clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is considered by many to be one of the greatest tacticians in the history of the sport. So why has he been so frequently frustrated in the Champions League? And is he his own worst enemy?

Scott Laven/Getty Images

London, May 2011. As Pep Guardiola skipped across the Wembley turf in the wake of Barcelona’s 3-1 Champions League final filleting of Manchester United, it would have taken a brave observer to predict that, a decade on, he not only would have failed to add to his two Champions League successes in three seasons of management, he would not even have been back to the final. But then, no one would have predicted that night that just 12 months later, Guardiola would be offering a tearful goodbye to a packed press room filled out with his own equally disconsolate players. This most intense of coaches was seemingly exhausted by his entanglement with his then nemesis, the man he had beaten to the Barcelona job in 2008, José Mourinho.

After Pep’s three years with the aristocrats of Bayern Munich and five with the nouveau riche of Manchester City, there is not a great deal to show for it on club football’s grandest, most demanding stage. The growing suspicion is that Guardiola is a coach who, when it comes to domestic competition, has created some of the most refined and dominant football of the age, but who also routinely overcomplicates matters when faced with the jeopardy of the Champions League’s knockout stages. His well-oiled machines become sabotaged by his last-minute tactical curveballs and counterintuitive selections.

Of course, there is an interesting alternative history to be written in which Mourinho doesn’t turn up at Real Madrid and doesn’t submerge the historic clásico animosity in layers of bespoke toxicity; Pep doesn’t succumb to exhaustion, stays in Barcelona, and leads one of the all-time great club teams to who knows how many more Champions League titles. Perhaps something close to the four-in-five seasons that Real would win after Mourinho’s departure. But such a story is rarely satisfying to the Fates, and the truth is that Mourinho was already putting a shit-covered stick in the wheel of Barça’s juggernaut even before he got to the Spanish capital.

After the 2008-09 Champions League triumph over Alex Ferguson’s United in Guardiola’s rookie managerial season, Barça’s 2009-10 campaign reached a semifinal encounter with Mourinho’s Inter Milan when those Fates intervened in the shape of an Icelandic volcano. European airspace was closed, forcing Barça into a 14-hour road trip to San Siro where, unsurprisingly, they looked leggy in a 3-1 defeat. Having taken the bus there, they met a parked airbus in the return match. Inter, reduced to 10 men in the opening half hour, defended grimly, rode their luck, and kept the score line to 1-0, sending Mourinho into a delirious, sprinkler-soaked sprint across the pitch, taunting those who had mocked him as “the translator,” with a rancor he bottled up and took with him to the Bernabéu.

At the semifinal stage of the 2010-11 tournament, Pep again found José lurking with malign intent. The first leg was preceded by two clásicos in a week—1-1 in La Liga then a 1-0 Copa del Rey final win for Real—and culminated with Pep finally firing some verbal barbs back at his rival after incessant goading, describing Mourinho as “el puto jefe, el puto amo” (“the fucking boss, the fucking master”) of the press room, a move welcomed in the blaugrana locker room as the long-overdue lancing of a boil. Two late Messi goals—both Pepe and Mourinho were shown red cards on the hour—settled a fractious Champions League clash game and, effectively, the tie.

The following year, however, José stirred Real to a 100-point La Liga season, with Pep failing to win the title for the first time (he has only lost his domestic league three times in his 12 seasons, which makes the Champions League woes all the more peculiar), while Barça again succumbed to 10 men in the semis, with Chelsea rousing themselves from John Terry’s red card and coming from 2-0 down in Camp Nou to draw 2-2, going through 3-2 on aggregate.

And then Pep was gone. The more unkind might say he has never been back, at least when it comes to heavyweight Champions League knockout encounters.

