Wednesday 21 August 2019

James Ducker: 'Past mistakes have shaped Guardiola's new vision'

City boss has shown flexibility that may be key to unlocking Champions League glory

Take caution: Pep Guardiola has shown a willingness to curb his attacking instincts in recent big games. Photo: Getty
Take caution: Pep Guardiola has shown a willingness to curb his attacking instincts in recent big games. Photo: Getty

James Ducker

What happened to Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool at Anfield 12 months ago was not an anomaly but the continuation of a worrying, prevailing theme for Pep Guardiola in the competition.

In four of the past five seasons in Europe's premier club competition, first with Bayern Munich and latterly City, Guardiola's teams have been picked off in short, concentrated bursts and seen their Champions League hopes go up in smoke in the process.

Putting a stop to that troubling trend will be foremost in Guardiola's mind as he plots the downfall of Tottenham Hotspur over an intriguing next week in pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple - a shot at immortality that the Catalan is keen to talk down publicly but which, privately, has become an obsession.

Guardiola last won the Champions League in 2011 and the manner of many of his teams' exits in the competition in the intervening years have raised questions about whether he needs to tailor his approach.

Not wholesale change, which flies in the face of any rational thinking, but careful tweaks and modifications and, in that regard, it seems fair to wonder if City's two performances against Liverpool in the Premier League this season offered a blueprint of how he plans to tackle the latter stages of the Champions League.

In both games, the goalless draw at Anfield in October that would almost certainly have yielded three points but for Riyad Mahrez's late penalty miss, and January's 2-1 win, which reignited the title race, Guardiola demonstrated a pragmatic streak that was striking both in its unusualness and execution.

Had it been a two-legged Champions League tie, it might have been considered a tactical masterclass.

Guardiola has been almost unyielding in his commitment to all-out attack and a familiar pattern has emerged as a consequence in the Champions League, that of his sides conceding flurries of goals in quick succession that have effectively killed the ties.

City, for example, were blown away by three Liverpool goals in a devastating 19-minute spell in the first half at Anfield last season. The previous year, Monaco scored twice in eight first-half minutes in the first leg and twice in 21 first-half minutes in the second leg of their round-of-16 tie, eventually prevailing 6-6 on away goals.

Guardiola's Bayern shipped three goals during an 18-minute, first-half blitz by Real Madrid in April 2014 and, the following season, three goals in the final 17 minutes, stoppage time included, against Barcelona - both of those semi-finals ending in elimination.

In almost all cases, Guardiola's over-commitment in attack, coupled with some unexpected tactical and personnel changes, backfired. But, having seen Liverpool tear through his City side in the Champions League last season, as well as the 4-3 Premier League defeat at Anfield in January last year, when Jurgen Klopp's team scored three times in nine second-half minutes, the penny dropped and Guardiola resolved that something had to change.

Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy - two full-backs usually given license to rampage forward - were under instruction to hold their position and occupy Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah at Anfield in October, barely crossing the halfway line as a result.


It was much the same with Aymeric Laporte and Danilo in the return game at the Etihad four months ago, both staying deep to limit the space in behind for Salah and Mane to attack.

Conscious of the threat the speed of the likes of Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura can pose on the break, might Guardiola opt for a similar tactic against Spurs in tonight's away leg as he bids to wrestle control of the tie?

That game against Liverpool at the Etihad also brought other changes, with City playing more direct and, uncharacteristically, not being afraid to hit the ball higher and longer. It helps to explain why David Silva completed only 12 passes in the first half, fewer than any of his team-mates, an extraordinary statistic bearing in mind how much of City's play ordinarily funnels through the Spaniard.

Guardiola suggested recently that he is a victim of his own success in the sense that there are critics who will only judge him through the prism of European Cup glory.

It has proven elusive for him for some time now but, with some new-found flexibility, there is no reason why he cannot be reacquainted with the cup with big ears come June 1.



Guardiola's Champions League implosions

2017/18 SEASON (with Man City)

Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0

Champions League quarter-final, 1st leg, April 2018. Liverpool scored three goals in 19 firsthalf minutes at Anfield to as good as kill the tie and eventually emerged 5-1 aggregate victors.

2016/17 SEASON (with Man City)

Monaco 3 Manchester City 1

Champions League Round of 16, 2nd leg, March 2017. The French side – who had scored twice in eight first-half minutes in 5-3 first leg defeat at the Etihad – scored two goals in 21 minutes in the opening half to pull the aggregate score back to 5-5. Their eventual 3-1 win was enough to progress 6-6 on away goals.

2014/15 SEASON (with Bayern)

Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0

Champions League semi-final, 1st leg, May 2015. Two goals from Lionel Messi and one from Neymar in the final 17 minutes, including stoppage time, ensured Barcelona had one foot in the final.

2013/14 SEASON (with Bayern)

Bayern Munich 0 Real Madrid 4

Champions League semi final, 2nd leg, April 2014. Three first-half goals in the space of 18 minutes ended Bayern’s hopes of reaching the final with Real Madrid winning 4-0 on the night and 5-0 on aggregate.

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