News Live Scores
Manchester City

Foul or nothing! Pep's 'professional' approach to killing counterattacks is part of Man City's weaponry

16:09 GMT+4 16/08/2019
Pep Guardiola Manchester City
The Catalan has repeatedly reject claims that his players are guilty of committing tactical fouls but the statistics do not support his defence

Toronto FC played out a 1-1 draw with Orlando City in MLS on Saturday night. Afterwards, the TFC coach Greg Vanney was questioned on whether his players could have done anything differently in order to prevent the goal they gave up.

“Foul more,” the former US international said, according to the Toronto Sun. “I think we need to use fouls as a tool to end these dangerous situations more.

“[That] doesn’t mean being nasty, doesn’t mean taking yellow cards all the time. It means slowing the game down, stopping the game, getting numbers behind the ball.”

He went on, explaining the value in snuffing out counterattacks by illegal means.

“If you take a good defending position at the start of the play and you’re between the man and the goal and the ball and the goal and you foul a player, a lot of times you probably won’t get a card," he reasoned.

“But if you get on the wrong side of the play and then you have to foul from the back side, then you might get a card.

“If the alternative is getting a card, or letting a guy go in on a breakaway or a start a counter, then take the card, especially if you’re not on one.

“We have to be more professional. And sometimes committing a foul is being professional. That’s a resource in the game.”

The West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini had just watched helplessly as his team ran up the white flag at home against Manchester City, losing 5-0 on the opening day of the Premier League season.

“Every time we tried to arrive in their box, they committed fouls,” he claimed. “We were innocent in that regard.”

There are few doubts that West Ham would have lost the game no matter what, but it was interesting that Pellegrini alighted on so-called 'tactical fouls' as one of the reasons to explain why his team could not get a foothold in the game.

For Manchester City, either they possess a convenient clumsiness – the theory actually espoused by manager Pep Guardiola – or else the players are smarter than Vanney’s and actually snuff out counters before the begin.

“If you review the game, that is why we didn’t create too many chances in the first half,” Pellegrini argued.

“All our offensive moments of attacking ended in a foul. You can look at the statistics. They committed 13 fouls, we committed six. But that wasn’t the reason why we lost.”

For Pep Guardiola, a key tactic in his overall strategy is to make sure his team cannot be countered.

City routinely have six outfield players ahead of the ball during games. It means that if possession breaks down, there is a good chance that opposition teams can fill the City half before City themselves have a chance to recover and settle back in.

“David, Kevin, Gundo, make fouls. If there is a transition, make a foul.”

That line delivered by Guardiola’s assistant Mikel Arteta in the Amazon documentary series 'All or Nothing' gets to the heart of how City avoid counters. It’s spelt out in black and white. If there is a transition, make a foul.

Guardiola is sensitive to anyone pointing out this element in his team’s game plan, despite it being a consistent feature of his teams' play.

Fernandinho has been the fulcrum of the City midfield and led the foul count last season with 40, alongside Raheem Sterling. And new signing Rodri has filled in well; during his first Premier League game, he committed three fouls and managed to keep the West Ham attackers from the City box.

“We try to play and, of course, sometimes there are counterattacks and [we] make a foul. Sometimes, the action is a contact,” Guardiola said last December when the issue cropped up.

“We don’t think about it. Never in my teams are we focused on to make something wrong for the opponents.

“We are a team who always tries to attack, to defend well, to try to play our game, but [I've never] thought you have to do that (foul) to avoid what they (the opposition) do.

“Never happened in my career and never will happen in my career.”

It’s a pretty robust denial, and one he’s been consistent with throughout his time as manager. The problem for Pep is the evidence doesn’t bear it out.

Let’s take the West Ham game for the first example. West Ham played 231 passes in the first half, during which City made eight fouls. City played 290 passes in the same time frame and West Ham made only one.

Last season in the Premier League, City made the second-lowest number of fouls behind only Liverpool. City committed 328 fouls for a 38-game average of 8.63 fouls per game. The team with the most fouls was actually Brighton, who had 463 overall.

However, no team had the ball more than City. They averaged 68.13 per cent possession throughout the total course of the season. And it’s once you start delving into fouls committed per minute out of possession that you see that City really are the masters of disrupting rhythm and quashing threats before they materialise.

Games last 90 minutes but, on average in the Premier League, the ball is in play for only 55 of those. Brighton – over the course of the season – averaged only 41.39% possession. The 59% of the time they were out of possession accounts for around 32.45 minutes, if counting the 55-minute average playing time.

That means Brighton’s average of 12.18 fouls per game accounts for around one foul every 2.5 minutes out of possession.

City, on the other hand, were out of possession for 32% of the total game time they played. Using the 55-minute average of ball-in-play, City could be said to have been out of possession around 17.6 minutes per game. Their average foul count of 8.63 means they come in 'dirtier' than Brighton, with one foul every two minutes spent out of possession (2.05).

So, there really isn’t any doubt that City foul a lot. Allowing for all the time they spend with the ball, when you cannot foul the opposition, their foul count is high.

Guardiola does not like it being pointed out and will, of course, continue to deny it. It’s as if there is a shame attached to it. But he’s got nothing to worry about.

Fouls are part of the game. Some are blatant, some are subtle. Some are avoidable, some are necessary. If nudging or tripping opponents means Guardiola’s teams can get on with winning matches in the style he likes, then it should be acknowledged as part of their weaponry.

After all, coaches like Vanney would kill for players as clumsy as Pep’s.