, why is the two time Premier League winner Toure being punished for his agents handy work?

Whilst Manchester City is part of Pablo Zabaleta’s DNA, the Argentine is now part of the club fabric. It is accepted the full back has lost pace with his decision making having deteriorated also, he looked set to make way, but the Joe Hart situation is another kettle of fish. Hart’s loan to Torino temporarily divided opinion amongst City fans; some believed Hart should have known what would be required to play in a Guardiola side, some believe he had assurances and there was no need to change his game.

Joe Hart says an emotional goodbye to the Etihad
Joe Hart says an emotional goodbye to the Etihad

Fundamentally, the goalkeepers first and most important attributes are what he does with his hands, but it is understandable to see how Claudio Bravo fits better with the new look team. Where fans were temporarily divided, they no longer are. Fans are ver submissive to the Pep way of working. At Bayern, Guardiola had to prove himself Bavarian, there was no song, no chant, not even after three consecutive Bundesliga winning years.

Three games in and there is one song coming off the terraces. Yes, City fans are glad all over Pep is at the helm, the CV speaks for itself, but surely he has come to Manchester to add to it, not dine out on it and prove himself as at least half as Mancunian as Zabaleta for example. Appreciation and warm welcomes aside, the garden is extremely rosey through blue tinted glasses right now. The manager is changing a lot, and is doing so quickly; the personnel, the man management approach, the tactics. Granted, it looks extremely promising, but there are no guarantees in football and what of Pep if and when he accomplishes his goals? Where do City go from there?

It’s great to see the fans enjoying the right here right now, and after the start to the season City should challenge more than they managed last year, but it’s no guarantee of success. Whilst Guardiola’s philosophy can’t be rivalled across the game, we enjoy a rich history and don’t want the stands diluted with a new wave of good time supporters, it is important to think about the fabric of the club and it ensure it is not compromised, the role it plays within the community and home life among City supporting families.

 

Roberts and Sinclair are expected to face old friends during City's trip to Celtic
Roberts and Sinclair are expected to face old friends during City’s trip to Celtic

After countless years of near impossible Champions League draws and groups of death followed by the annual trip to Catalunya, it was forgivable to do the top button back up after feeling slightly hot under the collar ahead of the draw back in August. City haven’t got off that easily though; and will still face Barcelona in the group stage, but maximum points could be on offer from the other four games, if City can build on a convincing win over Borrusia Monchengladbach on a not so stormy night in Manchester last week.

Interestingly, City find themselves in a group where politics have often crossed the white line in to football. Barcelona could be considered the ultimate symbol of Catalan independence, but the Celtic faithful continue to draw attention on the terraces also. Last month they faced UEFA fines and sanctions after The Green Brigade, a non-sectarian, non-religious fan group, flew Palestinian flags at Celtic Park as part of a crowd funding exercise to raise money for two well renowned relief organisations who operate in Palestine.

Celtic and their famous foes Rangers are often thought of as the focal point of violence and sectarianism amongst football fans north of the border, but that simply isn’t the case with various other Scottish football clubs’ fans often caught up in the troubles.

It’s the Old Firm that attracts most of the headlines, but interestingly it made up only 6% of football related arrests in the 2014-15 season.

arrests-per-fixture

Such trouble at football in Scotland lead to the the introduction of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act’ back in 2012, which is where that 6% figure comes from. Opinion towards the act remains completely polarised four years on, with groups of football supporters hoping for its repeal. 89% of fans, according to the Scottish Government believe sectarianism has no place on the terraces but a small minority hinder chances of overturning the act.

For the majority who want to see the act abolished, shouldn’t the problem of sectarianism be tackled in schools and communities rather than at football stadia? As a result, the initiative depicts the football fan not just beneath fans of any other sport in Scotland, but leaves it more socially acceptable to conduct business with criminals and gang members than it would be to deal with a prominent football fan. Whilst the governments own polls suggest the majority of football fans in Glasgow disagree with sectarianism, there’s no opinion sought on if the stadia are the right place to tackle the problem. Arguably the government are asking the football going public the wrong questions.

Whilst figures show a decline in charges, there is no data to suggest arrests are dropping, perhaps football fans are being persecuted based on their social standing and a generation of fans before them. The data is charges-scotlandquestionable; are the same or more arrests being made, but on an unfound basis? Charges are reducing, but if arrests aren’t, they are still being made spuriously. Moreover, what is the trend here? Across the three seasons the main categories have declined, but with a spike during the 2013-14 season, there is no obvious pattern.

