Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola believes his side are out of the Champions League final
Perhaps the real sign of a great manager is how long he can leave his team on autopilot once his system and tactics are set up. While every game requires a miner adjustments here or there, they shouldn’t be much more than the rating on the tires. The engine remains the same. And no team should be more automatic than Manchester City.
And yet Pep Guardiola, in the most important moments, cannot help but want to change gears or find a new braking system at the last minute.
The city has crossed the Premier League, and pretty much waltzed to the Champions League final, with the same system. Players could change here-and-there due to fatigue or rotation or the unique demands of a specific game, but the idea was the same. Pep had adopted a scorerless 4-3-3, with Rodri or Fernandinho at the base of the midfield protecting the defense. He had Ilkay Gündoğan on the sharp end, making the final runs over the front line to become the team’s top scorer. Sometimes it was Kevin De Bruyne like the false nine. Sometimes it was Phil Foden. Maybe someone else. But this midfielder, with the wide forwards separating the opposing full-backs and giving space to Gündoğan or another midfielder.
This system had seen City win the Premier League by 12 points. The only time they’ve faced danger in the Champions League was the first half against PSG in the semi-finals, which they quickly rectified. And Maybe the first half of the return leg against Dortmund, who saw them fall behind on away goals for 40 minutes. Again, quickly rectified.
Even though Chelsea had beaten City twice in a row, once in the league and once in the FA Cup, they had not faced City’s top 11 in the latter. While Chelsea have no reason to lack confidence, neither do City, who should have been assured that their normal and better roster would have broken through in a way their rotating side couldn’t in those two games. After all, he hadn’t failed to do so since December.
But Pep couldn’t help it. He never can.
When the lines were announced an hour before kick-off, a thrill must have descended through the spines of fans in every city. Guardiola thought about himself again. There was no Rodri. There was no Fernandinho. There was no defensive midfielder at all. “No DM” started trending on Twitter.
It wasn’t hard to see the thought, although it didn’t seem logical. Chelsea had come to this point being an impenetrable fortress defensively, and Guardiola wanted to throw any attacked players onto the pitch to try and break them down.
The only problem was that it would work against a completely helpless team at the counter, which Chelsea is not at all. When the ball turned, Chelsea sliced City like a blade in Hattori Hanzō, as there was no midfielder to try to break things up. If Timo Werner hadn’t left the feeling in his feet at Leipzig all season, Chelsea could have finished at half-time.
They did, however, get the only lens they needed on a meter:
Look at the moment when Mason Mount had to choose Kai Havertz. Look at the lane he must have taken. Center-back John Stones tries to put pressure on Mount because there is no one else to do so, but that leaves the race to Havertz. Guardiola is lucky this was the only time he paid him.
Regarding his decision to overwhelm the midfielder with attackers, it didn’t work out bbecause N’Golo Kanté lives there for Chelsea. You might as well try to try the wind. Gündoğan was too deep to appear in the box or between the lines. Bernardo Silva might as well have not shown up. Foden and De Bruyne, until he left with an injury, ended up standing next to each other and looking at each other. Chelsea forced City to play wide, where full-backs Reece James and Ben Chillwell were tied to Sterling and Mahrez. The number of times these two have received the ball back to goal will keep Guardiola awake at night. This is not how City play.
And maybe that’s what was so surprising about yesterday’s finale. The city looked so toothless. They only created 0.4 xG at Chelsea’s 1.4. It wasn’t a Chelsea defensive miracle. City only managed one shot on target. Seven shots in total. It was easy?
One of City’s best chances is playing Sterling above the top, but their best player to play those assists, De Bruyne, was at the top of the pack. Gundogan isn’t used to being so deep to play them. There weren’t a lot of layers in City’s attack.
He continues a worrying trend for City and Guardiola in the Champions League. Last season it was a bizarre move to a 3-5-2 quarterback against Lyon that City had never played before. The season before it was an ultra-cautious approach against Spurs in the quarterfinal first leg with no wide players. The year before he was shredded by Liverpool in the quarterfinals first leg when they left too much room for their supercharged front line. It’s always something.
Guardiola is undoubtedly one of the best managers in the world. He has created some of the best teams England has ever seen and developed world-class players like Sterling or Foden. But City could already have a European Cup if they could resist trying to prove their status when it matters most, and trusting the work that came before them will say more than enough.