It happened again. Manchester City and Pep Guardiola failed in the Champions League in another meltdown. Their recent surrender against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu was shocking but not uncommon for either the Catalan or the City side.
After losing last year’s final to rivals Chelsea in the Premier League amid speculation over the selection of Guardiola’s team, the pressure was on this time around. It’s undeniable that for the majority of the 90 minutes the visitors were on pace, but as the Champions League shows us time and time again, anything can happen in this hectic and fantastic phase.
It was another forgetful night in Europe for the Premier League champions, and we will constantly wonder how they managed to lose after they faced no qualms until Rodrygo scored the first goal for Los Blancos on death. They were comfortable, very comfortable as proven. Given how persistent Real Madrid were in regular time, City are left with regrets for not making the most of their chances. But that wasn’t all they did wrong…
This has been talked about a lot in football over the past few years and it is clear that it plays a huge role in the biggest games of the season. The fact that City are at the end of the comeback is not surprising, as it has been a constant theme for Guardiola throughout his career as a manager in the Champions League. Wednesday night’s drama highlighted that he hasn’t developed enough as a coach to be able to get his players to watch matches when needed. As reported by journalist Miguel Delaney, in the 51-year-old’s 11 Champions League eliminations, eight of their defeats saw crucial periods in the match including a string of goals conceded. Is it really a club problem if it happens to every club he runs, with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City?
Guardiola has suffered from these compromises five times in seven seasons in the Champions League. Neither he nor his players have been able to learn from past mistakes in order to overcome the recurring European nightmare, and we have now come to the point where you always expect City’s next gaffe one way or another.
Of Guardiola’s 11 Champions League knockout matches, eight have had breakout periods with sudden collapses / streak of goals conceded.
2010-2 in 13 minutes
2014-3 at 18
2015-3 at 17
2017-2 at 8
2018-3 at 19
2019-2 in 3
2020-2 at 8
2022-3 at 6
For 90 minutes, Guardiola’s men were relaxed. Captain Robin Dias and his defensive partner Aymeric Laporte nullified any threat from Karim Benzema, who played a quieter game than we expected after his incredibly impressive performance in 2022. Yet he continued to score the goal that sent his team to Paris.
As was the case with City on many occasions, they don’t need to constantly attack them in order to be considered vulnerable. The opponent only needs two minutes to break their passing chain and get into a dangerous position in and around the final third to let the nerves slip between the City players.
In the Premier League a few weeks ago against Liverpool, City were twice ahead of their title rivals and were by far the better team on the pitch. But any time Liverpool attacked or managed to find a dangerous position, it always seemed like the Citizens would give in. So when Rodrygo debuted in the 90th minute on Wednesday with six minutes added to the clock, you knew the hosts could easily score again. This again brings the psychological aspect regarding Guardiola and his players, but in a game where they are barely under threat they suddenly find themselves in a vulnerable and panicked position, losing all sense of organization and discipline. So it was always when, not if, Real Madrid would get second place which takes a tie into overtime.
Every year it always seems to come back to Guardiola’s stubbornness, be it in tactics, substitutions or the general management of the game. This time, there seemed to be overconfidence, too. When Riyad Mahrez fired in the opening match to take the aggregate score to 5-3, the touchline festivities were as though scored in the 90th minute and it was the goal that led them to their second consecutive final.
After this goal it seemed that there was no urgent need to kill Tie. Although Kevin De Bruyne had a quiet game, Guardiola was brave to bring out his best midfielder, a player with the potential to make something out of nothing. As a result, his team was left short of extra time. His successor, Ilkay Gundogan, made a positive impact when he came on, while fellow substitute Jack Grealish had two big scoring chances in quick succession. But there was much of the same old approach from Pep.
Guardiola’s style of football inspires many clubs around the world, but he can still show signs of fragility in his apparent inability to show a more realistic side when the situation warrants. At the Bernabeu he continued to encourage his side to play their way while what they could really do to see them on the line was take a sheet of Atletico Madrid’s book.
Diego Simeone is seen as the mastermind of playing matches when his side is running poorly, and while he’s not seen as pretty, it’s that desire to kill a tie that Guardiola has consistently overlooked season after season. While some like Atleti to play some of the sexiest things, Pep and his guys can do some less well known things at times. Had he ordered his side to close the store in the last minutes of normal time, no one would be able to claim that he was passive. They had a 5-3 lead with some arrogant offensive football, after all.
Many will say that Guardiola’s success in the Champions League twice so far has come from having an exceptional Barcelona squad at his disposal and they may be right. There is no denying that he has great players in his ranks at City, including De Bruyne and Mahrez, but he didn’t think twice long before the final whistle. The Spaniard would not have dared to do that to Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Xavi if Barcelona were in that position. They were players with an instinct to take the sting out of an opponent and the ability to do so with the ball at their feet.
Although he doesn’t have an impressive treble at City, Guardiola has enough resources in his squad to keep his two-goal lead on Wednesday. Instead, it happened again. Or maybe Guardiola happened again. These were six Champions League semi-final defeats to Pep, and no coach suffered more than that in the quarter-finals. How many times will he fall short before considering a change of approach?
* 18 + | BeGambleAware | Odds are subject to change