It seemed as if Pep Guardiola was taunting us following the announcement of Manchester City’s lineup against Lyon in the Champions League quarterfinals. Already having a reputation for overthinking his lineups in Europe’s top tournament, Guardiola ditched his proactive 4-3-3 formation for a lineup replacing midfielders Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Phil Foden with five defenders. That abandonment of his attacking intent in another important match added to the years of social media scrutiny that compounded over time. You can set your calendar to the criticism every spring, before and after every knockout stage round. Guardiola has patented a response to these disappointments, acknowledging some unmanageable fate in repeating “it is what it is” after knockout stage losses to Tottenham and Lyon in consecutive years.
Then again, just over a week before the Lyon loss, Guardiola was lauded for reinventing Foden as a false nine position in their 2-1 win over Real Madrid. We determined that Guardiola had finally overcome this tactical block in becoming the first manager to eliminate Zinedine Zidane from the tournament. But even that decision to play Foden ahead of Mahrez and Bernardo and David Silva was rooted in reactivity, with the 20-year-old midfielder mainly used to mark Casemiro.
“If he had won, everyone would have said: ‘World-class tactics! Now he has surprised everyone,’” said Julian Nagelsmann on our obsession with Guardiola’s decision making in Europe.
In the post-match Real Madrid glow, Guardiola said he congratulated Zidane for his La Liga success as he believes that winning the league is the most difficult title considering the certainty of 38 matches replacing the unpredictability of tournament play. City were knocked out by Monaco in Guardiola’s first season at City, then Liverpool the next. Those were relatively straightforward compared to the 4-4 loss to Tottenham in the quarterfinals last season, which featured 4 goals in the first 11 minutes of the second leg and a potential last-minute winner from Sterling ruled out due to VAR. The swings in emotions made us question why we place so much importance to results decided by technology and inches. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, but what of trying to control something that is inherently random? Especially considering this season’s one-match format, which resulted in no Spanish, Italian, or English teams in the semifinals for the first time since 1991.
Several European clubs-turned-global brands who made the Champions League their obsession fall short every season. So why are we so fixated on Guardiola, who at least won two titles with Barcelona last decade? The Spanish manager does invite some backlash with his clear articulations of a possession-based style, as turning pragmatic during important matches is a breach of his own faith. He’s presented as a soccer version of HBO, where there’s the usual tactics, and then there’s his vision of the sport, filled with intricate geometric patterns of the elite. Had Guardiola lost playing his usual style, the criticism would be aimed towards the effectiveness of possession in Europe as opposed to his own perceived failings. But as long as we judge managers and players on results, our analysis will twist and turn just as easily.
We’re only playing armchair psychologists in criticizing Guardiola for “overthinking” matches. But it is a story now, and much like the debate about penalties, it is a topic Guardiola has to answer for whether or not it’s actually real. The closest we’ve come to that verbalization was in Marti Perarnau’s book about his first season with Bayern Munich. Following a 4-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, in which he changed his mind between a 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation before settling upon a seemingly reckless 4-2-4 formation that was predictably overrun in midfield, he described the moment as the “biggest f*ck up of my life as a coach.” Thomas Muller observed that Guardiola was always torn between his playing style and the strength of his opposition.
“There are a lot of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win titles,” said Jose Mourinho after his Manchester United side beat Ajax in the 2017 Europa League Final. The match had the easy narrative of the ultimate pragmatist upending the attacking poets in a final, showing how once again, beautiful football is for the aesthetics while the real trophies go to sides who grind out results. In continuing famous quotes dissecting the regular season versus knockout tournaments, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane famously said that his style doesn’t work in the playoffs due to its crapshoot nature.
There is an element of gatekeeping in thinking how the regular season crowns the “real” champions while knockout tournaments are for the gritty non-poets and non-academics, where intangibles like will, desire, and heart are seen as the difference. From the perspective of controlling a 38-match season, these one or two legged ties can be derided as “it is what it is” instead of an actual measure of skill. But regardless of how one views knockout matches, its history is written by the winners, and social media never lets us forget the failures.
“Different year, same stuff,” lamented de Bruyne following the Lyon loss, adding how City “should have been more offensive” in the first half. In the past, these sorts of challenges would have been met with stern lectures and transfer rumors, but what can Guardiola say in response?
There must be added disappointment in knowing how City only needed to coax three more performances to win it all. This was the season for an imperfect, unbalanced side to win the Champions League. This is not a vintage Guardiola side, continuing their transition from the previous era defined by the spine and solidity of Silva and Vincent Kompany. Yet maybe some combination of Sterling, Mahrez, Foden, Jesus, and David and Bernardo Silva could have pressured enough to get a random bounce or a VAR call go their way. The rest of Guardiola’s philosophies - the midfield balance, the defensive pressuring - could be figured out this summer.
Though at least Guardiola and City will have another chance in Europe next season considering their overturned two-year band. We can already predict the headlines and criticisms months from now should City make the round of 16, sneering that Guardiola’s overthought it again. When asked to respond to criticism that he’s only won the Champions League because he had Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta, Guardiola said that he agreed, adding that he was telling us back then how lucky he was. We were probably too caught up in the passing and possession to listen. In lieu of randomness, winning the Champions League could be as simple as having three world class players peaking at the same time.