“From my point of view, and maybe the manager’s too, the best way to defend is to attack,” Yaya Toure says ahead of Manchester City’s game against Monaco on Wednesday. Pep Guardiola himself has said this season that he is not so concerned with clean sheets, as long as his team outscore the opposition.
If we get another thriller at the Stade Louis II this week, following on from the 5-3 blockbuster back in Manchester, that gung-ho approach may be seen as the reason, but the reality will be somewhat different.
City have gradually yet significantly improved since December, and in the last 10 games they have kept seven clean sheets. But due to the make-up of the team, particularly in defence, they are still susceptible to the odd blow-out now and again, and Monaco, as they demonstrated at the Etihad Stadium, are one of the few teams City will face over the remainder of the season who are capable of inflicting severe damage.
Guardiola slowly introduced his methods at the start of the season and City looked great as they won their first 10 games, but the Catalan’s attempts to ramp things up and introduce more complex systems after the October international break ultimately proved unsuccessful.
December began with two heavy defeats that ended City’s title challenge but started a sustained run of good performances which have put the Blues in contention for the FA Cup and the Champions League.
Guardiola has stumbled across a system which gets the best out the players at his disposal, but he would have wanted much more by now, and will want much more going into next season.
That is because he knows his team can still be exploited in a way that he very rarely experienced at Bayern Munich and Barcelona, and he will be wary that a team like Monaco can bring everything crashing down.
“One of Falcao's goals last time came from a cross,” Nicolas Otamendi said earlier this week, “so we have to focus on and correct those small mistakes.”
Generally, however, City have successfully eradicated these “small mistakes” in recent months. Replacing Claudio Bravo with Willy Caballero in goal has no doubt had a huge impact in that regard, but Guardiola’s tactical change - a reluctant compromise - has helped bring about individual improvements among his centre-backs.
As a result, City are not conceding the type of goals which so held them back in October and November, killer goals which undermined some of their best performances, such as against Everton and Chelsea.
It was the 4-2 humbling at Leicester that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Guardiola’s more adventurous plans were concerned, and a match which was a particular low point for John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov.
The individual weaknesses of the two were woefully exposed as Guardiola’s system broke down from the very first minute at the King Power Stadium, and the Catalan will have resolved to not allow it to happen again this season.
Guardiola, for all his public declarations of support and contentment, is profoundly aware of his side’s limitations and he regards it as a mistake on his part that he did not make more changes to his defence last summer.
It is for that reason that he has scaled back his tactical demands since Leicester, using a more traditional back four that better suits his players, who too often looked confused and bewildered.
Next season, however, Guardiola is sure to return to the type of football he was trying to play in the autumn, and the players will have to shape up or ship out.
“I didn’t pay more attention to John than the others,” Guardiola said recently when it was put to him that he has singled out Stones for heated instructions on several occasions, “but of course he's young and now he's playing at a high level. Dealing with long balls, avoiding more mistakes when he is alone. He's becoming a better player.”
Privately, Guardiola and his staff have been concerned about the Englishman’s mental fragility, about how he can suffer in the days following a poor performance, but those have been few and far between over the past three months - with the games against Monaco and Everton notable exceptions.
In the autumn, City would usually leave just Bravo and two defenders back when attacking, and too often they paid the price. Guardiola often says his players have to defend "big spaces" but so often, when it came to the individual battles, they were caught out in a way that Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba, among others, just were not.
Stones, helped by Guardiola's more protective system, has improved in that regard of late, and he is not the only one.
Kolarov has emerged as perhaps City’s most important defender in recent weeks. The Serbian started the season in fine form at centre-back but tailed off dramatically in the autumn and into the winter, but has enjoyed another resurgence which has convinced some of his staunchest doubters among the City support.
It is a long-running joke on the Etihad terraces that Kolarov has always managed to cling on to his starting position at City despite some underwhelming performances going back years, and this time last year few would have expected that he would be a regular starter under the new regime, let alone one of Guardiola’s favourites.
Yes, the Serb is a huge character in the City dressing room and Guardiola believes his strong personality is vital considering the rest of his players tend to be considerably quieter and more reserved. More respectful, even.
While Guardiola has revealed Fernandinho and David Silva get involved in tactical discussions like some of his best midfielders at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he sees Kolarov as a key component in the squad and has actually been heartened whenever he has attempted to give the defender a talking to, only for him to turn around and tell the Catalan to calm down.
“These two days before the game I think the manager is going to try to help out defensively because, and you guys know, his way is to attack, not to defend,” Toure says, “but when we attack we need to have that equilibrium to control those guys up front for Monaco.”
Guardiola decided early in his playing days that luck plays far less a role in the outcome of football matches than many would believe, and has tried to control even the smallest details ever since. From overhauling his players’ diets and meal times to determining where the players should position themselves while attacking in order to ward off counter-attacks, the Catalan tries to be one step ahead of every eventuality.
City have already seen what Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe and Radamel Falcao can do, particularly on the break, and Guardiola will have been working night and day to stop it happening again.
And that should help to explain why the City boss so regularly shuffles his defensive pack. There can be exasperation on social media when City’s line-up is announced an hour before kick-off, with Guardiola seemingly chopping and changing his centre-backs for the sake of it.
“We knew that Fernando Llorente is a striker but was going to mark Yaya Toure, so our central defenders would be free without the ball and we needed two guys with good build-up,” he said of his decision to switch Otamendi for Kolarov after the Argentine played well in a convincing victory at West Ham just a few days beforehand. “On the left side Kolarov is really good for the passes to the other side, the passes inside, and John Stones had the qualities to build out from the back as well.”
THE ODD ONE OUT
"I think all three are on rotation,” Guardiola said on Friday, perhaps forgetting that Vincent Kompany was also an option. “They are quite similar, plus Vincent when he's fit," he added, suddenly remembering the captain. "They are good in the air. Nico is a master in the one-against-ones and fighting duels, the other ones, they are a little bit better in the build-up. So it depends. I try to involve everybody."
Kompany, however, has not played since November and will find it hard to get back into the fold. Normally when asked about the Belgian, Guardiola would stress he “needs all the players” due to City’s busy schedule, which is more a reflection of his need for bodies than a glowing appraisal of Kompany's qualities. And while the defender picked up a knee injury towards the end of last year, which ruled him out until the New Year, Guardiola has confirmed he was fit for over a month before he got injured yet again before the FA Cup game at Huddersfield. Guardiola just didn’t pick him.
Goal has previously reported that City were open to the idea of selling Kompany around 12 months ago, though that stance became academic when he underwent a groin operation in May, which ruled him out for the start of Guardiola’s reign.
"I think he has all the qualities [for good build-up play], but, of course, he many times hasn't been involved,” Guardiola said last week, suggesting the Belgian’s constant injuries have prevented him from going through the same kind of turnaround as Kolarov. “Now we have two games every two or three days, we don't have a lot of time. We have to see how he plays, but he's so intelligent and I think he understands because he's always curious about the game and asks why we do that and not the other option. He will want to get it as soon as possible."
Time, however, is running out. City have improved drastically of late but there will be a summer overhaul of the defence regardless, with Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy all likely to leave, and potentially Otamendi as well.
It would be foolish to expect Kompany, who has rarely been available for selection for the last two seasons, to recover from his constant injury problems and become one of Guardiola’s trusted centre-backs over the next few seasons as he returns to the style of football he tried in October and November, but which proved too much for so many.
City may be looking good right now, but this is not how Guardiola ultimately wants to play. There is much more to come.