Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team has a plethora of superstars. Their dominance in the league, four triumphs in the last five seasons, have displayed that Guardiola has managed to finesse harmony and chemistry in the side.
So why does a team embedded with jewels like Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker, and Phil Foden amongst others fall short in the Champions League?
Manchester City are a well-oiled machine whose consistency over the course of a regular season remains unparalleled. However, questions are raised when they enter knockout competitions. Football no longer remains just about practice and precision, but it also brings in nerves and fate in any cup tournament.
It is perhaps one ill-effect of a team who are so accustomed to the regular that the moment any wrench goes off the rails, the whole setup becomes undone. From De Bruyne missing passes to forwards missing chances galore – Manchester City’s primary foe remains their overthinking habit in must-win games.
Take, for example, the Champions League final against Chelsea in the 2020-21 season, the closest Guardiola has come to lifting the coveted European trophy while coaching in England.
Manchester City entered the match as favorites against dark horses Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel’s men had only one game plan – sit back and counter. They had no other recourse due to their inferior quality and chemistry against Pep’s Cityzens.
Guardiola entered the match on the back of two defeats in the league and a domestic cup competition against Tuchel’s Chelsea and his overthinking nature got the better of Manchester City.
Instead of believing that Chelsea couldn’t possibly steal a third win on the loot, Guardiola attempted to unsettle Chelsea with a strategy his own players knew little of.
Upsetting the apple cart hampered his own team more than it did Chelsea who were always going to sit back no matter what was thrown at them.
Guardiola took out De Bruyne, his best creator from midfield, to play as a number nine. He benched both strikers in Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus and removed both Fernandinho and Rodri from the holding midfield position to field a revamped side.
City, who are so dependant on the familiarity of their system, struggled to maintain their tempo in attacks. It played right into Chelsea’s hands as Tuchel’s men sat deep and found the goal on the counter to win the European trophy that night in May.
The story was dire last season as well when nerves simply got the better of Guardiola’s men against a veteran Real Madrid side. After holding a steady 5-3 aggregate lead till the 90th minute of the second leg, the Cityzens conceded three goals in five minutes to get knocked out in the semi-finals of the 2021-22 Champions League.
Madrid’s faith and belief in seizing the big moments undid Guardiola’s players, who had no answers to changing circumstances. As Guardiola’s quest for excellence continues, his journey to the zenith brings with it a set of perils.
The more dependent the players become on the system, the better they will play, yes. However, it will take away their ability to think independently or take charge when it matters the most.
For all his genius, Guardiola has failed to win a Champions League title since the 2010-11 campaign, which had a certain Lionel Messi in it. This cannot be a coincidence. Simply put, Messi’s extraordinary brainpower allowed him to push the system while at the same time flaunting his individualistic brilliance on the pitch.
Defensive frailties is another peril that comes with the brilliance of Guardiola’s system. When players are used to having the ball for the majority of the game and urged to move up the pitch, they leave behind them acres of grass which can be exploited by good teams on a transition. It is pretty much what Chelsea did to win the Champions League final in 2021.
It poses an interesting question for the Spanish boss – does he abandon his system to bring in defensive rigidity? For the sake of another Champions League title.
While pushing for a more defensive setup might mean they concede fewer counters, it might also take away their free-flowing football, which makes them a threat against every team on the continent.
The situation remains a dilemma, and permutation and combination of solutions will always add more questions than answers. What is for certain is that adding more steel and spine to the Manchester City team will prevent collapses like before.
Manchester City has hardly ever been accused of losing a game for playing bad football or failing to dominate a match. Tactics cannot get more on point when it comes to having a manager like Guardiola.
What could possibly change their fate in Europe is having a player who enjoys taking charge, who thrives in difficult circumstances. A footballer who provides courage when a team has been hit with a question that comes out of the syllabus. Until that happens, the Champions League title may still elude Manchester City.