Man City walking fine line between grit and indiscipline with Guardiola
For all of the attractive, free-flowing, attacking football Manchester City have played this season, Pep Guardiola has been left facing questions about his side's discipline. With reports that the FA are concerned that his team are becoming badly behaved, the spotlight is likely to fall upon the players in their upcoming high-profile matches.
There's no doubt the upcoming Champions League tie with Liverpool and the potential Premier League title-decider with Manchester United will be fiery with everything that's at stake. It could be a breeding ground for tempers to flare and City haven't been shy when it comes to sticking up for themselves recently.
Since Guardiola took charge, his players have been booked for dissent on seven occasions. During Manuel Pellegrini's final two campaigns, there were no yellow cards for talking back, arguing or temper tantrums but it was equally clear that, during his second and third terms, City were very easily bullied.
When Pellegrini won the title in 2014, his players were gentlemen. At home, they still carried the air of invincibility that Roberto Mancini's team had developed. But on the road, even in the year they won the league, opponents could get under the skin of the City players and it looked like they had little in response. By Pellegrini's third season, City struggled to compete beyond bullying those below them and stumbled to a fourth-place finish. When the going got tough, City dropped points.
By stark contrast, Guardiola's City don't go down without a fight, especially this season. Of course, there is a line that shouldn't be crossed and the players have skirted close to that line, but it's pleasing for the fans to see that there is fire in the team's belly once again. They are no longer easy to play against -- where they once could be bullied and wilt under the pressure, now they bully back a little bit harder.
It was a point noted by Gary Neville during City's 3-0 Premier League win against Arsenal at the Emirates. Each time one of the home side's players attempted to break away, a City player was happy to make the foul that broke up the attack. It was one of the biggest differences between the sides in both that and the Carabao Cup final, and it made the game men against boys in City's favour.
Of course, the behaviour of City's players is always going to be in the spotlight while they're running away with the league and their manager is urging referees to take action against bad challenges. It's also why Guardiola had no choice but to accept the referee's decision to send off Fabian Delph in the 1-0 FA Cup loss to Wigan despite Anthony Taylor originally looking like he was going to produce a yellow card.
It was the reaction of the players to that decision that brought about the FA charge and £50,000 fine.
That's not the first time the club has been charged under Guardiola, either. The FA stepped in and charged City for the same offence in their 3-1 home loss to Chelsea in December 2016 -- which saw Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero sent off as the game ended in a mass brawl -- and again for disputing a penalty decision in their 1-1 draw with Liverpool at the Etihad the following March.
City fans might feel particularly aggrieved about that first incident, though: several poor decisions, including the failure to send off David Luiz in the first half for denying Aguero a clear goal-scoring chance, combined with the frustration of having lost a game they should have won ultimately sparked that unsavoury end.
But it was the events in the tunnel of the loss at the DW Stadium that have sparked concern. As the teams left the field for half-time, minutes after Delph's dismissal and with tensions running high, there were confrontations between players and the coaching staffs. Neither side made a big deal out of it, but it was the third tunnel ruckus for City during Guardiola's reign following incidents in the 2-1 loss at Chelsea in April 2017 and the 2-1 win at Manchester United the following December.
It's reported that an "exceptionally serious" charge in the next 12 months could result in a points deduction, and that's a headline that might trouble fans. However, in reality, there's little to worry about: City have done nothing this season that the previous great teams haven't already done. They're simply skirting the line between what's acceptable and what's not, occasionally going too far as they put up a much tougher persona than they have done in previous seasons.
City's willingness to stand up in the face of tough situations has been, in part, the making of this team, and it's earned them points they wouldn't have otherwise won in previous campaigns.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney