Overthinking of ‘tinkerman’ Guardiola costs Man City again
Forget, if it is possible, Raheem Sterling’s extraordinary miss in front of an open goal.
Forget, too, the trip on Aymeric Laporte that strangely went unpunished by VAR.
The seeds of Manchester City’s latest meek exit in the Champions League lie at the door of Pep Guardiola and his overthinking.
Guardiola’s decision to switch to an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation and reduce his team’s creative output in attacking areas backfired in the 3-1 loss to Lyon in the quarterfinals that didn’t just leave City still waiting for that elusive first title in Europe’s top competition.
It also left Guardiola facing more criticism than perhaps ever before during his four-year tenure at the English club in which it has failed to get beyond the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Just when Guardiola appeared to have found an ideal shape for City to take into these big European games — the last-16 win over Real Madrid saw the team play with so much maturity and assuredness — he changed things around once again.
Somewhat negatively, he chose to match Lyon’s system and formation, adding an extra center back to deal with the pace of Lyon forwards Memphis Depay and Karl Toko Ekambi and playing two more defensive-minded central midfielders ahead of them in Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan.
The lineup raised eyebrows. Why would City, which has the most prolific attack in Europe, go against its own strengths and be so preoccupied with a more limited, if dangerous, opponent which — let’s not forget — finished seventh in the French league last season?
It didn’t even work, with Lyon’s first goal stemming from a simple ball over the top that beat City’s high line.
In the meantime, City’s offensive game was stunted, only springing into life in the second half when chasing the game.
Guardiola has history with his overthinking when it matters most, going as far back as his time at Bayern Munich when he changed his formation to 4-2-4 for the second leg of the semifinals against Real Madrid in 2014. Madrid, 1-0 ahead from the first leg, won the return match 4-0 in one of the most humiliating nights of Guardiola’s career.
In his first season at City in 2016, there was a wild last-16 exit to ultra-offensive Monaco when Guardiola was unwilling to change his attack-at-all-costs style. Given he had no faith in his defense — in particular his full backs — at the time, perhaps it was understandable.
Then, a year later, Guardiola chose to play an extra central midfielder, Gundogan, out wide instead of winger Sterling, based on a belief it would allow City to take charge of midfield against Liverpool in the first leg of the quarterfinals. City lost the game 3-0, with its players clearly unsure in the reshaped system, and couldn’t recover in the second leg.
And against Tottenham in last season’s quarterfinals, City tinkered with its midfield and deployed a more defensive and passive approach in the first leg away — keeping Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench until late — and lost 1-0 after Sergio Aguero had a penalty saved. Failing to score proved crucial in London as City went out on away goals.
Guardiola’s successful tinkerings can often be glossed over, of course. Young midfielder Phil Foden played as a false nine in stages against Madrid in the last 16 this season, for example, to help City’s high press work a treat.
But when they fail to come off, as against Lyon, Guardiola will invariably face much criticism, particularly as it leaves City yet to cross that final frontier in Europe — something so craved by the club’s Abu Dhabi ownership.
Last season, City’s knockout-stage route to the final could have been Hoffenheim, Tottenham and Ajax. It doesn’t get much better than that.
This season, Barcelona, Madrid, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid had all been eliminated. It was another great chance, albeit with Bayern Munich representing a major obstacle in the semifinals.
“Life is how you stand up again and next season we’re going to try again,” Guardiola said.
It will likely be his last chance with City’s expensively assembled squad — and mark a decade since winning the Champions League for the second and last time with Barcelona.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80