Not sure if you have noticed, but Spanish-speaking football managers like to talk about suffering. The word pops up all the time in their post-match interviews. It might be something to do with Catholicism or just a general, Pedro Almodovar heroine-style fondness for tortured emotion, writes
But they’re always on about it. Arsenal manager Unai Emery after a scrappy Europa League win over Qarabag: “I think we suffered in the match. But I want to suffer. I want to not find easy matches.”
(Doesn’t quite explain their defending at Anfield last Saturday, but let’s move on).
Diego Simeone makes a virtue out of suffering, often using the word to describe the many games in which his team scrap their way to a result. His players do too.
“Simeone taught us to enjoy suffering,” former Atletico Madrid midfielder Arda Turan said in 2015 in praise of his old boss.
“We suffer in all games, there is always an opponent there,” said Antoine Griezmann after Atletico battled to victory over modest Club Brugge in the Champions League this season.
Even Pep Guardiola understands the need to suffer.
“Maybe we have to realise how complicated the competition is,” said Guardiola after City’s shock 2-1 loss at home to Lyon in the Champions League group stage, “and suffer in the group stage to make a step forward in the knockout games.”
In the Spanish football lexicon, it appears that suffering equates to what we would refer to as ‘battling’. Showing ‘fighting spirit’. Digging in.
What we describe in heroic, militaristic terms, they refer to as a type of penance, a necessary self-flagellation.
But whatever the subtle linguistic differences, suffice to say that both cultures are talking about what pundits call the ‘other’ side of the game, the pain that goes with the pleasure.
Guardiola jumps on the chance to talk about how his team have suffered because they so rarely seem to do so.
After the second group stage game against Lyon (which City were fortunate to draw 2-2) he reiterated the point that shipping a few punches early in the competition would stand to his team later on. He felt that they had sleepwalked into Liverpool’s quarter-final ambush last season with the ease by which they had reached that stage of the competition.
Similarly, as they set the ferocious pace in the first half of this Premier League season, seemingly leaving even a near-flawless Liverpool team gasping in their wake, Guardiola railed against softball post-match interviews and press conference garlands about how good his team were.
He talked up opposition performances, batted back suggestions of going the whole season unbeaten, and maintained that sooner or later, inevitably, his team would have to suffer.
And, sure enough, suffer they did.
It would be easy to blame City complacency for the December wobble that turned the title race upside down and has placed the Anfield nation into an almost unbearable state of pregnant rapture.
After all, it flipped after 44 minutes of a Stamford Bridge stroll that seemed to be confirming City’s Premier League pre-eminence. Wasn’t this what Guardiola had warned against, and had blamed their Champions League exit last season on: The showboating champ floored by a sucker-punch that he never saw coming?
Not all suffering is self-inflicted though. It was City’s misfortune that, for all their smart and strategic spending, injuries struck at the three vulnerable points in their squad: Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and, earlier in the season, Benjamin Mendy, all of whose absences were felt in those three defeats in four matches that have set uptonight as a potential titledecider.
So, can Guardiola’s City suffer successfully? There is not much evidence from his own record to suggest they will. In his seven championship-winning seasons as a coach, only Barcelona’s 2009/10 La Liga triumph saw one of his teams win a full-throttle title race, hitting top spot with seven games to go after a 2-0 win over Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Madrid.
For his other two La Liga successes Barca went top early on and coasted home, while they finished nine points behind Real in the 2011/12 season, his last one at the club, with a jaded Guardiola unable to stomach a toxic battle with Real rival Jose Mourinho.
Bayern Munich won their three Bundesliga titles under Pep by an average of 13 points.
In his first season at City, Guardiola’s side were knocked off top spot after week 10, were third by the halfway stage and finished 15 points behind champions Chelsea.
City were top after five weeks of last season’s procession and won it by 19 points.
Mostly it has been either a canter or a collapse; it is rare to see a Guardiola team suffer, or battle, or dig out — however you want to say it — a hard-fought title race.
And now that is almostcertainly the challenge in front of them, starting tonight.
Is it a must-win game for City? Would the 10-point gap that victory gives Liverpool necessarily be unsurmountable? Surely Jurgen Klopp’s side will have to survive their own sticky spell in the 17 remaining games, a wobble in form to test the mettle of a squad which only boasts a handful of major title winners? But it could well be that Liverpool have already done their suffering, in the stodgy, workmanlike early season wins hidden within that unbeaten run; results dug out at places like Leicester, Huddersfield, and Watford where they road-tested their new-found resolve and were only sparingly dependent on their stellar forward line.
Guardiola talked about the merits of suffering after the games against Lyon because he wanted to see something in his team beyond the glorious attacking play and the greedy accumulation of points and goals records.
Perhaps it is something he needs to prove to himself, the final refutation of those sniffy English critics that questioned whether his exquisite football was built for the muck and bullets of the Premier League.
That to be successful, sometimes you need to suffer.