Pep Guardiola knew how high-pressure Manchester City’s game at Southampton had been, and he did not mind saying it. “We drop points, it’s over, it’s finished,” he said. “It would be almost impossible.”
That is doubly true for Thursday night’s game at the Etihad Stadium, after which the gap between City and Liverpool could be 10 points or it could be four. For Liverpool it is almost a title-clincher. For City it is about hanging on in the race.
That puts a strange and unfamiliar pressure on City. Guardiola’s management is about performance and process. The goal is to play well first, and the result will take care of itself. That is Guardiola’s key message and even on his press conference after the Southampton game he was making the same point.
“What do you have to do to win the games? Play better. Today we won, and we played better than previous [games]. It’s not about saying to the people ‘we have to win, at any cost’. What does it mean? What does it mean? Everybody wants to win. We have to do something.”
This approach – performance first, results second – has produced some of the most consistently high-quality football ever seen. That is how you get 14 titles in four years at Barcelona, three straight Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, or 100 Premier League points with Manchester City last season. No coach has ever put together a body of work quite like Guardiola.
But this approach has never been about specifically producing special performances in big games. And the evidence suggests that when City do play in the biggest one-off games – like the one they face on Thursday – they cannot in fact produce the right performance. Last season was the best in City’s history and yet they still lost their three biggest games. Needing to beat Manchester United to clinch the title in the most perfect way possible, City went 2-0 up, let the emotion get to them and lost 3-2. Then, in the Champions League quarter-final, with the draw opening up, they lost to Liverpool twice.
It suggests that in these one-off occasions, when the opposition finds a new level of motivation, City’s cool, complex meticulous game is not always enough. And when something does turn against them, the players struggle to react. Because they are so geared towards planned perfection that they do not know how to think on their feet.
You can see the same trend in Guardiola’s Bayern Munich teams. They were almost perfect in domestic football, winning three straight Bundesliga titles with unprecedented ease. But they suffered Champions League semi-final defeats, all of which happened when Bayern lost control of key moments when the game was in the balance. Like their defensive collapse against Real Madrid in 2014, or against Barcelona at the end of their first leg in the Nou Camp in 2015, or Atletico’s deadly counter-attack in the Allianz in 2016.
But the pressure that City are under when they host Liverpool on Thursday night has far more in common with these nights, or with their Champions League defeats to Jurgen Klopp’s side last year, than it does to a routine Premier League game. Guardiola has effectively declared it a cup final, and there is no question that Liverpool will treat it like one, bringing a level of ferocious commitment and intensity suitable for the occasion. The heat will be on City to do the same, but they will need to find something new within themselves to do so.
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