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Manchester City Played Pep Roulette and Lost the Champions League

As managers of their respective billionaire megaclubs, Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola took opposite approaches: Guardiola embraced infinite possibility at Manchester City, while Tuchel embraced meaningful limits at Chelsea. Tuchel’s way won in the Champions League final.

FBL-EUR-C1-MAN CITY-CHELSEA Photo by DAVID RAMOS/AFP via Getty Images

Pep Guardiola is known—and this is putting it mildly—for tinkering with his lineups. The manager of the richest soccer club in the world, Manchester City, which is owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, Guardiola enjoys command of a squad absolutely stacked with the game’s best and costliest players. Man City’s bench (and the players standing behind its bench, and maybe the waterboys milling around behind them) could waltz into the starting 11 of many other elite clubs. Guardiola thus has the luxury, from game to game, of performing an almost infinite amount of fiddling with his squad; with few players who are locks to start—the exceptions are the stalwart Portugese defender Rúben Dias and the superstar Belgian midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, when he’s healthy—Pep can pick his team based on a shifting and largely opaque calculation of fitness, tactics, and mood, one whose precise ins and outs are known only to Pep himself.

The difficulty of predicting who will play for Man City in any given match is so pronounced that it’s acquired its own satirical nickname among soccer fans: Pep roulette. Most of the time, the existence of Pep roulette seems like the enviable sign of two of City’s biggest advantages, the higher math that results when one of soccer’s most brilliant managers is given control of a bottomless pool of talent. (It means, for instance, that fatigue is rarely a problem for City, unlike many top clubs that make deep runs in multiple competitions every year.) Other times, though, Pep roulette backfires spectacularly, in ways that leave you thinking about The Deer Hunter, and Christopher Walken, and that other form of roulette.

Unfortunately for Man City fans, Saturday’s Champions League final, which City lost to its billionaire-superclub archrival, Chelsea, 1-0, was the second kind of match. Before the game, I told a friend that I was excited to find out, at long last, who Guardiola thought his starters were—the joke being that City’s rotation policy is so extreme, and their talent advantage generally so immense, that Pep might not field his true A team until the very last game of the season. Then the team sheet came out, Man City Twitter melted down, and I realized that my joke hadn’t gone far enough. City’s ability to stockpile stars at every position, an ability almost unique in club soccer, means that they don’t have a clear A team. Man City’s identity as a team isn’t one identity; it’s shifting, provisional, an amorphous clutter of possible identities from which Pep assembles a fresh vision every week. For much of the season in the English Premier League, which City won easily, their defense was regarded as the backbone of the squad. They’d smother you with Dias and John Stones and eke out airless wins. But City can also be a high-flying, fast-scoring attack machine; seemingly no one posts as many 4-2 or 5-1 scores as they do. They’re a quantum uncertainty that can play Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero off the bench.

The thing about Saturday’s team sheet that made fans freak out before the match was that Guardiola, to the surprise of more or less everyone on earth, elected not to play Fernandinho or Rodri, defensive-minded midfielders who could have helped protect City’s backline. Instead, Guardiola fielded a wildly attacking team, including not only De Bruyne, Mahrez, Phil Foden, and Bernardo Silva, but also Raheem Sterling, a phenomenally talented star who’s had a poor season and who’s recently looked like he’d struggle to put the ball through an open garage door. (By comparison, the relatively unheralded Ilkay Gündogan was arguably the best player in the Premier League for much of this calendar year; this is what I mean about City being, in some ways, post-identity.)

Sterling’s inclusion in the squad suggested that Guardiola wanted to knock a hatful of goals past Chelsea’s keeper, Edouard Mendy, and win in high style. This is a cool goal, a goal I would love all soccer managers to adopt; in this case, though, it seemed, at best, a little tactically optimistic. Less charitably, it seemed like trying to reenact the plot of Smokey and the Bandit with no semitruck and 14 Trans Ams. Chelsea had already beaten City twice in the past month, winning in both the FA Cup semifinal and the Premier League, and throwing on a misfiring Sterling didn’t look like the obvious path to blowing the London club off the pitch. More importantly, ever since Chelsea fired Frank Lampard and replaced him with the highly regarded young German manager Thomas Tuchel earlier this year, the Blues have solidified into one of the best defensive clubs in European soccer. Throwing the Six Strikers of the Apocalypse at the well-drilled Chelsea backline, as Guardiola did, brought a terrible risk of being caught out by a Chelsea counterattack.

If it seems as though I haven’t said much about the newly crowned champions of Europe—the team that actually won the game!—it’s because compared to Manchester City, Chelsea are an extremely straightforward proposition. From almost the moment he arrived in London, Tuchel instilled a clear identity in his new club. It was built around the defensive solidity of Mendy, César Azpilicueta, and Antonio Rüdiger. Chelsea has a lot of attacking talent—even when you allow for the almost breathtaking run of bad luck and poor finishing that’s engulfed Timo Werner, they still boast the young American star Christian Pulisic and the young English star Mason Mount alongside established players like Olivier Giroud—but first and foremost, they became a team that refused to be broken down.

In that sense, Guardiola’s approach to the Champions League final only forced an exaggerated version of the attack-vs.-defense matchup that previews of the game had been calling for all week. Guardiola gave Tuchel exactly the game Tuchel wanted and gambled that his team would be better at it. The problem was that he tried to conjure the mirror image of Chelsea out of Man City’s repertoire of possible selves, while Chelsea just concentrated on being itself. Talent or no talent, it’s harder to improvise an unstoppable force than to be an immovable object after a lot of practice.

And that was how—after a fun, zingy first half in which Sterling kept getting the ball and not doing a whole lot with it—the Chelsea midfielder Kai Havertz took a gorgeous through ball from Mount on the counter, collected it at the edge of the area, slipped past City’s onrushing goalkeeper, Ederson, and knocked it into the net for what turned out to be the tournament-winning goal. It was Havertz’s first goal in 20 Champions League appearances; it was also more or less the exact goal you saw happening when you looked at the team sheets before the match and then sternly reminded yourself that Pep Guardiola is a better soccer manager than you are. (You reminded yourself of this a second time, even more sternly, in the second half, when Fernandinho, the holding midfielder Guardiola initially left out, came on as a substitute.)

The challenge for a soccer club that has a never-ending supply of money may not be that money makes you lose your soul; the heartbreaking sight of de Bruyne sobbing in frustration and pain, after a hard collision with Rüdiger forced him to come out of the game in the 58th minute, ought to have proved that it doesn’t, or doesn’t always. Manchester City’s players are as driven and as passionate as any other group of elite competitors. (Think of City legend Agüero, playing his last handful of minutes for the club after 10 years and more than 300 matches, trying desperately to get forward for the leveling goal.) The challenge may be that when you can afford to be everything, you never quite become anything; when you can keep buying new light bulbs forever, you never find out what you are in the dark. This might be an unlikely thing to write about a club owned by Roman Abramovich—after a match partly sponsored by Gazprom, no less—but that was the problem Tuchel seemed to solve for Chelsea.

In this season, and for this match, Tuchel and Guardiola took opposite approaches to the problem of the postmodern megaclub. Guardiola embraced infinite possibility; Tuchel embraced meaningful limits. Chelsea’s win was a brilliant vindication of the younger manager’s approach and his players’ commitment to it, but it’s probably too soon to write off Pep’s innovations in post-identity football. One loss doesn’t make a blackout. And even if it did, Manchester City can afford a lot of light bulbs.

An earlier version of this piece misstated that Chelsea had beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final; Chelsea beat City in the semifinal.