Manchester City kicked off their Premier League title defence with a rampant and rather predictable 5-0 win over West Ham United on Saturday.
A Raheem Sterling hat-trick, along with goals from Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero, helped City maintain their impressive aggregate scoreline at the London Stadium: 22-1 over their last five visits.
But there was more to the reigning champions display than nice passing angles and silky skills, if you believe what Manuel Pellegrini had to say after the game. The West Ham boss accused the Citizens of using tactical fouls to break West Ham’s rhythm.
“Every time we tried to arrive in their box they committed fouls. We were innocent in that regard,” he said.
“If you review the game, that is why we didn’t create too many chances in the first half. All our offensive moments of attacking ended in a foul. You can look at the statistics. They committed 13 fouls, we committed five.”
Pellegrini went on to admit this wasn’t the only reason for the Hammers’ downfall but if his claims are accurate, then surely, it’s a considerable factor. Imagine every time you get the ball with City’s defence exposed and their full-backs caught high up the pitch, and your play is shattered by Rodri or Fernandinho making a subtle trip on your onrushing ball carrier.
So, is there anything in the West Ham manager’s claim? Well, while the hosts weren’t quite as innocent as Pellegrini made them out to be – they committed six fouls, not five – he was right about City.
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Eight of City’s 13 fouls on Saturday were committed during the first half, when West Ham were still very much in the game, getting on the ball and creating chances. Of City’s 13 fouls, seven of them were committed within West Ham’s half, while just one was committed within the 18-yard area between the goal line and the edge of their own box. Rodri, Man City’s sitting midfielder, committed three of their 13 fouls across the 90 minutes, coupling his ball-playing skills with a sort of hatchet-man role in front of the defence.
This fits a theme associated with Guardiola sides down the years – last season, no Man City player made more fouls than Fernandinho (40), while only Vincent Kompany (6) received more yellow cards than his five. At Barcelona, he had Sergio Busquets as his shield, while at Bayern Munich he had Javi Martinez and Arturo Vidal to take on some of the dirty work.
It’s worth noting that during Guardiola’s final year at Bayern, Vidal ranked second among Bundesliga central midfielders for fouls committed per 90 minutes (2.7) – discounting players who featured in fewer than 10 games. Elsewhere, Busquets ranked 12th for La Liga midfielders with at least 10 appearances for total fouls committed (28) during Guardiola’s final year at the Nou Camp.
Considering Vidal and Busquets played in teams that routinely recorded league-high possession shares (66.4% and 65.4%, respectively) during those seasons, they’re remarkably high numbers.
Of course, such is Guardiola’s insistence on pushing his full-backs aggressively high to create angles for cut-backs in the box, he simply must have someone in the middle who can break up counter attacks and protect the flanks when needed.
First half fouls conceded this season:
West Ham 1
Man City 8
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) August 10, 2019
But last season, Man City received the second-fewest number of yellow cards (44) of any Premier League side, even though 1.73% of the opposition’s touches resulted in a foul being committed, the fourth-highest rate in the English top flight. So, are they avoiding deserved bookings?
Before April’s Manchester derby, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested Guardiola instructed his team to commit fouls while his side were pressing the ball in the opposition half, thus avoiding making fouls in and around their own area, sidestepping a potential booking.
“You don’t get the yellow cards [there], do you? But that’s just because they commit so many players forward and you can clearly see that they’ve got them in that mould of trying to win the ball back, and they do make fouls,” the United manager said.
“It’s up to us to play through that press, be ready enough, play one- and two-touch, don’t give them time. It’s not my decision, it’s the referee’s responsibility to do that.”
United fans later sought to debunk his response, but Guardiola said at the time: “I don’t like it. No. My team is not built to think and create for that, not at all.”
Incidentally, both sides made 10 fouls each during that game, but only one of City’s fouls occurred in their own final third, while another four of them were in the United half.
The FA laws of the game state that yellow cards should be shown for “persistent offences” or when a player “commits a foul or handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack”. However, the same ruling also says that there is “no specific number or pattern of offences which constitutes ‘persistent’”.
This is where the term “tactical foul” comes in. He may publicly deny it, but if his players commit offences in the opposition half and with just the right lack of regularity, they can disrupt and frustrate the opposition at will, while avoiding the judgemental eyes of the referee.
So does Guardiola employ ‘tactical fouls’? Certainly that is a perception publicly expressed by several Premier League managers, past and present. Solskjaer is not even the first United manager to level the accusation. Would this constitute cheating? Gamesmanship seems a more appropriate term. You could argue it is just another tactical wrinkle added by the planet’s most ingenious, astute manager. It’s up to the rest to figure out a way around it.