Gung ho or too tentative? Pep panics as City’s glass jaw breaks again | Jonathan Wilson

Gung ho or too tentative? Pep panics as City’s glass jaw breaks again | Jonathan Wilson

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anchester City can talk about individual moments. They can point to the volley that Gabriel Jesus fluffed and to Raheem Sterling’s miss. They can quibble about Lyon’s second goal, the collision between Moussa Dembélé and Aymeric Laporte and the offside that wasn’t given. They can probably convince themselves they were unlucky. But the fact remains that in four years under Pep Guardiola, the most lavishly funded project in the history of football has never got beyond the quarter-final of the Champions League.

This wasn���t about misfortune. This was about Guardiola, once again, deviating from his usual formula in a big European game and imposing a structure on his side that seemed to hamper it. There is something archetypal in the drama: a genius, tormented by his desperation to win one tournament. This is Greek – the hero not merely unable to escape his fate but inadvertently engineering the circumstances in which it plays out – but it is also Buddhist: desire leads to suffering, and only in its absence can nirvana be attained.

The ill luck of a decade ago has developed into a tendency to overthink.

2010 semi-final: Barcelona beaten 3-2 on aggregate by José Mourinho’s Internazionale, undone in part by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, that meant a coach trip from Barcelona to Milan for the first leg and a sluggish 3-1 defeat, followed by a 1-0 win at the Camp Nou in which they were thwarted by extraordinary defending and a lot of misfortune.

2012 semi-final: Barcelona beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea, undone by heroic defending and almost comic bad luck.

2014 semi-final: Bayern beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. In the away leg, Guardiola said, they set out “to show they are real footballers, to take the ball and play, then play again”. After 18 minutes they had had 82% possession. Then they conceded on the break and lost 1-0. Between the two legs, Guardiola’s great friend and former assistant Tito Vilanova died. He had planned a 4-2-3-1 but then, after talking to his players the day before the game, he yielded to emotion. He would attack with a 4-2-4. It was, he admitted, “the biggest fuck-up” of his career – not misfortune but mistake. Madrid picked Bayern apart on the break and won 4-0. That, perhaps, is the key game, the one that haunts him still and stays his attacking instincts.

Sergio Ramos (centre) celebrates one of two goals he scored in Real Madrid 5-0 aggregate win over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.

2015 semi-final: Bayern beaten 5-3 on aggregate by Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. A high line with a back three at the Camp Nou was a gamble intended to pressure Barça into mistakes, but it yielded so many chances Guardiola was forced to change to something more orthodox midway through the first half. Exhausted, his side lost 3-0 and the tie was over.

2016 semi-final: Bayern beaten on away goals by Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.

An absurd defeat. Guardiola left Thomas Müller on the bench in the away leg, which was lost 1-0, although given how control of midfield was lost when Müller came off the bench late on, his tinkering was perhaps justified. Müller missed a penalty in Munich, but that was just part of the outrageous bad luck Bayern suffered that night.

2017 last 16: City beaten on away goals by Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco. After a 5-3 win at home, City were tentative away and lost 3-1.

2018 quarter-final: City beaten 5-1 on aggregate by Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Guardiola, beginning to overcomplicate matters, deployed Ilkay Gündogan in a withdrawn role on the right to try to hold Liverpool at arms length, and found himself 3-0 down by half-time.

2019 quarter-final: City beaten on away goals by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham. The second leg was ridiculous, and the first might have been different had Sergio Agüero converted an early penalty, but again the selection of Gündogan over Kevin De Bruyne suggested an uncharacteristic conservatism.

Fernando Llorente (centre) bundles in Tottenham’s winner against City in 2019.

And so to this year. City have a glass jaw. Everybody now knows that, in the absence of a truly commanding central defender, they are susceptible to balls played in behind it. So Guardiola has tempered his side’s attacking in major games to compensate. In Madrid, in February, it worked and he won his first major European away game since 2011 – although even then the sense was a full-blooded approach would probably have won more handsomely.

But mirroring the side that finished seventh in France? Deploying a back three plus two holding midfielders? Using a right-footer at left-wing-back? It’s one thing to pay Lyon appropriate respect, but by narrowing City, messing with their defensive structures and ensuring everything was played though Gündogan or De Bruyne seemed to play into Lyon’s hands.

What was most baffling, though, was the reluctance to change, as though Guardiola, the sharpest of footballing minds, the most interventionist of coaches, forever micromanaging from the touchline, somehow froze. Phil Foden and Benjamin Mendy remained on the bench. Riyad Mahrez and David Silva were brought on belatedly. It’s true that with Agüero injured City lacked the sort of lethal centre-forward who can offer hope even in the failure of process, but there was far more he could have done.

But, anyway, the first two Lyon goals came from simple balls played in behind the defensive line, the third from a scruffy break. The changes that disrupted City didn’t even achieve their primary objective.

Fate has a terrible power; it cannot be escaped by wealth or combat; no walls will keep it out, no ships outrun it. And Guardiola went out of the Champions League early again.