JACK GAUGHAN: Same old City in Europe as Pep tinkers again
Another puzzling Pep Guardiola team selection, collective errors and freezing on the biggest stage… it was the same old City in the Champions League final – but credit MUST go to Thomas Tuchel
- Manchester City were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in the Champions League final
- A series of errors saw Chelsea lift the trophy and become champions of Europe
- Pep Guardiola decided to start the game without both Fernandinho or Rodri
Jaws hit the floor afterwards. A disconsolate collection of players. Manchester City were shell-shocked, commiserated by around 300 friends and family. The feeling lingered long into the night and on the plane back.
That it felt a little bit like Lyon — when they lost in the quarter-finals of last season’s Champions League — was the most damning aspect of the weekend: the same old queries over team selection, the same old collective errors contributing to their downfall.
This has been City in Europe: performances to make their supporters believe, only for them to be left dumbfounded by the reasons behind subsequent failure.
Why Pep Guardiola decided to leave his captain, Fernandinho, kicking his heels on the bench was the talk of Porto beforehand.
Manchester City were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in the Champions League final on Saturday
It didn’t do much to counter the criticism when the designated holding midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan, botched the kick-off and immediately gave the ball away.
Boiled down and in its most basic form, Guardiola chose the club’s top goalscorer this season to screen his back four in the grandest game on the continent. It did not work.
The City manager wanted as many ball players on the pitch as possible, thinking they would dominate the ball, recycle possession, keep it moving and wear Chelsea down. Gundogan’s inclusion as a No 6 therefore stands to reason but it forgets that two teams make a match. Chelsea were allowed to devise plans as well and Thomas Tuchel was too smart, his players too energetic.
City had practised the set-up during the week, even before they arrived in Portugal. The squad knew the score and what their manager was expecting.
As it was against Lyon last August, individually they were nowhere near their best; not even in the same galaxy as the players who lifted another league title earlier in the month.
A series of collective errors saw Chelsea lift the trophy and become champions of Europe
Guardiola decided to start the Champions League final without both Fernandinho or Rodri
That is what will irk everybody at the club: the feeling of not doing themselves justice. As players and staff gathered with their loved ones, there was a sombre atmosphere of regret.
Chelsea might have won the final with a wonderful passage of playing through City lines — and the exclusion of Fernandinho or Rodri was crucial to its simplicity — but Guardiola’s passing junkies went cold turkey for the night.
There was very little craft to their patterns, very few spells when they made their opponents chase in areas they would rather not. Curiously, City’s game lost the patience that usually marks them out as such a special and imposing outfit. They were strangely twitchy.
Kevin De Bruyne, who seemed physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the Premier League season, was out of sorts in the false nine position he has made his own in recent times. Playing a little too off the cuff with not enough precision, but he was not alone.
Raheem Sterling, the surprise inclusion, posed a threat on the left and looked lively yet fans were wondering why Phil Foden was not simply told to continue his fine form out on that wing.
It took City a while — ‘a while’ being a number of months — to recover from the defeat against Lyon. Such shocks to the systems can pose that problem, particularly when they are self-inflicted. This felt similar, so how will they react when Guardiola welcomes them back in July?
Kevin De Bruyne, who seemed physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the Premier League season, was out of sorts in the false nine position he has made his own in recent times
Fans also questioned why was not simply told to continue his fine form out on that wing
He will remind them that this season was a success and will be right to do so. The big job was to finally crack that quarter-final mental block, the hoodoo that has plagued Guardiola’s reign as manager. The last-four meeting with Paris Saint-Germain and all their attacking flair had the feeling of a free hit, and one they embraced. But when the heat was on there was an absence of exuberance — legs tensed and minds scrambled.
Guardiola will hope that this crushing low will spur his team on to new heights because there is only one thing left for this collection of players to achieve now.
What he must ward off is the kind of moping that strangled Tottenham after they lost another all-English final against Liverpool two years ago. Instead, City should look at Chelsea, who learned as a club following defeat by Manchester United in 2008.
Guardiola spoke pragmatically beforehand, reasoning that this stage was new and City may not take to it straight away. His and the club’s detractors will scoff, pointing towards the money spent on transfers, although that does not account for the fact that even a group of expensive players can still struggle with the mental rigours of such an occasion.
What the finances do, however, is put City in a far better position to bounce back than Tottenham in 2019.
They will invest, they will refresh the squad as much as is possible in this strange transfer market and you would not bet against them arriving in St Petersburg this time next year.
Yet as they sulked on to the flight home, everybody at City knew this was a golden chance missed.
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