I always like the Guardian’s “Five things we learnt...” articles, and Jacob Steinberg’s piece on the similarities between Barça and Stoke here stood out particularly. Why? Partly because it’s thoughtful and well-written, but mainly because Ross and I have drawn exactly the same parallel before – and arrived at the opposite conclusion.
Surely, surely, being a top manager is about flexibility as much as it’s about philosophical consistency? I completely understand the argument here and of course there’s something attractive about a manager with a compelling vision – whether that’s Guardiola’s ultimate development of masterplan Cruyff, or Pulis’ “they don’t like it up ‘em” pugnacity. You don’t want to feel the boss is making it up on the spot. You do, however, want a manager who can react well, who can set things up brilliantly but then have an alternative or two in mind for when things go wrong. In fact I’d argue that part of what’s given Guardiola victory in 13 of the 15 competitions he’s entered as Barça coach is that he is a pragmatist, able to adapt to changing situations within games. Not so much Pulis, whose “more plan A” approach failed on the biggest stage it’s yet been exposed to, this year’s FA Cup final. Manchester City controlled the game so completely that Stoke were barely able to bring their much-vaunted wingers into play – yet at no point did Pulis, say, sacrifice a big man in the box for a third central midfielder in order to establish some possession. It simply isn’t how they work.
So I’d criticise the Plan A for its own sake approach – but it’s worth noting that both Pulis and Guardiola have on occasion toyed with fundamentally changing the squad in order to accommodate another plan, by purchasing the likes of creative attacker Tuncay Şanli, or classic ‘big man’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Neither were given a great deal of game time, however – each manager appearing not to trust his man for almost diametrically opposed reasons. They’d dabbled with the other man’s style of play and they didn’t care for it at all.
The reason I bring all of this up after the kind of stultifyingly boring Championship game that inspired me to set this blog up in the first place is that I think we’re in for a test now. Derek McInnes has come in and, be fair, started rather brilliantly. Even after the recent slump, 15 points from his first 10 games is pretty decent for a team struggling at the foot of the table on his arrival. We’ve looked more confident, more solid and much more dangerous, our best players seeing a lot of the ball and using it well. But apart from his very first game, we’ve played the same formation every time – 4-5-1 with the flanks, and a controlling CM, vital. It gave us that great early four-wins-and-a-draw-from-five run. It gave us a way out of the bottom three.
But recently it’s been less fruitful, with defeats against Middlesbrough and Derby sandwiched by draws, a decent one at Watford and this less than impressive one against relegation fellow-travellers Forest. One goal in three says that teams have worked us out, worked out who you stop and who you worry about less. It’s not McInnes’ fault but we’ve few creative players in this side and as such we’re dangerously one-dimensional.
He’ll go into the transfer market, he says, which is fair enough and is the closest he’s come to criticising his inherited squad. But I think we’ll need to see a bit more than that to keep doing as we’re doing. Like Pulis, like Guardiola, he’s made small moves in the direction of a Plan B – generally this means bringing Brett Pitman on for a midfielder to create a 4-4-2. But sadly that’s yet to work and in fact it’s cost us points, done at 0-0 and 1-1 in the games prior to this, both of which were lost. After 15 or so fairly mediocre 4-4-2 minutes against Forest, Nicky Maynard was replaced by Kalifa Cisse so that 4-5-1 could see out the final spell of the game.
He’s said that actually he prefers two men up top, and that certainly seems to be how his St Johnstone side lined up. He doesn’t feel he can yet do it with this squad and I sympathise completely – we have too many midfielders who can do one thing well, whether that’s tackle, pass or mark, but not much else, and you need multi-faceted players in a middle two. But the change over recent weeks has been notable and stark. Not only are we getting fewer points, we’re doing it against sides who are trying to stop us playing rather than assuming they can impose their own game on us. This is a compliment of sorts I suppose, our good form’s been noted, but it’s a new problem and will need a new solution.
The next two games are both away: against Coventry, bottom, and Southampton, top. The first is like Guardiola’s Barça playing Getafe; the second, Pulis’ Stoke playing Manchester City. They will be very different games. McInnes is paid to compete in both; it will be fascinating to see how well he does.