City are no stranger to trouble at the football either, although arrests, with City cited as third worst in the country according to Metropolitan Police figures, are rarely related to religion or politics. Recalling memories of Rangers trip to Manchester for the Europa League final in 2008, the havoc wreaked on the city shows how accessible the two cities are to each other. City’s travelling party will be less than 10% of the swath of Glaswegians  that descended on Manchester a few years back on a night that was barely rivalled during the riots in 2011, but with a four hour bus or train ride and easy access to alcohol, it could be a cocktail for disaster.

The game will be the first time the two teams have met competitively, and after City secured three points against Gladbach, City have to be the favourites, even if Celtic did suffer a 7-0 shellacking to Barcelona the evening before. City have made a perfect start to the Premier League campaign and momentum should bolster chances north of the border at the end of the month.

The trip should offer an opportunity for travelling fans to see a city undergoing a rebirth. Glasgow, although still home to the top five most deprived areas in Scotland, is rejuvenating itself in the form of its arts and hospitality scene. Independent theatre and cinema is now thriving, where there are over 20 museums including the Scottish Football Museum and the whiskey and craft beer offering is matched by a vast array of high quality eateries.

Celtic Park, affectionally known as Paradise
Celtic Park, affectionally known as Paradise

Fans heading to Scotland can enjoy more than just the game if they wish; just north of the City (around a 30 minute drive) is the historic Glengoyne Whiskey Distillery, one of the most environmentally friendly in Scotland. Fans of the local tipple can enjoy a taste of finest Scottish whiskey in breathtaking scenery.

The London Road Arms has announced it will be open to City fans on the day of the game also. The drinking hole is a stones through from Paradise, and is a regular spot for Celtic fans, despite being reserved for City supporters on the night of the game. Whilst it is worth popping your head around the door of a venue that is a traditional part of a Parkhead match day, check out West Beer. The pub brews it own array of beers and is within half an hour walk of the ground. Park somewhere in between the two and double back towards town for the West. When the game finishes it will make for a better getaway.

For the non-foodies and drinkers; take in the Scottish Football Museum, housed at Hampden Park. Not only does it paint a vivid picture of the Scottish footballing landscape, including countless meetings with their old enemy south of the border, fans can wander the hall of fame which includes non other than ex City and Celtic forward Bobby Johnstone, scorer of the winning goal in Bert Trautman’s FA Cup final back in 1956.

Johnstone played for both City and Celtic
Johnstone played for both City and Celtic

The long drive home and some tantalising football should prove enough to whet the appetite. If the Englishman in you can’t wait to get South of the border then stop by Westmoreland services on the M6. The service station is the only independently owned outfit on the UK motorway network and you are guaranteed a pie that more than rivals the chicken balti. The majority of ingredients are farm grown, at site.

Notably Johnstone isn’t the only link between the two clubs; Scott Sinclair now plies his trade for the Bhoys and will hope to give City a taste of what they arguably never had during the winger’s time at the Etihad. Sinclair has made an impressive start to life in the SPL (scoring five goals in his first five SPL outings), and could take up one flank with Patrick Roberts, who City signed from Fulham last year, currently on loan at Celtic, take up the other.

Roberts has undeniable talent, much to the dismay of this team mates; teammate Kristoffer Ajer has outed the City loanee as the most lackadaisical trainer in Brendan Rodgers squad, but conceded his skills and natural ability more than make up for his lack of efforts. Roberts is expected to feature in the game dubbed the “battle of Britain” but it will take more than a exciting, solid performance to convince Pep Guardiola he has the attributes to warrant a recall back to the Etihad.

Celtic shouldn’t trouble City too much when the sides come head to head on Champions League match day two, and that judgment is passed with no disrespect to the Scottish Champions; simply a lack of meaningful competition for the Hoops impedes their threat when they step on to the European stage.

The fixture should be an opportunity for Guardiola to school his players further in the art of Champions League football, an arena he admitted City were still found wanting in despite a convincing display in the Manchester derby earlier in the month.

Claudio Bravo should feel more at home in the goal, his ability to play outside of the box will help City press high and Aleks Kolorov’s evolution to a centre half has provided much needed discipline to a player who had a tendency to seek the long ball option too often. Guardiola is proving the intelligence the squad possess with virtually every player he has deployed during his tenure, with them offering at least satisfactory performances. With that in mind the manager leaves fans, journalists and pundits all guessing as to how the team will shape up for each game.

For the trip to Glasgow, Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne will most likely make up the midfield trio, leaving David Silva additional time to recover ahead of the Barcelona double header. Sergio Aguero should be fresh from his suspension, although Kelechi Iheancho is posing competition to City’s main front man.

City fans will hope John Stones returns to the side. Stones, along with Gundogan, provides a new look spine to the team with which City can transition the ball forward most effectively. Ultimately the true tests of the group will be the Barca games, but as we’ve learnt so far, Guardiola wants City to keep their foot on the oppositions throat to the death, and he won’t accept anything less be it Celtic or Barcelona.

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