Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
This Vince Lombardi quote is recycled as often as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team recycle the ball when in possession.
It nevertheless feels apt as the Premier League’s defending champion looks to return to the top of the table following a potentially demoralising 3-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool earlier in November.
City being bad losers could help raise morale, instil determination, and make them more eager to retain their title.
Guardiola has had a full international break to stew over what happened at Anfield. He was incensed on the touchline as he felt a number of decisions went against his side, as he suffered more frustration at the hands of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The Merseyside club has presented Guardiola with his biggest challenge since he arrived on English shores just eight months after Klopp, and he has only won three of the ten meetings between the two, with the German having won five.
Guardiola’s touchline antics don’t hide his inner feelings, especially as he looked to the heavens in search of a penalty the second time the ball struck Trent Alexander-Arnold’s arm in the area. Like Klopp, he immerses himself in the game and has no time to consider how his reactions might be portrayed, and, like Klopp, he probably doesn’t care, either.
On the sideline, Guardiola looked like a sore loser, and an apparent sarcastic congratulating of the match officials after the game—something he denies—only made it look worse.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just as Raheem Sterling still being riled by the defeat days after, taking his anger out on Liverpool’s Joe Gomez, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It shows they care, are ready for a fight, and once their emotions have settled, they will work to put things right.
In almost all of his recent press conferences, Guardiola has discussed the need for his team to be aggressive, whether it be praising them for not taking their foot off the gas in an 8-0 defeat of Watford, or criticizing them for not being determined enough during periods in other games.
Following the win against Aston Villa in the EFL Cup in October, Guardiola singled out Sterling as his side’s best player during a lacklustre first-half.
“Raheem was so aggressive but he was the only one,” he said.
“We need more players [to play like that], more determination.”
He will hope all of his players were hurting during the international break, and are ready to match Sterling’s aggression going into the busy winter period.
Many coaches will speak about bravery in a similar manner, and it’s not about a player putting their body on the line, or sticking their head or foot where it hurts, it’s about bravery in possession. A willingness and desire to take the ball in difficult situations, and then do something with it.
Combine this with Guardiola’s aggression, and you have a group of players that not only look to receive the ball in heavy traffic, but also try to do something special once they have it.
Despite their hard-earned and deserved image as slick proponents of the beautiful game, Guardiola’s teams do have another side to them. This will be just as important as they attempt to lift themselves above Chelsea, whom they face this weekend, Leicester City, and finally, Liverpool.
This aggression can manifest itself in Guardiola’s ‘five-second rule’ which has existed since his time at Barcelona and is key to they way his sides play in transition.
Just like Klopp, Guardiola has always paid lots of attention to transitional play even though the former is more renowned for his work in this area, with the Catalan drawing on the teachings of Marcelo Bielsa, Latin America’s most prominent presser.
Transitional play is less obvious in Guardiola’s teams simply because they hold onto the ball for longer periods, so there are fewer turnovers, but it exists, and it can be ruthless.
In the rare moments they do lose the ball, players are instructed to press intensely for five seconds, before returning to their defensive formation if they fail to win the ball.
The unwritten part of the five-second rule states that a foul in these circumstances can help give the team more time to return to said shape and prevent an opposition counter-attack.
In the recent City documentary, All or Nothing, the unwritten rule turned into a soundbite when assistant coach Mikel Arteta could be heard instructing midfielders David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Ilkay Gundogan to “make fouls — if there is a transition, make a foul.”
In these moments there is a chance that the ball will be won, but the best way to do that is to give 100% in the challenge. This will naturally lead to fouls. Winning the ball back or conceding a free-kick are both positive outcomes from City’s point of view.
“I am learning new things, how to go, when to stay, when I have to do a tactical foul, when I have to jump,” City’s Spanish midfielder, Rodri, told ESPN shortly after arriving at the club in the summer of 2019. A further revelation that City players are instructed to defend in this manner.
Following the recent defeat at Anfield, the Athletic reported that Guardiola “felt referee Michael Oliver disrupted the flow of the game by blowing for soft fouls, or giving throw-ins the wrong way.”
City’s own game was disrupted, just as they like to do to the opposition, but that it was out of his hands and not necessarily something the opposition were doing, frustrated Guardiola.
City will now be looking to disrupt the top of the table when they face Chelsea this weekend, in what is an ideal opportunity to return to second place and reinstate themselves as the biggest threat to Liverpool.
They will do so with aggression, in and out of possession.