We did have Matt Le Tissier sent off which didn’t help. But the reality was that I was so stretched that I never had the opportunity, nor the energy, to sprint five yards to make a tackle.
So I wasn’t surprised when Pep Guardiola said last week that his team was playing better because they were running less. It sounds counter intuitive, especially as we’ve spent the last 10 years emphasising the importance of pressing your opponents. Generally that requires you to run harder and further.
I wasn’t surprised when Pep Guardiola said that his team was playing better by running less
The strategic patterns Guardiola sets as a coach also determine how much his team runs
I once had a bad spell in the middle of the season when I was managing MK Dons. We had a midfielder who was covering the same amount of distance as he had done when we were on a winning run.
But when we were doing well, he was running around 12km in a game and 600m was at sprint level. During the bad spell, the base level of 12km remained the same but the sprint level went down to around 30m.
There are times when you can’t get out of second gear, but actually the players may be trying just as hard. And as a manager you have to reassure players and tell them: ‘We’re not competing — we haven’t made a tackle. Look, I know you’re giving 100 per cent but we must give ourselves a better platform to impact on the game. It’s not how hard we try, it’s whether we know how to? We have to work out as a team how we all get closer so it’s worth making that 5m sprint.’
In Manchester City’s case, clearly they haven’t been chasing games in the way an EFL team might. But relatively speaking, they have been off their usual mark in the first half of the season. And that would stem from losing some of the precision from their tactical shape.
The better you play as a team, the more synergy you get. Essentially that boils down to the distance between players. If you can keep those distances tight and get the players to move as a unit, then they won’t have to run as much as they’ll be in the right position to recover the ball.
And you’ll be close enough to have the motivation to make a sprint to recover it. If the shape slips even a little, the gaps become too big and you have to run more but less efficiently.
Letting the ball do the work is easier to sell when you have a player like Phil Foden (right)
The strategic patterns you set as a coach to dominate certain areas, something Guardiola would try to do with the ball, also determine how much you run. If you control the flow of the game, then it maintains the team’s shape and ensures you don’t run excessively.
Confidence plays its part as well. With the momentum built up from winning games, anxiety decreases and decision-making becomes more assured. Again, that means fewer over-played balls and less needless running. And naturally, the higher quality your players, the better all of the above is executed.
The old adage of letting the ball do the work is easier to sell when you have Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden than it would be for Sheffield United in the middle of a relegation battle. But though it seems that running further and harder is the way to dig yourself out of a bad run, the reality is that running smarter is better.