At what point does just one of those things become more than just one of those things? If Manchester City’s defeat to Real Madrid on Wednesday night were a one-off, it could be written off. What can you do about luck like that? If you have nine shots on target to the opposition’s none in the first 90 minutes and still lose 2-1 what, really, have you done wrong? Especially when you’ve dominated the first leg as City had done.
But this keeps happening. Season after season, Pep Guardiola finds his teams dominating Champions League ties and losing. Bad luck follows him: the Icelandic volcano that forced Barcelona to take the bus to Milan in 2010, Fernando Llorente’s handled goal in 2019, Raheem Sterling missing an open net from six yards in 2020
The pattern then becomes self-fulfilling: the more disappointment that accretes the greater the temptation for Guardiola to second-guess himself, and the more he must feel time’s breath upon his neck. Already 11 years have passed since his last Champions League title. That means even if he wins the competition next year, he will have recorded the third-longest gap between European Cup / Champions League titles by a manager (after Jupp Heynckes’s 15 years and Ernst Happel’s 13 – and neither of them spent such long periods in charge of clubs of such status). Few managers endure much more than a decade at the highest level.
What to do then? Is this simply a case of the gods of football tormenting Guardiola? Or is there something deeper that links the near misses? The defeat he referred to after Wednesday’s exit was Barcelona’s against Chelsea in the 2012 semi-final. But that was especially freakish and stands alongside Bayern Munich’s away-goals exit to Atlético Madrid in not quite fitting the more general pattern.
Each of the other eight pre-final defeats have been characterized by the sudden concession of a burst of goals that have turned the tie: with Barça, two in 13 minutes against Internazionale in 2010; with Bayern, three in 18 minutes against Madrid in 2014 and three in 17 against Barcelona in 2015; with City, two in eight against Monaco in 2017, three in 19 against Liverpool in 2018, two in four against Tottenham in 2019 and then three in nine against Madrid on Wednesday.
That trend in itself is telling, suggesting that the very sophistication and subtlety of the Guardiola model can, in certain circumstances, count against it, that this team that always seeks to impose order cannot deal with rare outbreaks of chaos.
The mechanism is so complex that when it misfires, it cannot easily be put right, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Guardiola’s method demands complete buy-in from his players. There are exceptions – Vincent Kompany most notably at City – but that means his squads tend to understand what Zlatan Ibrahimovic mocked at Barça as “obedient little schoolboys”. And, while that can produce football of startling beauty and consistency, it can also mean a lack of leaders to seize a game when things start to go awry: no Roy Keane, no Jordan Henderson, no Sergio Ramos.
This is one of the beauties of football; it is a game replete with paradoxes and contingencies. There are few absolute rights or wrongs: a strength in one context becomes a vulnerability in another.
But there is something else going on. In those eight exits, Guardiola’s sides let in 20 goals in clusters. Is there a pattern to them? Is there a type of goal they are prone to conceding when the usual flow is disrupted? Curiously, 16 of the 20 goals stemmed from moves down the opposition right and while 80% is a proportion high enough that it feels there must be some significance, it’s hard to see what it is.
More explicable is that 14 of the 20 goals stemmed from turnovers. Transitions are always going to be where a team that plays a high line is most likely to come unstuck. That is why it is so essential that the press is right; that’s where the real fine-tuning of the mechanism comes into play. If the response to a goal being conceded is a level of panic, it’s perhaps no great surprise if that manifests in a breakdown in pressing discipline and an increased vulnerability to the counterattack.
But that presents another of football’s paradoxes. Guardiola is acutely aware of that tendency. That’s why he so often seems to invite defeat by overthinking; if thinking the normal amount repeatedly leads to implausible defeat, what alternative is there?
Against Liverpool in 2018, Lyon in 2020 and Chelsea in 2021 he made unexpected changes designed to counter the effectiveness of the opponent’s counter. Each backfired, reducing City’s effectiveness; every step taken to avert his fate only causes it to come to pass. But having made changes and failed, the danger perhaps is of underthinking, of not making changes that are necessary, of reducing the complexity that has yielded such success.
The biggest underthinking of all, perhaps, would be simply to sign a striker: after all, if City had converted more than one of their nine shots on target in the first 90 minutes at the Bernabéu, the game would have been out of reach even for this Madrid. But then again, with a more orthodox center-forward, City probably wouldn’t be able to achieve the levels of control that generated those nine chances. And this is another of football’s paradoxes: with a City striker wouldn’t dominate games to the same extent, but also they wouldn’t need to.
There is a curious sense in which the excess of control they habitually achieve renders them peculiarly susceptible to chaos. City were unfortunate on Wednesday; Guardiola sides have generally suffered extraordinary bad luck at key moments over the past 12 years. But there is also something inherent in his approach that seems to make them poor at responding to it.
Guardiola has come to resemble a hero of classical tragedy, endlessly thwarted in his overriding ambition. But perhaps that is less to do with the fates than with the ineffable nature of football itself.