Pep must escape Conte's shadow
City's protagonist is being outshone by Chelsea's pragmatist
Pep Guardiola is the manager who has everything, except momentum.
Manchester City are a point off the English Premier League summit and in the last 16 of the Champions League.
When the transfer window opens next month, there is always that bottomless pit of petrodollars to draw upon.
And yet, a whiff of uncertainty hangs in the cold air above the the blue half of Manchester.
It's not really a question of what Guardiola has done wrong, but what Antonio Conte has done so well.
In terms of global stature, Guardiola is still perceived to be Mr Right. It's just that Conte is Mr Right Now.
The two managers meet for the first time in the English Premier League on Saturday at an intriguing crossroads in their fledgling campaigns.
Conte has stolen Guardiola's thunder to create the perfect storm over Stamford Bridge. In truth, no one saw this coming.
When the Blues were left uncomfortably numb at Arsenal, there seemed more chance of Conte not making the end of the season than Chelsea making the Champions League.
But the Italian soon demonstrated that he was not a dugout radical, but a hard-headed pragmatist obsessed with results rather than romance.
When Conte arrived at Chelsea, there were mutterings in broken English about a 4-2-4 formation, which would've been both retro and revolutionary.
But he lacked the appropriate players.
So he erred on the side of caution, switched to the 4-3-3 that had long been the popular option at the Bridge and the Gunners shot down Chelsea's hapless cannon fodder.
Conte's 3-4-3 gamble was indicative of a manager sipping something tepid at the last-chance saloon. His tactics were scribbled across a roulette wheel. He kept spinning until the right numbers came up.
In the end, he struck seven consecutive EPL victories with only a single goal conceded.
Suddenly, the jittery Blues were title-chasing juggernauts, thanks in large part to a pragmatic coach hitting upon a system that maximised his limited resources.
But Guardiola initially tried the opposite.
He imposed his idealistic template upon an unprepared squad and forced too many round pegs into square holes.
His back three worked for a while, as opponents struggled at first with City's blistering counter-surging.
But, by the time Everton and Southampton were popping up to pinch points, the flaws were self-evident.
Once City's wingers were neutralised, their lack of pace in the back three was brutally exposed and the space on either side of defence exploited.
Guardiola had no choice but to acknowledge the inherent weaknesses.
He returned to a back four and, even more surprisingly, recalled Yaya Toure. But the Italian has undoubtedly seized the Spaniard's early initiative.
Guardiola knows City must impress beneath the Etihad floodlights so he can slip away from Conte's growing shadow.