As soon as the team sheet landed for Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal at Anfield, the questions began to be asked. What was Pep Guardiola’s plan? Why had Raheem Sterling been left out? Where was Ilkay Gundogan going to play?
After 56 minutes, when Gundogan was taken off with Manchester City trailing Liverpool 3-0, that last question still hadn’t been adequately answered. The Germany midfielder had been used in a strange tucked-in right-sided role, some weird hybrid of wide midfielder and holding player. The plan, Guardiola said, was to give City “more passing, more control,” to slow the game down to try to prevent Liverpool generating the sort of momentum it had just after halftime in the league meeting at Anfield in January when Jurgen Klopp’s side scored three times in a nine-minute spell.
All that was achieved, though, was to slow ManCity down. The familiar flow was there no longer. There was a lack of pace, a lack of movement, to the point that for long spells its only attacking idea appeared to be long diagonals hit wide left to Leroy Sane. But in a sense what is telling is not the detail of Guardiola’s changes but that he made changes at all.
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A lot of the reaction to City’s defeat has attacked Guardiola for his supposed arrogance, for his insistence on doing the same thing over and over, but that seems baffling. The problem here was that he did change, that he did try to adapt to the opposition, and that it didn’t work.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a troubling pattern of failure in the latter stages of the Champions League, but what was astonishing on Wednesday was that he took a system that had worked so well to the point that City has lost only two meaningful games all season and stands 16 points clear atop the Premier League table, and he abandoned it for something else.
Marti Peranau, who has written two books on Guardiola’s tactical development, says he used 23 different formations in his three years at Bayern. At City this season his tinkering has been relatively restrained. He used a back three at times earlier this season, and played Fabian Delph in a false fullback role at Chelsea, but essentially the 4-3-3 has been the default. And that makes his decision to change on Wednesday all the more significant.
That isn’t arrogance: it’s a curious insecurity, one that has perhaps two origins. One is Klopp, who has now won on seven of the 13 occasions they’ve met across their times together in Germany and England. No other coach has a record anything like that good against Guardiola. Jose Mourinho, who has faced Guardiola on 20 occasions, has won only four times.
So what is it about Klopp that causes Guardiola such problems? The answer perhaps lies in an interview Klopp gave after his side’s 4-3 victory over City in January.
“You need to be brave and you need to play football,” he said. “You have no alternatives to beat City–you could win the lottery, hope they tackle each other and then you can stand deep in your own box and hope nothing happens, but that it is not really likely.”
He sees no point in sitting deep, trying to restrict a Guardiola side and hoping it doesn’t convert any of the chances it will inevitably create. Far better, for him, to attack, to try to exploit the weakness that seems always to lie at the heart of Guardiola’s teams: the defense.
Guardiola’s insistence on a high-pressing, possession based game means both that his back line can be left exposed and that he tends to favor defenders who are better at playing the ball than actually defending. The domination of possession that results means City this season has tended to overwhelm weaker teams, meaning it concedes few goals (only 21 in 31 league games this season, the best in the division), but also that if the defense can be challenged, it is vulnerable.
And that leads to the second origin of Guardiola’s unease: the fact that his Bayern side lost three times in the Champions League semifinals, and that his City followed up last season’s last-16 exit Monaco with Wednesday’s quarterfinal first-leg defeat to Liverpool. Against Real Madrid in 2014, against Barcelona in 2015, against Monaco last season and now against Liverpool, Guardiola sides have seen the tie slip away in relatively brief periods in which it has lost defensive discipline and conceded two or three goals in a matter of minutes.
It's little wonder why Guardiola, whose intensity can mask his fretful nature, sought to establish more control at Anfield.