Guardiola spent a sabbatical year in New York, learning German and watching Jupp Heynckes, the popular outgoing Bayern Munich coach, oversee a treble-winning season (including what remains a record 91 points in the Bundesliga), culminating in a 2-1 Champions League final defeat of Borussia Dortmund. It was an ambivalent inheritance for Guardiola inasmuch as it immediately contracted his scope to take the team to new heights (Bayern’s previous win in the competition had come in 2001). Of course, those intricate passing filigrees we associate with Guardiola were there across three Bundesliga-winning campaigns (by margins of 19, 10, and 10 points), but the Champions League brought only pain: three semifinal exits to Spanish teams, at least two of which were self-inflicted.

The first of these was to Real Madrid in 2014, which Guardiola described as “the biggest fuck-up” of his career. Heading into the first leg, Bayern had already wrapped up the Bundesliga with a record seven games to spare. They enjoyed 80 percent first-half possession at the Bernabéu, but found themselves 1-0 down. A goalless second half left things evenly poised for the Munich leg, where Madrid’s record was nine defeats and one draw. But in the interim, Pep’s assistant and successor at Barcelona, Tito Vilanova, lost his battle with cancer and, in the turmoil of those days, Pep made an eleventh-hour switch from 4-2-3-1 to a gung-ho 4-2-4. Bayern were 3-0 down inside 35 minutes, eventually losing 4-0 to two Sergio Ramos headers and a pair of counterattack strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo.

Twelve months after being routed by BBC (Benzema, Bale, Cristiano), Bayern travelled to Camp Nou for a first-leg encounter with MSN (Messi, Suárez, Neymar). Again Pep switched to an unfamiliar formation, this time a back three with wingbacks, instructing the 3-4-3 to press high. Barcelona repeatedly broke the press and breached the high defensive line, forcing Guardiola to re-jig midway through the first half. The score line was 0-0 at the time, but a frazzled Bayern were picked off in the closing stages and lost 3-0.

An early Mehdi Benatia goal in Munich revived Bavarian hopes, but Neymar netted twice before the half-hour mark and the Allianz Arena was again forced to sit through a long, impromptu wake.

Although there may have been an element of bad luck about the 2016 semifinal exit to Atlético Madrid—Diego Simeone’s men scored early in Madrid and defended it to the whistle, while an Antoine Griezmann goal against the run of play in Munich left Bayern needing two in half an hour against the double-banked rojiblanco wall—the idea was beginning to form that, when it came to Champions League knockout ties, Guardiola tended to overcomplicate things. It is a reputation he is yet to shake off.

Bayern legend Lothar Matthäus would later describe the Catalan’s big-game tinkering as “egocentric,” as though those counterintuitive formations and selections came about less from exhaustive tactical analysis than a subconscious desire to be the deciding factor, the genius whose insight unlocks the game. However, as Alex Ferguson understood deeply, management is as much about knowing when to be hands-off as hands-on. Pep’s five-year tenure (with two more on contract) at Manchester City may have dispelled the idea that formed in the wake of his Barcelona exit—namely, that his fabled intensity makes lengthy managerial posts unlikely—but it has only solidified the sense that he overthinks games in which he ought to trust his team.

While there has been much sublime football and trophy gorging with City at a domestic level, the fact remains that the most lavishly funded club project in football history has yet to experience a Champions League semifinal under Guardiola. The four knockout eliminations—to Monaco in the Last 16, then quarterfinals against a Liverpool side that finished 25 points behind them in the league, Tottenham Hotspur, and Lyon—all owed something to Pep’s fiddling. There is a place for tactical tinkering, of course, but the risk is that it indicates anxiety, transmitting inhibitions to your players.

That dreamy 2017 Monaco team of Kylian Mbappé, Fabinho, and Bernardo Silva showed Pep the way, blazing into a 3-2 lead at the Etihad before ultimately losing 5-3. By contrast, an unusually passive City failed to land a shot on target in the Principality until the 65th minute, losing 3-1 and exiting on away goals, the first team in Champions League history to be eliminated after scoring five in the first leg.

