Pep Guardiola twisted when he should have stuck against Liverpool - and Manchester City ended up going bust

The choice of Ilkay Gundogan was supposed to add control but chaos reigned at Anfield

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Thursday 05 April 2018 12:54
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Pep Guardiola 'didn't expect' fans throwing bottles at Manchester City bus from 'prestigious' club like Liverpool

For Manchester City, the bruises will fade in a couple of days. Their wounded pride will heal in time. There is a Premier League title to be won this Saturday, and even with a three-goal deficit, their Champions League campaign may just about be salvageable. But as the images of shattered glass and shattered hopes from a vivid and traumatic night at Anfield finally pass into memory, the inquest can now begin in earnest.

On the forums overnight, a surprising number of City fans were prepared simply to write this off as a duff night. Their historically poor Anfield record was repeatedly cited in evidence. And so we come to the nub of the issue: are Liverpool FC simply City’s kryptonite, their skeleton key, the C-sharp to their C? Or has this game exposed deeper fissures that will need to be addressed if Pep Guardiola’s team want to add European glory to their Premier League title?

The truth is that City were beaten not by one great Liverpool performance, but by two. First, there was the stunning opening act in which Liverpool, roared on by a shrill and screeching crowd, carved them apart with pace and movement, guts and goals. Then there was the fraught final hour, when Liverpool dropped deeper, clenched their sphincters and held their hands to the fire. Twelve blocked crosses, four blocked shots. The fold in the game was evident in the respective possession ratios: 52-48 to City in that first half-hour, 73-27 thereafter.

And as cacophonously decisive as that opening period was, perhaps that last hour was more crucial still. Even a single City goal would have given them a strong chance at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night. Instead, they were kept dry for just the fourth time this season, three of them in knockout competition: the League Cup game against Wolves, the FA Cup defeat at Wigan, the Premier League game at Crystal Palace and now this, the biggest game of their season so far.

Perhaps it is simply coincidence that Ilkay Gundogan is the only player to have started all four games. But in a way Gundogan, awkwardly wedged into the midfield like the fourth person in the back seat of a car, encapsulated City’s rough night. Guardiola’s decision to leave out Raheem Sterling on his old ground was no surprise. Replacing him with Gundogan, though, was evidence of something more; of Guardiola’s innate trust in a player who was his first signing at City, who was identified as a priority even while he was still at Bayern Munich, despite a chequered injury history and an almost limitless array of potential targets.

Just as in the League Cup final against Arsenal, perhaps City’s most disjointed half of football this season, Gundogan was deployed not as a replacement for Fernandinho or Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva, but alongside them. “We wanted more passes, more control,” Guardiola said by way of explanation. “Gundo is very good arriving in the second line in the boxes. And we wanted to have more control of the midfield players.” Did it work? “We lost 3-0," was his terse response.

Actually, Gundogan didn’t have a terrible game. His pass completion rate was the highest on the pitch, even if his 36 passes were four fewer than even Loris Karius managed in the Liverpool goal. Time and again Andy Robertson was allowed to advance down the Liverpool left flank unchallenged, in turn exposing Kyle Walker at right-back. But that was due more to Guardiola’s determination to control the centre than to any particular laxity on Gundogan’s part. On a night of collective City absentia, Gundogan was just another blue shirt washed into a red sea.

No, the real reason for singling out Gundogan here is not for his individual performance, but what it says about his manager. This is by no means the first time, after all, that Guardiola has made significant tactical surgery ahead of a big Champions League game, and been comprehensively outflanked. There was the disastrous 4-2-4 he tried at Bayern Munich in the 2014 semi-final against Real Madrid. The famous three-man defence against Barcelona the following season. Leaving out Thomas Muller against Atletico Madrid in 2016. There were even echoes on Wednesday night of Barcelona’s strategy against Chelsea in the 2012 semi-final, when he dropped Pedro for the first leg and Dani Alves for the second, leaving them far too narrow.

Admittedly, there’s no particular tactical pattern there: in some cases penetration was sacrificed for greater control, in some the other way around. What does link them, however, is Guardiola’s tendency to tinker in these big showpiece games: his desire for a bespoke tactical solution, even if it means deviating from a well-drilled winning formula. The difference is roughly analogous to driving a hire car as opposed to your own. Neither scenario protects you against getting cut up on the M62. But somehow, when you are sitting in your own seat, with the pedals yielding just as you remember, you react a fraction quicker.

Gundogan did not play badly - but should he have played at all? (Getty)

And here, ultimately, was the problem. The speed of thought and action that has elevated City above all comers in this season’s Premier League wasn’t there at Anfield. Whether Gundogan himself bears any responsibility is a matter for debate. But there seems little doubt that City looked a less instinctive, less incisive, less sadistic team with all four of their central midfielders on the pitch. In his thirst for control, perhaps Guardiola mislaid a little of his pep.

A few people have labelled his approach as arrogant. If anything, this was the opposite. Arrogant managers change nothing. Here, cognisant of Klopp’s record against him, wary of Anfield’s guttural roar, petrified of Liverpool’s quick counter, Guardiola opted for the handbrake rather than the throttle. And as he contemplates the prospect of a sixth consecutive season without reaching a European final, you suspect it is a decision he will be turning over again and again in his mind.

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