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Perfection, Art and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City

Pep Guardiola’s team has won 15 straight Premier League games and hasn’t lost to anyone since November. But can clinical still qualify as cool?

The Equitable Building was supposed to be the last of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. When it opened in 1915, it cast — in a very real sense — everything around it into shadow: a 555-foot neoclassical cliff rising sheer from the street between Pine and Cedar, looming over Broadway, condemning a swath of the Financial District to a life of permanent shadow.

Its construction spurred New York’s authorities into action. A year later, the city introduced its first zoning law, decreeing that any future skyscrapers would have to taper away from the street, so as to allow light and air to permeate to ground level. “No more would skyscrapers rise sheer and monotonous, stealing sunshine from the city,” Ben Wilson wrote in Metropolis, his global history of cities.

But rather than herald the end of the skyscraper era, the zoning law started a boom. Architects scurried to design buildings that complied with the new regulations, capitalist monoliths with a human face. The results — the Chrysler, the Empire State and the rest — stand still as the jewels of Manhattan’s skyline, the beauty that makes them compelling a direct consequence of an obstacle overcome.

That truth holds away from architecture: Often, the complications addressed and compromises reached, the workarounds explored and imperfections masked do not diminish that sense of wonder, but increase it. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but of admiration and affection, too.

The iteration of Manchester City that Pep Guardiola has crafted this season is, without question, a marvel of engineering: fine-tuned and slick and working in almost flawless, mechanical synchronicity.

City celebrating one of its Premier League-leading 56 goals.
Peter Powell/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Premier League has been unable to resist: City has won 15 league games in a row, conceding only five goals in the process and building an unassailable 14-point lead over its nearest challenger, and this weekend’s opponent/victim, Manchester United. Guardiola’s team has one foot in the Champions League quarterfinals. It has already reached the same stage of the F.A. Cup, and the final of the Carabao Cup. If it beats United on Sunday at the Etihad, it will have won 22 games in a row. An unprecedented clean sweep of trophies shimmers on the horizon.

But while it is impossible not to admire what Guardiola has built — one of the finest teams to grace English soccer, roughly two years after constructing what is possibly the greatest one the country has seen — it can be difficult to establish a deeper, more emotional connection with it. The way City plays fires the brain. It does not follow that it must therefore stir the soul.

The club’s fans, of course, would put that down to nothing more than bitterness and envy. Its detractors might, in turn, ask what broader purpose establishing Manchester City among soccer’s elite had for its ultimate backer, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirati royal and deputy prime minister of Abu Dhabi, whose investment in City is most definitely nothing to do with a nation state.

More significant — at least in this case — than either argument, though, may be the absence of complication and compromise from Manchester City’s story. It has the best coach in the world, one of the most expensive rosters in the world, the best facilities, the most advanced data, the finest youth system. As Arsène Wenger once put it, it has petrol, and it has ideas.

Pool photo by Dave Thompson

There were, true, a few teething problems in the early years of the Abu Dhabi project. But for some time now, City’s ascent to the summit of soccer has been remorseless, smooth and, perhaps, for neutrals, a little cold, a gleaming edifice rising sheer from the ground.

The architectural term for what makes the Art Deco skyscrapers of the 1920s so iconic is, as it happens, setbacks. They are what lends those buildings their charm. Manchester City, in recent years, does not seem to have experienced many. Instead, its success has the air of a formula being cracked, an equation being solved. It is impressive, no question, but it is not compelling. Inevitabilities rarely are. The interest, though, is to be found in the blemishes hidden, and the challenges met.

There is no point arguing that City’s resources have contributed to the club’s success, both in the long term and, more immediately, in a season in which fatigue and injury are having an outsized influence. All of the Premier League elite can spend fortunes on playing talent, but none of them can run a squad quite as deep in quality as Guardiola’s.

He regularly leaves somewhere in the region of $350 million worth of talent on his substitutes’ bench. Even allowing for injury, he has been able to manage his players’ workload far better than most of his rivals. In February, he rotated in at least four players every game, and sometimes as many as seven. It never felt as if he had fielded a weakened team. Although City remains alive in four competitions, none of its players has yet played 3,000 minutes this season. Four of United’s, by contrast, have already passed that mark.

Guardiola does not seek to deny that reality. “We have a lot of money to buy incredible players,” he said after victory in the Champions League over Borussia Mönchengladbach, remarks that were for some reason interpreted as a joke, but are, well, true. “Without good quality players,” he said, “we cannot do it.”

