Pep Guardiola had an inkling.
“I did not come here to win the Champions League,” he said in the buildup before Manchester City’s second leg Champions League quarterfinal match against Tottenham. “I came here to make the team play the way they have in the last twenty months.”
The timing of the admission was curious, though it may have been effective in deflating a building tension and pressure to perform within City’s dressing room. Following an instant classic 4-3 result that knocked his side out of the competition, Guardiola reiterated that City making the semifinals was an “incredible illusion” since the club had only been there once before.
But as one Spanish columnist put it, why else is Guardiola at City if not to win the Champions League?
Despite his 26 trophies as manager and immeasurable influence, a sense of Guardiola’s failures in Europe was already in the air following City’s 1-0 loss in that first leg in which he benched Kevin de Bruyne for the midfield solidarity of Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho. By reinforcing the base of his midfield against Spurs in the first leg, he sacrificed City’s ability to stretch out the field and play out through a high press. “Does Pep Guardiola ‘Overthink’ Big Games?” asked one YouTube analysis channel, observing that the manager eschews his 4-3-3 possession-based, attacking style as he tries to counter how he thinks his opponents will set up.
In analyzing why his sides haven’t won a big away match since 2011, Jonathan Wilson accused Guardiola of “selecting an unfamiliar team and reaping the consequences.” Simply put, Guardiola, perhaps the foremost philosopher of the modern game, becomes too pragmatic in big matches. It is a sign that he is human, after all.
Yet there is a dissonance in Guardiola reverting back to practicality in lieu of upholding his beliefs when it matters. And how can a manager responsible for his role in modernizing the game with quick passing and pressing, whose made use of tactical nuances from the false 9 to inverted fullbacks, not only be unable to figure out how to win in Europe but actually gain a reputation in failing on the stage? Before the second-leg match, Pochettino wondered aloud how many trophies Guardiola had won in his career, apologizing in advance before asking “I think he won 25 or 26? Or 24?”
Guardiola offered an explanation for his struggles in Europe, saying that a team can get knocked out of the tournament after “one bad game.” It is also why he thought winning the Premier League was superior to winning the Champions League, and building a side to play over 20 months was more meaningful than winning seven matches over a knockout phase. It seems paradoxical to think that winning 38 matches is easier than winning seven, but it makes sense when one takes into consideration talent and budget. But it is those singular matches decided by a moment or mistake that makes the Champions League mythical, however incompatible it may be with Guardiola’s thinking. Does getting lucky in a second-leg of a quarterfinals match take away from a side’s overall approach? It recalls Billy Beane’s infamous quote in Moneyball, about how his style doesn’t work in the playoffs. Of course, the Oakland A’s were operating with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Guardiola has spent over $900 million on players since Bayern Munich.
A list of recent Champions League semifinalists seems to contradict Guardiola’s beliefs that a side cannot consistently win in a tournament decided by a small sample size. How else does one explain Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, or even the Guardiola-influenced Bayern and Barcelona? European giants gain their reputation for a reason. The explanation may not lie in tactics or what can be measured. It may be a blind spot when looking at the game from a specific point of view.
How Guardiola responded to Champions League failure during his first season as manager of Bayern Munich took on a life of its own. In the buildup to the second leg against Real Madrid, Guardiola desperately switched between a 3-4-3 formation, to a 4-2-3-1, to finally, a 4-2-4 shape. Real Madrid overran his two player midfield and won 4-0, handing Guardiola his worse loss of his professional career, as well as Bayern’s biggest loss in Europe. Guardiola was in disbelief, exclaiming “I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach.”
It was the first time we saw the impeccable Guardiola lose his nerve, and he may regret that behind-the-scenes look if he were still to even think about it. After all, when does a series of unrelated losses take on its own narrative and turn into its own weight? A club’s reputation in Champions League informs our explanations as we look backwards to fill in the holes. Real Madrid comebacks are passed off as something intrinsic to the club. Juventus’ obsession with Europe result in their failures. Guardiola’s struggles in Europe may have been whispers before, an outward conversation now until he actually wins another Champions League.
Most pessimistically, when Guardiola said that he wasn’t focused on City’s results in Europe, my mind went straight to the club’s emphasis on building a global brand. The implication was that either trophies ultimately wouldn’t matter in engaging fans in the attention age of social media, or that the potential of a new European league would supercede the excitement of the competition. And while Ajax and Tottenham are singular stories for this season, it is that intangible, lack of control of Champions League matches that makes it the one trophy near impossible to buy - and perhaps the most resonant to supporters for that reason. It is the one trophy that many refer to as “a dream” or “an obsession.”
Right after Raheem Sterling seemingly scored Manchester City’s 5th and decisive goal, Guardiola jumped and up along the sideline in celebration. Then there were the ensuing moments with the referee turning to VAR, and the now iconic scoreboard shot relaying that City were offsides. Guardiola dropped to his knees and held his head. Guardiola’s purpose at City may not be to win the Champions League, but there’s no denying that the competition matters.