It’s a familiar story at this stage of the season now. Manchester City are in the knockout stages of the Champions League, but will very likely soon not be thanks in large part to some inexplicable daftness on the part of their otherwise excellent manager Pep Guardiola.
Pep overthinking (relatively) straightforward Champions League ties has become a meme, and his pre-Atletico press conference blather has amplified rather than reduced the noise.
“In the Champions League I always overthink. I always create new tactics and ideas, and tomorrow you will see a new one. I overthink a lot, that’s why I have very good results in the Champions League. It would be boring if my job, all the time, we had to play the same way.
“That’s why I love to overthink and create stupid tactics, and when I don’t win I am punished. Tonight I will take inspiration and I’m going to do incredible tactics tomorrow. We play with 12 tomorrow.”
Oh boy. So, then: let’s rank all Guardiola’s previous inspirations and incredible tactics in his five Champions League exits at Manchester City.
5) 2018 QF: Manchester City 1-5 Liverpool (agg)
The first of a trio of consecutive quarter-final exits to teams City really should have beaten was set up by Liverpool’s 3-0 win in the first leg, a night which highlighted the difference between Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola on these Champions League knockout occasions.
It’s only a few years ago, but Liverpool had not yet taken their final form under Klopp and were languishing way behind all-conquering City in the league. Yet it was Guardiola who altered his approach at Anfield. While Klopp trusted the heavy metal pressing that was about to turn Liverpool into a real force again, Guardiola decided to play Aymeric Laporte at left-back to deal with the threat of Mohamed Salah.
Aymeric Laporte at left-back did not deal with the threat of Mohamed Salah, who scored the first of Liverpool’s three first-half goals at a febrile, disbelieving and raucous Anfield.
Liverpool then came from behind to win the second leg 2-1 at the Etihad, Guardiola getting himself sent off for his reaction to a disallowed goal that would have put his side 2-0 up on the night and the tie back in the balance. City lost their way after that, and Salah’s equaliser effectively killed the tie before Sadio Mane rubbed salt into the open wounds.
4) 2021 Final: Chelsea 1-0 Manchester City
City have been eliminated by plenty of weaker teams than Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, but this was in its way arguably Pep’s most frustrating bit of Champions League bollocks because it was a) the final and, more importantly, b) he appeared to have finally learned his lesson.
Across the four key knockout games against Dortmund in the quarters and PSG in the semis, tinkering Pep made only four changes to his starting XI. And three of those were at left-back as Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo came in and out of the side. The only other change was Fernandinho slotting in for Rodri in the second leg against PSG. In other words, it was entirely sane.
Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ruben Dias, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden all started all four games. Finally, Guardiola had stopped trying to be too clever in big Champions League games! Finally, the penny had dropped!
Then for the final, against a team that was decent but had over the course of the previous season demonstrably proven to be less good than City, Guardiola decided to play neither Rodri nor Fernandinho but instead entrust defensive midfield duties to Gundogan, who had scored 17 goals that season, and hand a start to Raheem Sterling, who had played a total of eight minutes across the quarter and semi-finals.
The Champions League final was City’s 61st game of the season. It was only the second – and first in six months – where Guardiola didn’t start either Rodri or Fernandinho. Come on, man.
3) 2019 QF: Manchester City 4-4 Tottenham (agg, Tottenham win on away goals)
Everyone remembers the insane second leg of this clash, a game so thoroughly and repeatedly tinged with the absurd that no manager could reasonably be blamed for what went on that night.
No, it was in the first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium where Pep done f***ed up. Although Spurs would ultimately cling on to a top-four finish, by the time they met City in the Big Cup quarters their league form was already in disarray. They’d just ended a five-match run without a win in the league with an unconvincing if celebratory 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in the first game at the new stadium but were assuredly Not Playing Well. City on the other hand, were playing very well indeed. They’d won 13 of their previous 14 matches, with the 14th the League Cup final which they won on penalties after a goalless draw with Chelsea.
They were, in short, more than capable of going to Spurs and taking a huge step towards a semi-final spot. But City and Guardiola, perhaps with an eye on preserving energy in one of their frequent tilts at a Quadruple, went to Spurs to stifle and contain trusting that they could coast through the game in second gear and repair any damage – if indeed there were any damage to repair – in the second leg. A City side containing no Kevin De Bruynes and one Fabian Delph managed just two attempts on goal before Son Heung-min snatched a winner for Spurs on the night with 12 minutes remaining. City, memorably, could not repair that damage. They came within a gnat’s cock hair of doing so, it’s true, but the point is City had no need to allow the margins of the tie to become so fine. If they wanted to coast through a leg it should have been the second one after going and beating a clearly inferior side at the new White Hart Lane. They never even tried to score an away goal, and three years later have still never managed one at Spurs’ new ground.
2) 2017 R16: Monaco 6-6 Manchester City (agg, Monaco win on away goals)
There’s a decent argument to be made that Guardiola’s first Champions League exit with City coloured his thinking for all subsequent exits as Guardiola overthought and overcomplicated everything. This still feels like a wound that has not healed and also started a trend for Guardiola getting things badly wrong over the away goals rule, which at least he no longer has to worry about.
After winning a freewheeling first leg against a fleetingly brilliant Monaco side whose light shone brightly for that one special season, Guardiola declared “If we don’t score a goal in Monaco we will be eliminated.” That was incorrect. So spooked was Guardiola by the three goals his team conceded he forgot about the five they scored. They still went to Monaco with a two-goal lead. A calm, sane and canny European performance in the second leg would surely be enough to preserve that, and besides City clearly carried enough attacking threat that such a performance might well produce an away goal anyway.
But no. Guardiola went all out, deploying five attackers in front of Fernandinho and leaving out Yaya Toure. He told his players to attack, but they were overrun and outnumbered in midfield. Monaco swept into a 2-0 lead and, although City did get their away goal and briefly retake the aggregate lead in the tie through Leroy Sane, Tiemoue Bakayoko’s late header sealed Monaco’s progress.
1) 2020 QF: Manchester City 1-3 Lyon
The caveat here would be that none of us was really thinking with a clear head in the summer of 2020 in what was a confusing and discombobulating time with a global pandemic in full swing (what a huge relief it is now that’s all over, eh readers?)
But even in the unfamiliar setting of a one-off quarter-final on neutral ground, this does have to rank as Guardiola’s most inexplicable and damaging Champions League exit at City.
Lyon were a side deserving of respect after knocking Juventus out in the last 16 but these days losing in the last 16 of the Champions League is what they do. It is the history of the Juventus. It should not have been enough to prompt a wild reimagining of his obviously and massively superior team from Guardiola. Ignore all the noise, ignore all the strangeness. A one-off game against that Lyon side should have been a boon. You’re better than them, and you can’t even lose on away goals this time!
Instead, Guardiola went weirdly cautious and tried to match Lyon’s shape with a back three and only three attack-minded players on the pitch, given this was the season before Ilkay Gundogan’s goalscoring reinvention.
Lyon roared into life against a City team that spent the first half disjointedly and unconvincingly trying to work out who was doing what. They took a deserved lead through Maxwel Cornet, now of Burnley.
City improved after Riyad Mahrez was introduced at half-time, and Kevin De Bruyne drew them level. But Lyon had been offered encouragement by City’s first-half showing and still sensed weakness. Moussa Dembele stepped off the bench to score twice and seal the tie. The first should probably have been disallowed for a foul by the goalscorer and the second came after an astonishing miss from Raheem Sterling. But as with the Spurs defeat the year before, the fine margins offer cold comfort when you know those margins were made finer by deeply curious managerial decisions.
They probably should try playing with 12, to be honest.
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