Manchester City vs Burton: Pep Guardiola's side are merciless and why shouldn't they be?

Mark Critchley

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Who cracks a walnut with an anvil? Who brings the dog home from a particularly long, muddy walk and hoses him down with the pressure washer?

When Riyad Mahrez added Manchester City’s ninth unanswered goal against Burton Albion on Wednesday night, it may have seemed a bit much to some, but it did not to the many around the Etihad whose demands for double figures grew only louder.

It did not seem too much to Pep Guardiola either, who had demanded exactly this display of disproportionate, indiscriminate and arguably excessive force from his players when already four goals ahead at half-time.

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“To play simple and to try to score more goals, it's the best way to respect the competition and respect the opponent,” Guardiola explained in his post-match press conference, after equalling the largest winning scoreline of his superlative coaching career.

“If you forget to continue, you don't have respect for your opponent and you don't have respect for the competition. The best way is to do what you have to do for our future. We have done [that].”

For what it’s worth, Burton’s Nigel Clough did not have a problem with City’s ruthlessness either. “They don't [stop],” he sighed. “That's what makes them so good. They're professional, they keep going, they don't ease off at any point.

“You saw what Spurs did to Tranmere. That's one of the differences between the top teams. They don't just beat you, they annihilate you. It's not very pleasant when you're on the other end of it but that's what they are capable of.”

These were refreshing responses from both Guardiola and Clough. Neither suggested that City should have in some way eased off or shown mercy to poor Burton. Usually, you would even expect to hear that line from the man on the right side of the nine-goal margin.

City thrashed Burton 9-0 to put their Carabao Cup semi-final to bed (Reuters)
City thrashed Burton 9-0 to put their Carabao Cup semi-final to bed (Reuters)

There is a strange aversion to humiliating an opponent and particularly so in this country, where every goal after the fifth is viewed as unbecoming and brings shame on both sides. Put it down to whatever particular neuroses or hang-up you want, winning big is basically showing off and showing off is bad.

Think Swansea City stepping off the gas in the final of this competition six years ago against a 10-man third-tier Bradford City, or Sir Alex Ferguson having “a word” with Nani after his keepy-uppies against Arsenal. Mauricio Pochettino did similar with Erik Lamela for a spot of showboating three years back.

It is, in fairness, a sporting gesture and we should not flippantly dismiss the more unsettling aspects of Wednesday night’s result.

No two-legged semi-final should be settled by a nine-goal margin at the tie’s halfway stage in a fully functioning, competitive competition. Burton may sit 51 places behind City in the pyramid, but should that gap really translate into a full nine goals? If you wanted a stark reminder of the vast inequalities within English football, this was it.

Goalkeeper Bradley Collins reacts after conceding a goal during Burton's heavy defeat (Getty)
Goalkeeper Bradley Collins reacts after conceding a goal during Burton's heavy defeat (Getty)

And yet for all that was disconcerting about the size of City’s victory, why should Guardiola’s players be expected to mask this superiority? Why should we not appreciate being given a true picture of the gap in quality between themselves and their opponents, which was only made possible by such a relentless performance?

The typical counter-argument - spotted in various places on social media last night between the many ‘he’s already dead’ gifs - is that relentlessly pursuing more goals to extend an already wide margin lacks ‘respect’. Guardiola’s press conference answer neatly re-framed this 'respect' argument.

Is it respectful for City to ‘ease off’ against an inferior opponent, safe in the knowledge of their own superiority, confident that victory is secured? Or is it actually more respectful for them to play the full complement of minutes with the same level of intensity that they would show against, say, Liverpool?

Nigel Clough had no issues beyond the heavy defeat (PA)
Nigel Clough had no issues beyond the heavy defeat (PA)

And then to add to Guardiola's argument: is it consistent to complain about managers fielding weakened teams in these competitions one day, then bemoan a manager seeking total victory the next?

When compared pound-for-pound with Burton’s, City’s starting line-up on Wednesday was strong enough to induce a wince. Guardiola, for one, could not be accused of not taking this competition seriously. Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? He and his Manchester City do, and why shouldn’t they?

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