Why did Pep Guardiola suck the joy and freedom out of Manchester City? | Barney Ronay

Why did Pep Guardiola suck the joy and freedom out of Manchester City? | Barney Ronay

You failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail in pretty much exactly the same way.

How many times, Pep, how many times? The idea that Pep Guardiola over‑complicates knockout games has become such a truism it seems impossible a manager of such clarity of thought could still be following that pattern; still finding ways to insert his own anxieties,his maniacal intellectualism into the fine details of elite knockout football.

And yet, here we are once again. Hello tactical confusion my old friend. On a thrilling, frantic night in Lisbon Pep Guardiola picked a Manchester City team to play an entirely un-Manchester City game, straight-jacketing this pass-and-move machine into a strangely muted shape, apparently with the aim of mirroring the three-man defence of Olympique Lyonnais, the seventh best team in France.

To put this in its simplest form: by the 50th minute in the Estádio José Alvalade, João Cancelo, Kyle Walker, Rodri, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gündogan had touched the ball 288 times. Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and David Silva had touched the ball zero times. And City had spent more than half of this eventual 3-1 defeat crouched behind a mannered defensive guard.

Kyle Walker as a bespoke man-marking wing-back-cum creative overlapper? Is this really a good idea right now? Certainly Walker gave it a go, haring up and down, whirling into unmapped spaces, a man doing an impressively intense free-running parkour circuit while all around him a Champions League tie was taking place. Elsewhere, the manager who loves midfielders gave us surely one of the drabbest midfields of his entire career.

For 60 minutes City shuttled from side to side. Kevin De Bruyne, the great creative talent of the Premier League, struggled to find space. Why do this? Why suck out the joy and the freedom just when it was needed most? For these players it must have felt like being invited to perform your triumphant new No 1 hit single, and deciding en route to the studios to go with the 10-minute jazz odyssey instead. We came in search of that sublime expressive entity of the last two years. Instead we got an hour of nose flute and drum solos.

Pep Guardiola’s system left playmaker Kevin De Bruyne stifled for space.

Guardiola was predictably unpredictable from the start, opting for a back three, with his squad’s three main holding midfielders starting either in or in front of the defence. No doubt City were concerned about Lyon’s mobility in midfield and their intelligent forward surges. In the event they forgot to bring their own quiver of arrows, as for 20 minutes the team that always goes forward barely mustered an attack.

Then Lyon scored. It came from a knot in that City backline, as Walker lingered in an empty space, playing Karl Toko Ekambi onside. A saving tackle sent the loose ball towards Maxwel Cornet, who finished brilliantly.

City’s players worked hard. De Bruyne was prominent, albeit strapped into a stilted system. On his touchline Rudi Garcia looked puzzled, man trying not to make too much noise for fear of breaking the spell. For an hour his team had been asked to do nothing different, to perform only within their comfort zone. When, you wondered, would Garcia be forced into some uncomfortable contortion by the super-brain in the opposite corner? What was this? A rope-a-dope?

Eventually Mahrez came on for Fernandinho and an equaliser was a more familiar kind of City moment. Mahrez eased Raheem Sterling in down the left. His fine pullback was struck firmly into the corner by De Bruyne.

And yet from there it was Garcia who won the in-game flow of move and counter-move, bringing on Moussa Dembélé and pressing his team forward when they might have been swamped.

There were some details that could have changed the narrative. Lyon’s second goal was, arguably, awarded within the rules. But it still stank. First Ekambi received a pass from Houssem Aouar in an offside position. He jumped over the ball, which counts as a non-involvement, a point of view that confounds any kind of good sense. In the meantime Aymeric Laporte was sent sprawling by a collision with Dembélé, who ran on and scored. No foul was given.

Then, with four minutes left, Sterling missed an extraordinary open goal from eight yards out with the tie there to be revived. Within a minute it was decisively dead as Dembélé tapped home at the other end.

Afterwards Guardiola seemed a little vague, perhaps even a tiny bit relieved to escape this weird, distended season. Either way, defeat makes it three in four quarter-finals for City, and a decade without a Champions League final for the most revered club coach of the age. Perhaps one of these days Guardiola will overthink a European knockout game so hard that he’ll accidentally play his normal team and win it. The great shame is that City exited without having ever quite been themselves, and without ever expressing their finer qualities. And once again Guardiola had blinked with the line in sight.