It’s this season’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ story in English football: Pep Guardiola and the defence of Claudio Bravo.
Signed for £15million as the direct replacement for Joe Hart, the Chilean has been routinely mocked among fans and in the media for a series of gaffes and blunders which have veered between comic slapstick and desperate horror-show.
His stock has fallen enough for Guardiola to bench him in the Premier League, with Willy Cabellero – who had previously seemed destined for the Etihad Stadium exit this summer – moving into the No 1 role.
The criticism of Bravo is not without foundation, either.
Using either statistics or a pair of eyes, it’s hardly difficult to pick flaws in his primary role – that of stopping shots.
You see, the problem is… he doesn’t seem to do that.
Bravo has the worst saves-per-shot ratio of any of his Premier League peers – a little over 53 per cent.
Prior to the FA Cup replay victory over Huddersfield last week, he had conceded six goals to his previous six shots on target.
Over the course of the season so far, the 33-year-old has allowed Manchester City’s opponents to score with their first effort on goal on 13 of the 25 occasions he has started a game.
He’s been beaten inside 15 minutes in 11 of those 15 matches, too.
And then there’s the issue of how he’s been beaten.
Far too often a handling error, lapse of concentration or moment of extraordinary rashness has been a contributory factor.
Far too often he’s failed to stay strong in the air – Bravo dropped the ball at the feet of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Manchester derby in September and flapped at a Burnley corner, leading to Ben Mee scoring at the Etihad and January.
Far too often he’s committed himself to ground way too early – Lionel Messi waltzed past him in the Nou Camp, Jamie Vardy did likewise in City’s humiliation at Leicester, Tom Davies benefited with a delicious chip for Everton.
Far too often he’s become transparent at the first sign of danger – he was nutmegged by Ademola Lookman at Goodison Park and by Harry Bunn against Huddersfield, and barely made an effort to save Willian’s shot in home defeat by Chelsea.
And far, far too often he’s turned a situation of relative calm into total panic. At Old Trafford he was lucky to escape sanction for a studs-up tackle on Wayne Rooney after trying to dance around Ibrahimovic in his own six-yard box. Then, against Barcelona, he found himself sent off for a deliberate handball 40 yards from goal after gifting possession to Luis Suarez.
Yet his manager continues to support him.
In this new age of football, the traditional role of a goalkeeper, it seems, is not as relevant as it once was.
Guardiola wants a sweeper in between the sticks and he sees Bravo as the man to fill that role.
After the victory over Huddersfield, he said: “To take decisions like Claudio Bravo did in the last game was a masterpiece, how he took decisions, short and right, left, along and behind.
“We knew Huddersfield would be high pressing. For example they would press to Kevin De Bruyne, to Fernandinho and the space was in behind them. How he put the ball there – it wasn’t a long ball, it was a pass. How he took the decisions right all the time, it was really perfect, definitely what I want from Claudio.”
Yet Guardiola would also state in the same interview that he believed goalkeepers’ primary function is “saving shots with their hands”.
Which is it Pep? What do you really want? Or is it all an elaborate word maze to distract from the reality… a small fortune spent on a player for whom time is not on his side, with next to no return?
When, like the Emperor in the famous fable, will Guardiola publicly recognise the naked truth?
Photo: sky sports