Heart Of Football

Results come before style today for purists Pep & Arsene

For different reasons, but principally because they need points to prevent Chelsea running away with the English Premier League (EPL), Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger might put pragmatism before principle this evening.

Their admiration is mutual. But the managers of Manchester City and Arsenal would trade, right now, their reputations as football purists and take victory any way it comes in the Etihad Stadium.

"I'm not a coach for tackles," is the phrase that might sum up their shared philosophy. Guardiola uttered it last week to insist that, even though he finds himself in the toughest league to win in the world, he intends no backward step.

Wenger has lived with the insinuation that he is too much a purist to organise the necessary hard edge (the brutality to put it in plain language), that the English put into their game.


Don't laugh. The EPL has been a cosmopolitan mix of nations ever since, well since Oct 1, 1996 when Wenger, a Frenchman arriving from Japan, took over at Arsenal.

And as much as Senor Guardiola and Monsieur Wenger prefer the art of passing to the crunching of opponents, the phrase "putting the foot in" remains intrinsic around the Premier League.

A quick glance at today's line-ups will confirm how global the Premier League is. Theo Walcott on Arsenal's right wing, and (if selected) Raheem Sterling on City's, might be the lone concessions on either side to English blood.

Neither is full-blooded in the terms of aggression. Guardiola and Wenger are indeed not coaches for the tackles; and the emphasis on physicality no longer defines the way the game is played, in England or anywhere else.

In fact, both teams are weakened today as a consequence of physical stress, and of foul play. If City were to win the league, it is likely that the goals of Sergio Aguero would play a huge part in that.

Alas for the light blues, Aguero's darker side renders him idle over the Christmas period that often proves decisive. The Argentinian was banned for three matches in September after elbowing West Ham defender Winston Reid. And he is banned again, this time for four games, after his reckless and dangerous knee-high kick at Chelsea's David Luiz.

The consequence of those seven lost games (so far, the season is not yet at halfway) for City's scoring talisman are obvious. Aguero isn't, per se, a dirty player. You could say that he gets himself into trouble by lacking guile in his attempts to get his retaliation in first.

Heaven knows, the toll on players is tough enough without opponents purposely aiming their studs at opposing limbs.

City line up this evening without Fernandinho (banned, again), but also Vincent Kompany (a tackler if ever you saw one, but brittle in his sinews and repeatedly injured), Ilkay Gundogan (out for months with serious knee injury), and Fabien Delph (groin injury).

Arsenal are similarly wounded. Santi Cazorla, their rhythm master, remains out with Achilles tendon injury, Per Mertersacker and Danny Welbeck (knee casualties) and Aaron Ramsey and Shkodran Mustafi (hamstrings). In addition, Jack Wilshere has been injured so often and for so long that Arsenal have loaned him to Bournemouth to get fit if he can.

The absent talents, some through self-inflicted penance but most the consequence of the intensity of the EPL, surely tells us that there is more than enough "aggression" in the game.

Wenger, remember, has totted up 1,145 matches at Arsenal. Guardiola approaches game No. 27 at City, and is here to test himself in the most competitive league in the world.

His triumphs (with such style as both a player and coach) at Barcelona are legion. His success with Bayern Munich was praised for the style but criticised for failing to nail the Champions League.

In both countries, he had indubitably the best collection of players at his disposal. In England, he has one of the best squads - but Chelsea are reborn under Antonio Conte, Arsenal's new mantra is that they have steel to complement grace, Liverpool are running hard for Jurgen Klopp, and Tottenham are well coached by Mauricio Pochettino.

Not an Englishman among those manager-coaches, and of course not at Manchester United either, where Jose Mourinho is spending like money has gone out of fashion to try to restore himself, and his latest club, to lost glory.

You can't win in England with tackling? Well that depends on how you tackle. Marcos Rojo, United's Argentinian defender, has twice got away with the worst type of "tackle" in the sport without drawing the red card that would be instant in Spain, Germany, France or Italy.

To lunge at opponents, with both feet off the ground and both pairs of studs horribly aimed at the shins of opponents (one at Everton, the other at Crystal Palace) in the space of two weeks makes him a hideous villain.

Or it would do under most managers. Mourinho defends Rojo as a clean and fair player. Two referees have agreed, or at least condoned those potentially career-threatening fouls. The next arbiter might think otherwise, particularly with the hindsight of seeing the "tackles" replayed over and over again on television.

Guardiola isn't a coach for tackles? None of us should be if they come as dangerously foul as that.

This is still the "English" game. And as much as Senor Guardiola and Monsieur Wenger prefer the art of passing to the crunching of opponents, the phrase "putting the foot in" remains intrinsic around the Premier League.

Everton last week proved too stern, too spirited and, yes, too tough for an Arsenal team celebrating 14 games unbeaten. Guardiola will probably stiffen up his midfield with Yaya Toure's considerable physical presence - not because he wants a monster in there but because at his best Toure reminds some of us of the way that Patrick Vieira used to command the Arsenal midfield, and at the end of his career, City too.

Vieira was, certainly, one for tackles. He is coaching these days, coming through the ranks of City. When the whistle blows at the Etihad this evening, there will be many who think that what these two teams lack is a competitor of Patrick's (mostly legitimate) fighting spirit.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Results come before style today for purists Pep & Arsene'. Print Edition | Subscribe