It was just another curious, eyebrow-raising call from Pep Guardiola. Perhaps that was the appropriate way to end the night given the self-defeating way he’d started it. In his post-match press conference, the Manchester City manager was asked when exactly he told his players about the 3-5-2 formation they set out against Lyon.
Guardiola didn’t reveal that, but did say the following: “In this competition, tactics are not the most important thing.”
That’s a convenient comment for a manager whose perplexing formation and starting line-up seemed to completely level the gap between a squad worth over £900m, which was his, and one worth around a third of that. Guardiola for some reason decided to play five defenders against a side that had got 40 points from 28 games in Ligue 1, while leaving out four of his most creative players in Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. That seemed very important given it took away so many of City’s attacking strengths, while - as ever in Europe - only serving to make them more defensively vulnerable and anxious. It is also just bad management.
On the other side, there was the impressive focus of Rudi Garcia’s approach, which ultimately tilted the game in Lyon’s favour. They did a number on City, taking advantage of the flaws we’ve seen time and again. Tactics were certainly important to Lyon.
Perhaps Guardiola was thinking of the team that has dominated Europe for the last half-decade, and how Zinedine Zidane seemed to just draw match-winning performances out of Real Madrid without doing anything special in terms of tactical ideology. Maybe that’s what he meant, that mental character is the most important thing. One significant difference is that the Frenchman had a lot of hardened senior players, with a lot of experience of going deep in intense knock-outs. City don’t. It feels the last of those figures was Vincent Kompany.
Now, they have an “obedient” squad that look absolutely brilliant when everything is on song, but don’t seem to know how to react when it’s off or goes wrong.
And it now goes wrong every single season in the Champions League, and always before the semi-finals.
It is as if an angst afflicts the team, that causes them to rush everything up front and at the back. There are few calming presences.
That made Kevin De Bruyne’s comments all the more conspicuous. In a post-match interview that went down a few tangents, and had a few spiky comments, the Belgian still summed it up. “It feels like the same old story for me, to be honest.”
It certainly had all the same details.
There were bad misses. There were bad decisions. There were admittedly some questionable refereeing calls. There was a below-par performance. There was chaos.
But all of that seemed to stem from the manager’s needless adjustments to his tactical approach, which ultimately resulted in yet another early exit before the semi-final.
In previous seasons, many of those around Guardiola - going right back to Bayern Munich - have been keen to equivocate that the Champions League is a cup competition that doesn’t conform to the usual rules, and is just prone to freak swings and moments of fortune.
That is true, and has been the case in some of Guardiola’s eliminations, but when the same details are this common you can’t keep pointing to that.
A pattern is clear. And that pattern is that Guardiola’s increasing neurosis about the competition causes him to make decisions that only make elimination more likely.
There is almost a Greek tragedy element to it. In trying to avoid the fate he fears most, he just makes it more likely. Tactics actually become by far the most important thing in that regard.
It is as if everyone can see it doesn’t need to be that complicated except him. It really is as simple as that.
It’s impossible not to think that, if Guardiola just goes and plays something close to his best side in something close to his best approach, City easily win. Yes, that simple. He’d have done it without thinking against a team of Lyon’s relatively moderate level in the Premier League. They wouldn't have the same need to so dwell on Raheem Sterling's miss.
In the Champions League, it’s as if something else comes over him. It’s why there is nothing really wrong with his overall approach, which should make it all the more frustrating. It’s that he gets it so specifically wrong for each individual elimination. Wildly different ways, same outcome. It isn’t a stretch to say he “bottles” it, since it’s the very size of the occasion that seems to influence his decision-making.
It means he will now go a decade since last lifting the trophy, and that City’s wait will go on.
That is something else that is curious, and they didn’t expect. There can be no equivocation here. No matter what City’s supporters think of the competition, the hierarchy want it, and that’s one of the primary reasons they signed Guardiola. He wants it more than anyone. He actually shows that by the manner he fails in it.
And he’s now failed badly on four separate occasions. To not win it at all is bad enough. To never get past the quarter-finals is just poor.
Debate will now start again over whether his major trophy return is good enough. There have been a lot of domestic cups, yes, but that’s not what this project is about. It’s about leagues, and the Champions League.
That is certainly the most important thing. It is something City, and especially Guardiola's City, haven't yet adjusted to.
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