The list of Pep Guardiola exits from the Champions League grows increasingly long and increasingly bizarre. Lyon, which had finished seventh in Ligue 1 and had played two competitive games in the last five months, had seemed like a minor hurdle before the real business of a semifinal against Bayern Munich. Yet Man City ended up well-beaten on Sunday, falling 3-1, with all the old flaws exposed, and some fresh ones added as well. Once again, it has failed to reach the Champions League semifinals under Guardiola.
There was evidence against Real Madrid in the last round, particularly in the first leg, of a (relatively) more conservative approach and that willingness to try to stifle an opponent was apparent again as Guardiola opted to mirror Lyon’s shape. Phil Foden, so effective against Madrid on Friday, was omitted for Eric Garcia, as Guardiola went for a back three with Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo as wingbacks. That left Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri to shield the back three at the base of midfield.
But the unfamiliar shape counted against City. Perhaps it would have found it hard to find its usual rhythm against a robust and well-organized Lyon anyway, but without its usual width, City struggled to create openings. And the back five was a direct cause of the Lyon opener, with Walker getting caught too deep, playing Karl Toko Ekambi onside and then failing to track Maxwel Cornet, who scored in both Champions League group-stage games against City last season, so that when the ball broke to Cornet as Garcia challenged, he had time and space. His finish was brilliant, shaped in hard and low at the near post with Ederson caught at the edge of his box, but it would have been much harder to execute had he been under any pressure.
Is it too easy to say that Guardiola, yet again, overthought a big game? Perhaps–and one of his great attributes as a manager is his capacity to analyze an opponent and expose its weaknesses. But this is a recurring pattern: again and again Guardiola changes shape before a major Champions League game, and it goes wrong. Since he left Barcelona in 2012, Guardiola's teams have kept only one clear sheet in the quarterfinals of the Champions League or later.
Lyon finished seventh in Ligue 1. It is a dangerous side, but it's far from a brilliant one. Did he have to show it so much respect? What if City had just played 4-3-3 from the start? The width, surely, would have stretched Lyon. As it was, City seemed to play into Lyon's hands, its play scratchy and unimaginative, mannered and slow, everything filtered through Gundogan. And perhaps here, too, was an indication of the biggest flaw of Guardiola’s philosophy, his preference for a team of midfielders. With no really dominant central defender, and no lethal center forward, when the rhythm isn’t quite there, there’s nothing to fall back on.
But what was hardest to explain was, having started with such an odd side, Guardiola made so little effort to change it. He brought on only two substitutes. Foden and Bernardo Silva never got off the bench. Benjamin Mendy could perhaps have been a more attacking option at left wingback than the right-footed Cancelo.
Finally, just before the hour, there did come a change, with Riyad Mahrez brought on for Fernandinho, who was on a booking. The shape went back to the more familiar 4-3-3 with Kevin De Bruyne dropping deeper. City’s share of possession increased, the pressure began to increase and, eventually, with 21 minutes remaining, De Bruyne scored, sidefooting powerfully into the bottom corner from Raheem Sterling’s cut-back.
At that point, there seemed like only one winner, the momentum all with City. Gabriel Jesus, unmarked, miscued a volley at the back post, but then, with 12 minutes remaining, substitute Moussa Dembele restored Lyon’s lead. Ekambi, who stepped over a throughball, was offside, but Dembele was not and so play was allowed to continue. City argued Dembele had fouled Aymeric Laporte in the build-up, but VAR was unconvinced.
City came looking for an equalizer again, but this was another of those European nights when the belief ebbs away.
Jesus created the easiest of chances for Sterling, but facing an empty net from six yards out, he somehow fired over.
Some 59 seconds later, Lyon scrapped its way through, as Houssem Aouar shot and Ederson fluffed the simplest of saves, giving Dembele a tap-in on the rebound.
City was out, thwarted by Lyon, thwarted by the fates and thwarted by itself.