It has become a common theme in recent years, predictable almost, whenever Pep Guardiola, arguably the greatest modern-day manager reaches a crunch Champions League knockout match, he feels the need to alter his tactics which bring domestic success every single year and fails every year.
So the question is why doesn’t Pep Guardiola learn?
In Pep’s second season, they had dominated the Premier League from start to finish with their swashbuckling football, met a Liverpool side who finished that season a mass 25 points behind City. In the first leg, Aymeric Laporte had a torrid time at left-back, which is explainable as he is not a left-back, and Kevin De Bruyne struggled to affect the game shifted out on the right, two of their most important players at the time being ineffective helped Liverpool earn a commanding 3-0 lead to take to the Etihad. To have any hope of turning the tide back in City’s favor, you would have thought Pep Guardiola would return to his tried and tested machine that were already on the verge of a league title in early April.
Wrong again. A back 3 including Kyle walker, robbing City of one of their best-attacking outlets, and playing Bernardo and David silva as wide men, starved City of any width and resulted in a tame 2-1 defeat and pretty embarrassing 5-1 aggregate defeat.
If we move onto last season, due to covid restrictions the Champions League turned into a mini-tournament consisting of one leg games in a neutral venue. Manchester City seemed to have a favorable draw against an unfancied Lyon in the quarter-final. In this case, altering to a three-man defence wasn’t even the biggest crime. Leaving playmakers Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Phil Foden all on the bench against a team that was going to need unpicking seemed strange and once again backfired.
This season, after a pretty poor start to the season domestically which had City languishing in 11th at one point, their season sparkled into life with a 3-1 win at Chelsea, who they would go onto meet in this year’s final. The emergence of Phil Foden, the goalscoring exploits of Ilkay Gundogan, the best performances Riyad Mahrez has produced in a City shirt and the unexpected center-back pairing of John Stones and Ruben Dias led to 15 game-winning run between December and March. Propelling them from mid-table to clear at the top. What was important in this run was consistency and whilst there was the odd change here and there, the tactics and shape more or less stayed the same.
This run made them favorites to lift the big one that they had craved for so long and is the one thing Pep Guardiola hasn’t delivered at City. After comfortably dispatching Borrusia Monchengladbach, they impressively beat Dortmund in the quarter-finals, to meet a PSG side, managed by former foe Mauricio Pochettino, who had just knocked out holders Bayern Munich. The big question was in arguably the biggest game in Peps history.
Would he learn? The answer a resounding yes. After being outplayed in the first half in Paris, they were probably lucky just to be a goal down. City hung in there dug deep and came out a different team in the second half and took a precious 2-1 lead to Manchester. We had seen City in these positions before, personally, I was one of the people predicting a Pochettino inspired, Amsterdam-Esque comeback. No, Pep Guardiola’s City were professional, disciplined, and motivated and comfortably swept PSG aside to reach their first-ever Champions League final.
Pep Guardiola had finally learned and not tinkered with shape and team selection and it had resulted in a final. Keep the same team, and surely they are favorites to lift their first-ever Champions League crown.
But no. Pep decided to not play a sitting midfielder in Rodri or Fernandinho and instead go for a midfield from the off consisting of Foden, Silva, and Gundogan. All great players and the type of midfield you see in a dream team but not one balanced enough to take control in a champions league final, especially when the opposing midfield featured arguably the most in-form player in the world at the moment, Ngolo Kante.
City’s midfield allowed Kante to have free reign on the pitch and gave Chelsea the initiative. If you look at Mount’s defense-splitting pass, you have to imagine Rodri would have either closed down Mount and not made that goal as easy as it was. No doubt the Chelsea attackers would have been delighted to see the lack of protection for the city defense and Pep Guardiola’s arrogance and naivety on the big stage has cost City yet again. He has revolutionized city and English football, but once again has failed city in the champions league by his tinkering.
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