Is there another manager who turns the Champions League knockout stages into an existential battle for his soul quite like Pep Guardiola?
The only time Manchester City appeared likely to win Saturday’s quarterfinal against Lyon was when they looked like themselves: A dominant 20-minute, second-half spell that coincided with Guardiola abandoning an unfamiliar 3-5-2 shape in favour of their conventional back four, a sumptuous Kevin De Bruyne equaliser and concerted pressure thereafter. Yet, City went behind as a result of Guardiola’s early conservatism and they were knocked out of the competition after losing 3-1 due to Lyon exposing the defensive vulnerabilities he hitherto sought to protect with his initial formation.
No wonder Guardiola looks so exasperated on these nights.
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Guardiola and Manchester City will surely one day try to win the Champions League on their own terms, prioritising the free-flowing, expansive football that overwhelms so many weaker opponents. The need to do something different against better opponents on the biggest stage is seemingly a thought that consumes Guardiola on an annual basis.
Since Chelsea mugged his Barcelona side on the way to winning the 2012 crown, Guardiola has faltered under the weight of expectation to deliver the Champions League trophy, an expectation heightened by the domestic supremacy he enjoyed at Bayern Munich and with City.
A warning came in the form of the two group stage meetings with Lyon last season, as the Ligue 1 side won at the Etihad Stadium and were only denied a double by Sergio Aguero’s late equaliser, sitting deep and counter-attacking to devastating effect. Maxwel Cornet scored in both matches and he netted the opener here, taking advantage of Kyle Walker’s positional error in playing Karl Toko Ekambi onside. Eric Garcia did well to tackle Ekambi, but the loose ball fell to Cornet and he curled a low finish superbly past Ederson from outside the area.
Walker and Guardiola exchanged impassioned words on the touchline as the inquest began. The England international was man of the match against Real Madrid, but here he looked lost between playing his natural game and the one Guardiola was asking. He wasn’t alone.
It was not until 11 minutes after the restart that Guardiola finally decided to abandon the strategy of mirroring Lyon’s system. It feels almost alien to describe City as lacking creativity but in a first half notable only for Raheem Sterling’s sporadic raids and one magical De Bruyne pass, Riyad Mahrez’s introduction had City almost immediately resembling their old selves.
They slowly went through the gears, albeit without hitting top speed. Lyon began to tire. De Bruyne grew in influence and his equaliser came through a cool side-footed finish from Sterling’s cutback. But just when it appeared a second City goal was inevitable, they imploded. Garcia lost possession cheaply, Houssem Aouar quickly released substitute Moussa Dembele but only after Ekambi had allowed the ball to run through his legs from an offside position.
It also appeared as though there was contact between Dembele and Garcia, desperately trying to recover, before the striker burst clear to score, but Dutch referee Danny Makkelie gave the goal and VAR did not argue otherwise. City players protested but this was not the same level of controversy as in last season’s defeat to Tottenham. Individual errors of their own counted for plenty more. Just 59 seconds before Dembele struck, Sterling somehow missed an open goal from Gabriel Jesus’ cross. Garcia should have done better in the build-up to Dembele’s first goal and his second owed everything to Ederson fluffing a tame Aouar shot to give him a tap-in.
Managers cannot be held accountable for individual mistakes. They should, however, be held accountable for presiding over performances where the impact of those mistakes is not mitigated by creating a plethora of chances, especially a team usually as creative as City. Once again, City fall at the quarterfinal stage, a barrier that is becoming as psychological to overcome as it is physical. The Champions League remains the Holy Grail for City and their manager, appearing at the end of an ever-steeper climb with each passing season.
Guardiola’s search extends back nine years; taking in last season’s defeat to Spurs when he was too defensive in the first leg, packing the midfield against Liverpool and, when in charge of Bayern, man-to-man marking Barcelona or opting for all-out attack against Real Madrid. It might be hard to question Guardiola, with all he has achieved in the game, but the component parts are too familiar not to prompt criticism in his direction.
Craig Burley says Pep Guardiola needs to find a way to solve defensive issues with his teams.
“One day we will break this gap to the semis,” he said after the match. “In the first 20, 25 minutes, we struggled to find spaces to attack.
“The second half was OK — we were there. I had a feeling we were better. You have to be perfect in this competition. We did a lot of good things, but it wasn’t enough. We made mistakes in the boxes in key moments. We struggled to find our spaces to attack.
“We made mistakes in both boxes at key moments. What we have done is try to cover our weak points compared to their strong points. That’s why. The first 15-20 minutes in the 1st half was magnificent. We struggled to find our spaces to attack.”
Guardiola famously described that 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid in April 2014 as the “biggest f—up of my life as a coach”.
Given Lyon had registered their worst league finish in 23 years and had gone almost five months without any competitive football before last week, Saturday’s loss probably isn’t far behind.