We’ve all had to deal with a lot of our rites of spring being moved to another location on the calendar or lost to the pandemic altogether. Opening Day, Memorial Day blockbuster movies, Derby parties, all of these and more were lost or moved to an unfamiliar spot in life’s routine. Oh, and Pep Guardiola getting lost in his own head and watching his team “Yoikes And Away!” out of the Champions League. Normally a spring tradition, this time around the sun it was a late-summer treat for those not clad in blue.
It should be said at the top that as with all of City’s exits in this competition of recent vintage, they were a touch unlucky to be on the losing end. They had 18 shots to Lyon’s seven. The expected goals count was 2.68 to 0.87 in their favor. They completed over three times as many passes in the attacking third of the field than their French opponents. But that’s hardly the main narrative, rather than merely some additional detail at the margins.
As Pep did two years ago against Liverpool, and last year against Tottenham, he gave far too much concern to the opposition and how to play them. This is Manchester City, who despite their second-place finish in the Premier League, were metrically the most dominant team in all of Europe in the non-Bayern Munich division. A team that scored 102 goals in the league this year. One that had just casually seen off Real Madrid without breaking too much of a sweat (Madrid essentially hurling the ball into their own net twice certainly helped). What planning did it really take?
Instead, Guardiola sent City out in a 3-4-2-1 formation that they’d used sparingly if at all during the season, instead of the 4-3-3 that had turned almost every opponent into a fine paste. City have struggled all season to find a suitable partner in defense for Aymeric Laporte, so perhaps Guardiola thought he could nullify Lyon’s counterattacking threat by solving the problem through numbers and using both Fernandinho and Eric Garcia in a back three.
The results were pretty sad, as City looked disjointed and stuttering, only mustering four shots total in the first half, compared to the 14 they would engineer in the second half after switching back to their normal formation. Riyah Mahrez, both David and Bernado Silva, and Phil Foden all started on the bench, and Foden and Bernardo Silva didn’t even come on at all. Guardiola only used two of his five available subs.
Whether Guardiola can be assigned all the blame for individual errors is unclear or even unfair, but then again a team’s focus is usually pinned on the manager. Maxwel Cornet’s opening goal came from both Garcia and Fernandinho losing the initial run through by Houssam Anour from midfield, though both weren’t helped by both Laporte and Walker turning to stone while Cornet ran in to score. All of it is partially pinned with unfamiliarity about who goes where and who picks up whom in a strange formation.
Lyon’s killer second goal sprang from the usually dependable Laporte giving the ball way in midfield (and then possibly getting fouled by the eventual scorer Dembele in the ensuing build-up). The clinching third goal was the result of Ederson laying out a rebound as if he was displaying a vintage wine at your table. These aren’t the result of strange managerial decisions. And of course, this miss from Raheem Sterling can’t be pinned on anything other than trying to play with both hands and several bungee cords wrapped around your throat. For a better perspective, here’s how CBS analysts Jamie Carragher and Micah Richards reacted to it.
But these kinds of mistakes do spring from a team under intense pressure that it put itself under. And the question has to be asked why? While Lyon did knock out a less than vintage Juventus in the previous round, they still lost the second leg 2-1 and went through on away goals. This is the team that finished 7th in France. Why did they require such special planning? Does anyone think Hans Flick is going to send Munich out against Lyon with a special plan? Or will he send them out in the same formation they’ve won 18 in a row using with the simple instructions of “go fuck shit up?” City consider themselves in the same class as Munich, so why didn’t they act like it?
It’s obviously a different Champions League this time around. Normally, with a second leg to sort out any problems from the first, City probably wouldn’t have been as open for the second and third goals they surrendered and most certainly would have wiped the floor with Lyon with a second 90 minutes. But the rules are the same for everyone, and having two legs couldn’t save City from their mistakes in the past.
Freshness can’t really be used as an excuse, as City had 12 days off from the end of the Premier League season to their second-leg conquest of Madrid, and then another week until the clash with Lyon. Meanwhile, Lyon had only played one game of meaning in five months, which was their second leg in Turin.
All of it heaps the usual questions on Guardiola and City, just with more intensity. You’ll already hear “Messi to City” rumors given the state of Barcelona and Messi’s happiness at the moment, along with the connection he and Guardiola have. While it sounds silly to say about the greatest player of all-time, considering what City would either have to swap the other way or move out in a different direction to accommodate Messi’s position and salary, it’s a little unclear just how much of an improvement that would be. After all, City already score goals for fun. Messi is already 33, and questions of just how much longer he has at the top of the game or how that would translate to the far more intense Premier League are cliche but viable.
The signing of Nathan Ake from Bournemouth is an attempt to solve City’s biggest problem, and that’s a combination in defense with Laporte. And that alone might be enough. City aren’t going to lose much from this team. David Silva’s return to Spain is solved by Foden moving into the first team more often. Everyone else that matters is locked in, except for maybe the aging Fernandinho, at least in support of defensive midfielder Rodri.
City will enter the next Premier League season (which starts in about six minutes) as favorites, even if Liverpool are defending champions. Their domestic standing is not in question. But the seat at the table of Europe’s elite, which the club and Guardiola covet so badly, continues to elude them. Guardiola wasn’t brought to Manchester to assert their league dominance. They’d already won the league a couple of times before without him. He was hired to bring the European Cup to the other side of Manchester for the first time. How many more failures he will get before the City board wonder if he isn’t the guy after all. That number can’t be too much higher than “one,” if it is at all.
The answer to City’s problems in the Champions League appears simple, though. It’s not through purchases of more players or the hiring of yet another whisperer as manager. They just need to be Manchester City in Europe, instead of being whatever Guardiola thinks they need to be at the most important moments. Godzilla doesn’t try to reason with Mothra, after all.