The quarterfinal defeats to Liverpool and Spurs were both colored by a similar caution, signaled by curious Guardiola selections for the opening away legs. At Anfield, perhaps spooked by City’s visit three months earlier when they had found themselves 4-1 down going into the last 10 minutes (at that stage their only Premier League defeat of the season), Guardiola played Ilkay Gündogan in a withdrawn role on the right of midfield, with 21-goal Raheem Sterling benched, and Aymeric Laporte out of position at left back. It backfired. Having sacrificed some offensive potency for notional defensive solidity, City were still overwhelmed and went in 3-0 down at halftime. It was a mountain they were unable to climb, and Pep’s team, en route to 100 points in the Premier League, were dumped out 5-1.

The following year’s exit to Spurs—a team City had beaten home and away in the Premier League for two straight seasons—is chiefly remembered for a wild second leg in Manchester that began with five goals in 21 minutes and ended with a contentious Fernando Llorente tie-leveler and a hair’s breadth VAR call that denied Sterling an injury-time winner. While Pep could always point to his team’s misfortunes—both at the Etihad and in London, where Sergio Agüero missed an early penalty in the 1-0 loss—City’s overall superiority ought to have insulated them from circumstances in which bad luck could hurt them. Guardiola’s decision to leave his star player, Kevin De Bruyne, on the bench for 89 minutes of the first leg, questionable at the time, seemed unfathomable in the wake of defeat. To adapt Gary Player’s famous dictum: The more I pick my best players, the luckier I get. And there was little bad luck—and more dubious tactical computations—in last season’s Champions League exit.

After an impressive Last 16 triumph over Real Madrid (either side of a 163-day, COVID-enforced interval), City traveled to Portugal to play Lyon in a one-off quarterfinal. Again Guardiola pivoted to an unfamiliar back three—mirroring Lyon’s formation—with the right-footed João Cancelo at left wingback. City missed big chances—Sterling inexplicably headed over an empty net from 6 yards out—and were outmaneuvered (until the introduction of Riyad Mahrez brought a switch to 4-3-3) and eventually lost 3-1. The impression was that, once more, Pep had tried to reinvent the wheel; he had given too much mental bandwidth to the threat posed by inferior opponents, and his own team suffered. It is beginning to look like a pattern, a personal trait, a flaw. And the more these experiences accumulate, the harder it becomes to carry their weight, their potential lessons congealing into trauma.

This year’s attempt to break into the semifinals and beyond—and, for Guardiola, to cast off the charge of Messidependencia (a word coined for post-Pep Barça’s increasing reliance on the Argentine maestro, but equally applicable to Guardiola’s early Champions League successes)—brings them up against Borussia Dortmund. In ordinary times, that would mean a testing trip to a raucous Westfalenstadion. City may not have to face the Yellow Wall, but Dortmund possess genuinely world-class forwards in Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, and Marco Reus, and recent evidence suggests Guardiola will set out to avoid a basketball game. Would that be the correct approach, though? More importantly, would it align with his squad’s talents, even with the defense solidified by the September signing of Rúben Dias? A cagey game might be Dortmund’s preference. After all, for City, a 4-3 defeat is better than a 1-0.

Winning the European Cup is not easy. Only three coaches have done it more times than Guardiola: Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti, and Zinédine Zidane, with three apiece. Only five have won it at more than one club. If Guardiola’s spell at Manchester City ends without a Champions League success, will he be considered a failure? Pep himself has said as much—not that we are obliged to judge him by criteria of his own devising. Perhaps “fallen short of expectations” would be fairer, more nuanced.

For now, though, a City team with a clearly identifiable style (even if naming their best XI is difficult) perhaps needs its manager to trust that this method, and squad, is good enough to get past Dortmund, then either Bayern or PSG (last year’s beaten finalists and the obvious club with which to compare Abu Dhabi–era City), good enough to take Pep back to his first final since Wembley all those years ago. Perhaps he should listen to Lothar Matthäus, who knew a thing or two about egocentricity: “I would like to tell him: Pep, you are a giant trainer—but please keep your system!”

Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, Vice, ESPN, i-D, and New Statesman, among others.