Perhaps the true sign of a great manager is how long he can leave his team on autopilot once his system and tactics are installed. While each game requires minor adjustments here or there, they shouldn’t amount to much more than the grade on the tires. The engine remains the same. And no team should be more automatic than Manchester City.
And yet Pep Guardiola, at the biggest moments, can’t help but want to change the gearbox or find a new braking system at the last minute.
City rolled through the Premier League, and pretty much waltzed to the Champions League final, with the same system. The players might change here-and-there due to fatigue or rotation or unique requirements of a specific game, but the idea was the same. Pep had adopted a striker-less 4-3-3, with either Rodri or Fernandinho at the base of midfield shielding the defense. It had Ilkay Gündoğan at the sharp end, making the late runs beyond the forward line to become the team’s leading scorer. Sometimes it was Kevin De Bruyne as the false nine. Sometimes it was Phil Foden. Maybe someone else. But that midfield, with the wide forwards pulling opposing backlines apart and providing space for Gündoğan or another midfielder to run through.
That system had seen City clinch the Premier League by 12 points. The only time they faced any peril in the Champions League was the first half against PSG in the semifinals, which they quickly rectified. And maybe the first half of the second leg against Dortmund, which saw them go behind on away goals for 40 minutes. Again, quickly rectified.
Even though Chelsea had beaten City two straight, once in the league and once in the FA Cup, they hadn’t faced City’s best 11 in those. While Chelsea had no reason to lack confidence, neither did City, who should have been assured their normal and best lineup would have broken through in ways their rotated team couldn’t in those two games. After all, it hadn’t failed to do so since December.
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But Pep couldn’t help himself. He never can.
When the lineups were announced some one hour before kickoff, a chill must’ve gone down every City’s fan spine. Guardiola was outthinking himself again. There was no Rodri. There was no Fernandinho. There was no defensive midfielder at all. “No DM” started trending on Twitter.
It wasn’t hard to see the thinking, even if it didn’t seem logical. Chelsea had gotten to this point by being an impenetrable fortress defensively, and Guardiola wanted to throw all the attack-minded players on the field to try and break them down.
The only problem was that it would work against a team that was utterly helpless on the counter, which Chelsea very much aren’t. When the ball turned over, Chelsea sliced through City like a Hattori Hanzō blade, as there was no midfielder to try and break things up. Had Timo Werner not left the feeling in his feet back in Leipzig all season, Chelsea might have had this finished by halftime.
They did get the only goal they needed though on a counter:
Look at the time Mason Mount had to pick out Kai Havertz. Look at the lane he had to make that pass. John Stones, the central defender, tries to step up to pressure Mount because there’s no one else to do it, but that leaves the run for Havertz. Guardiola is lucky this is the only time he paid for it.
As far as his decision to swarm the midfield with attackers, it didn’t work because N’Golo Kanté lives there for Chelsea. You might as well try and swarm the wind. Gündoğan was too deep to pop up in the box or between the lines. Bernardo Silva might as well have not shown up. Foden and De Bruyne, until he went off with an injury, ended up standing next to and staring at each other. Chelsea forced City to play it wide, where fullbacks Reece James and Ben Chillwell were velcroed to Sterling and Mahrez. The amount of times those two received the ball with their back to goal will keep Guardiola up at night. That’s not how City play.
And that’s perhaps what was so startling about yesterday’s Final. City looked so toothless. They only created 0.4 xG to Chelsea’s 1.4. This wasn’t some defiant defensive miracle from Chelsea. City only managed one shot on target. Seven shots overall. It was...easy?
One of City’s best chances came from playing Sterling in over the top, but their best player to play those passes, De Bruyne, was at the top of the field. Gundogan isn’t used to being that deep to play them. There weren’t many layers to City’s attack.
It continues a worrying trend for City and Guardiola in the Champions League. Last season it was a bizarre switch to a 3-5-2 in the quarters against Lyon that City had never played before. The season before that it was an ultra-cautious approach against Spurs in the first leg of the quarters that had no wide players. The year before that it was getting shredded by Liverpool in the first leg of the quarters when they left too much space for their supercharged forward line. It’s always something.
Guardiola is unquestionably one of the best managers in the world. He has created a few of the best teams England has ever seen, and developed players from merely good to world class like Sterling or Foden. But City might already have a European Cup if he could resist from trying to prove his status when it matters most, and just trust the work that came before will say more than enough.