A narrow 1-0 defeat was hardly a disastrous result for Manchester City in Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg and especially when certain circumstances are factored in.
Of their remaining commitments this was feasibly the only one that Pep Guardiola’s men could afford to lose and still go on to complete a remarkable season. Furthermore, not to state the obvious but this was Tottenham Hotspur away, a formidable challenge at the best of times but a test ramped up to significant proportions by virtue of the north London giants boisterously taking recent ownership of their new ground.
On the face of it then, a slender loss that needs rectifying at the Etihad next week wasn’t an apocalyptic outcome and Guardiola certainly seemed to be of that opinion, speaking only of the positives post-game and seeming genuinely sanguine. The more pragmatic of the fan-base meanwhile took stock and leaned on that trusted consolation that is always available after a first leg defeat: it is, when you think about it, merely half-time.
All of the above though doesn’t tell the whole tale. Indeed it sugar-coats the whole tale with a cherry on top.
Because what transpired on Tuesday evening – in both team selection and performance – was another example of the bravest, most innovative, progressive, and singularly minded coach in world football tying himself in knots at the prospect of a Champions League knockout tie. And it’s becoming a problem.
From the announcement of the team line-up an hour prior to kick-off it became painfully apparent that the Catalan had once again succumbed to self-doubt; erring towards a caution he is usually so dismissive of. Riyad Mahrez was surprisingly picked ahead of Leroy Sane due to the former’s more pronounced ability at retaining possession while the midfield was stocked with two holding men at the expense of team architect Kevin de Bruyne – Bernardo Silva’s absence also utterly perplexed until a muscle injury came to light some time later.
There was also one hell of a left-field choice for left field as the combative but limited Fabian Delph was chosen ahead of Danilo or Mendy, this despite the fact that the 28 year old had fallen so spectacularly off the radar of late.
Understandably the supporters were irate at the muddled cop out that appeared on their Twitter timelines and that soon enough grew to immense frustration and finally outright anger as the game played out exactly as they feared. Mahrez – as per – resided in a halfway house, between the player he is and the player Guardiola wants him to be and, with his full-back Danny Rose booked early on and surely dreading the prospect of the tricky Algerian taking him on, he instead contented himself with inconsequential step-overs before laying it off safe.
With Aguero and David Silva largely ineffectual, this left only Raheem Sterling as City’s attacking threat and it was a threat barely deployed as an energetic midfield concentrated on nullifying Sissoko and co rather than causing them untold problems as would normally be the case. To compound matters Delph was to blame for the contest’s only goal.
What was Guardiola thinking? That was the question aired in collective exasperation by City supporters as the final whistle blew. Or, more accurately, what was Guardiola over-thinking?
Worryingly, the celebrated grandmaster has form for this. Last season his history-chasing Manchester City side were absolutely flying and went to Anfield for a combustible Champions League quarter-final first leg having lost in the league only once all season.
That, of course, was to Liverpool and the ferocity in which the Reds dished out that rarest of defeats clearly rattled the outwardly impassable coach, so much in fact that ahead of his trip to Merseyside he then changed his shuffling of a pack that was previously dealing out aces on a weekly basis. Laporte was shifted across to left-back while Gundogan was employed on the right of midfield and, with both players struggling to adapt to unfamiliar roles, it was perhaps inevitable that a rampant home side would take full advantage. They did, winning 3-0.
If that was the by-product of unnecessary circumspection a year earlier the very opposite applied but alas with a familiar end result. In 2016/17 City and Monaco were the high scorers of their respective leagues and Guardiola was happy to facilitate a you-score-one-we’ll-score-one basketball approach. It was a strategy that almost came off too but with City 6-5 ahead on aggregate and just 13 minutes left of an admittedly enthralling double-header it was impossible to change streams and the Ligue 1 champions bagged a late decider.
Indeed, analysing all of the failed Champions League campaigns since Pep Guardiola last won the tournament in 2011 reveals a pattern of gung ho adventure falling short – such as Chelsea’s ‘outjumping’ of Barcelona in 2012 – followed by schizophrenic indecision. For the latter we need look no further than Real Madrid’s 4-0 hammering of Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in 2014.
What is particularly noteworthy about these exits is that almost without exception each side were completely dominating their leagues and had coasted through the group stages with swagger to spare. Yet at no point has the intimidatingly cerebral coach considered playing with these strengths only with a tweaking of conservatism. At no point has a happy medium been attained. He has dealt solely in extremes.
If that suggests – as seems likely – that the latter stages of the Champions League has now become an Achilles heel of Guardiola’s then another concern for City fans should be the lack of reasoned voices being listened to around him.
The moment an odd and compromised line-up was first suggested was that which should have prompted a trusted lieutenant to intervene. If only they had the power and influence to do so. When it became crystal clear that Spurs were being spared – that they were more than susceptible to being dismantled with the right tools – that too afforded a golden opportunity for sense to prevail. In the event De Bruyne and Sane scared the hosts stiff for precisely five minutes.
Even the greats have blind-spots. Unfortunately the greats very rarely listen when told where they are.