But while it is the cost of the playing staff that attracts all of the attention, the envy and the criticism, the true impact of City’s resource advantage is a little less obvious. It is in the state-of-the-art training facilities, in the youth academy, in the network of clubs around the globe, in the astrophysicist hired to help the team’s data analysis, in a club that has been built, essentially, to provide the perfect working environment for Guardiola.

It feels, at times, like Pep F.C., as one observer put it. And that, perhaps, explains the contrast between this City and Guardiola’s Barcelona: both dominant, era-defining teams, but one that captured the imagination and another that feels too surgical to do so.

The difference is not necessarily in the moral relativism of the two clubs’ ownership, or even in their respective historical clout, but in their nature. Barcelona is a big, unwieldy, faintly chaotic institution, one that had been in turmoil before Guardiola arrived. Shaping it in his own image meant dealing with complications. City, on the other hand, was built for him, impeccable and flawless.

That reading, though, misses one important aspect. Guardiola might have the best squad and a handpicked coaching staff and a raft of allies in the executive suites, and he may be able to access resources far deeper than any of his rivals can sustain, but his primary task — as it is for any manager — is still to handle people. And his ability to do that lies at the root of City’s imminent glory this spring.

Pool photo by Andy Rain

It would be a stretch to suggest there was a sense of mutiny around City last season. Guardiola’s power is too absolute, and his reputation too lofty, for rebellion to take hold. But there were, as Liverpool strolled away with the Premier League title, mutterings.

There was a fiery exchange in the changing room after a defeat to Tottenham, several of his senior players complaining that he was too inconsistent with his team selection, complaints that ran beyond the background chuntering of the substitutes and the fringe players.

It intensified in the summer, when City was outfoxed by Lyon in the Champions League. As the inquests played out in the news media, it emerged that there were some in the squad who were starting to waver in their loyalty to their coach, who felt he had shot himself in the foot in the competition he craves more than any other one time too many.

Guardiola seemed to recognize it. He has always said, after all, that after four years either the players have to change, or the manager does. He hoped for the former, asking City to bring in four new signings. In the end, only three arrived: The club stepped away from a deal to sign Ben Chilwell from Leicester, and the left back Guardiola had requested never materialized.

It did not, immediately, seem to solve the problem. City lost at home to Leicester, tied Leeds, West Ham and Liverpool, and then lost away at Spurs. That proved the final straw for Fernandinho, the club’s influential captain, who gathered the squad together — “only the players, I tried to show them our responsibility, what the club expects, what the fans expect” — for a few hard truths.

Guardiola himself waited a couple more weeks. After a dispiriting draw at home to relegation-threatened West Bromwich Albion in December, he held a conclave with his key associates: Juanma Lillo, his assistant; Rodolfo Borrell, his first-team coach; Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football; and Manel Estiarte, Guardiola’s all-purpose consigliere.

For the first time, he had found himself watching his City team with distaste. “I didn’t like it,” he said later. Influenced by Lillo, in particular, the decision was made to revert to what Guardiola called his “ABC” principles. “To stay in position, and let the ball run, not you,” Guardiola said.

His reputation as a visionary, of course, dictates that the switch has been interpreted as a tactical innovation: Guardiola had instructed his team to run less, or pass the ball more, or turned João Cancelo into the first fullback-stroke-No. 10, a position that will hopefully one day be known as a “false two.”

Shaun Botterill/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But just as significant was the psychological impact: It represented a return to the ideas Guardiola had evangelized when he first arrived, the ones that some had felt were being lost. It was, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgment that he had diverged a little too much from the path that had brought City two Premier League titles.

Gabriel Jesus, the Brazilian striker, was asked last week how Guardiola had changed this season. He could not be sure, he said, but the main difference was that Guardiola “doesn’t talk so much.” “There is less video now,” Jesus said.

That, it turned out, was exactly what City needed: a slightly more stripped-down, simplified approach — not quite laissez-faire, not with Guardiola involved, but as close as he can feasibly muster.

City does, to an extent, rise sheer and monotonous above the landscape of European soccer. Its polish is, perhaps, a little too gleaming, its finish a little too smooth, to have the sort of character that comes from blemishes.

But it takes work to get that sort of sheen, no matter how costly, how plentiful and how fine the materials available, and that work is, ultimately, worthy of appreciation and admiration. Even the Equitable Building, after all, is now a National Historic Landmark.

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