What happens when Guardiola rips up his tactics?

Ditching Fernandinho and Rodri for the Champions League final, a back three blunder against Lyon and trying to man-mark Mohamed Salah… Pep Guardiola pledged ‘ridiculous’ tactics against Man United but the City boss should learn his lessons

  • Manchester City head to Old Trafford for their derby against United on Saturday
  • Pep Guardiola has promised us some ‘ridiculous’ tactical ideas for the clash
  • But City fans may not be best pleased to hear that given past experimentation
  • Spanish coach has an unenviable record of alternative plans backfiring
  • Champions League final defeat to Chelsea in 2021 was the prime example
  • City have also failed against Lyon, Tottenham, Monaco and Liverpool in Europe

Pep Guardiola has promised us some ‘ridiculous’ tactical plans for Saturday’s Manchester derby – sending a shudder down the spines of City fans everywhere.

While he will naturally wish to keep United and Erik ten Hag guessing, it’s often when Guardiola strays from his usual playbook that things go wrong.

City have a very good record at Old Trafford under Guardiola, winning on six of their last nine visits, and for all the improvement under Ten Hag, the two sides were eons apart in City’s 6-3 win at the Etihad in October.

Pep Guardiola has promised some ‘ridiculous’ tactical plans for Saturday’s Manchester derby

Guardiola will naturally want to keep Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag guessing 

United were battered by City in the first Manchester derby of the season back in October

Yet Guardiola seemingly cannot resist the temptation to tinker, saying this week: ‘I would like to arrive against United with the average of minutes in the legs of the players being quite similar because I have a few ideas, some thoughts, ridiculous ones against United.’

He did add that he’d yet to watch the video tapes of United’s most recent games, which invariably have been wins, but it was a strong hint at a few tactical changes at Old Trafford.

Trouble is, Guardiola’s past experimentation – notably in big European games – has often backfired spectacularly.

Monte Carlo and bust

2016-17 Champions League last-16, second leg vs Monaco – Lost on away goals 

The first leg at the Etihad Stadium was an absolute classic, with City beating Monaco 5-3 and just about any scoreline possible.

Heading to Monaco, you’d have thought Guardiola might have done the sensible thing and tried to protect City’s two-goal advantage, especially against an exciting opponent who had racked up 120 goals by mid-March that season.

But City’s manager had declared pre-match that ‘if we don’t score a goal we will be eliminated’ and set his team out accordingly.

Guardiola stamps his feet and cries out in frustration as City are dumped out by Monaco 

Tiemoue Bakayoko headed home the decisive goal for Monaco in a classic last-16 encounter

Five attacking players were deployed with Fernandinho the only holding midfielder and Yaya Toure left on the bench. The Brazilian didn’t stand much chance containing a free-flowing Monaco side spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe.

Despite their strength up front, City were overwhelmed in the first half and failed to muster a single shot on goal as Mbappe and Fabinho levelled the aggregate score.

Though City did regain the aggregate lead thanks to Leroy Sane, they were let down by defensive frailties with Tiemoue Bakayoko allowed a free header just eight yards from goal to send Monaco through.

An exciting young Monaco team featuring Kylian Mbappe (second right) proved too strong

‘I tried to convince them in all the meetings we had to come here, try to attack and score,’ said Guardiola after his first career last-16 exit.

‘My mistake was being not able to convince them to do that. All managers make mistakes but I don’t think it was down to a tactical mistake.’

Laporte in limbo on left

2017-18 Champions League quarter-finals vs Liverpool – lost 1-5 on aggregate

This season saw City amass 100 points on their way to Guardiola’s first Premier League title win, finishing 19 points ahead of second-placed Manchester United.

But it was Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool who inflicted City’s first league defeat of the season – on January 14 – in a memorable 4-3 win at Anfield.

Perhaps memories of his City side being unsettled by Klopp’s ‘heavy metal football’ in that match scrambled Guardiola’s mind when the two were drawn together in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Contrasting emotions on the touchline as City are swamped by Liverpool in the 2018 first leg

Guardiola tinkered with his team selection and system, playing into Liverpool’s hands 

Centre-back Aymeric Laporte was played in an unfamiliar left-sided role against Salah 

Mohamed Salah had scored in the league encounter and Guardiola tasked Aymeric Laporte with a man-marking job in the first leg, but in an unfamiliar position on the left-side of defence.

Unsurprisingly, Laporte was completely out of his depth as Liverpool swarmed forward with the Egyptian opening the scoring just 12 minutes in.

Another move that raised eyebrows saw Raheem Sterling left out against his former club despite being in brilliant form.

This allowed Ilkay Gundogan to play in midfield but he too was ineffective and eventually Guardiola admitted his mistake and brought Sterling on.

By that time, Liverpool had a three-goal lead and City, not at all used to being under the cosh in such a way, were on their way out. 

Guardiola can’t bear to watch having been sent to the stands during the home second leg

Mohamed Salah proved the scourge of City as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate 

In the return at the Etihad, Gabriel Jesus gave them hope just two minutes in but when Leroy Sane saw a crucial second goal disallowed, Guardiola exploded at referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz at half-time and was sent off.

There was history with Lahoz – who had made two contentious penalty calls in the Monaco loss a year earlier – but Guardiola only had himself to blame as Liverpool came from behind to win 2-1 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate.

Tottenham tinkering backfires

2018-19 Champions League quarter-final, first leg vs Tottenham Hotspur – lost 0-1

Fast forward another 12 months and City were dreaming of the Quadruple. Top of the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and with the Carabao Cup in the bag, drawing an inconsistent Tottenham in Europe wasn’t a bad outcome.

The first leg in north London saw one of those Guardiola team selections that made little sense. They’d won 14 consecutive games, so why try and fix what ain’t broke?

Fabian Delph was played at left-back but struggled to cope with the speed of Heung-min Son, while in-form No 10 Kevin De Bruyne was dropped in favour of Gundogan as a second defensive midfielder.

Heung-min Son powers home Tottenham’s winner in the 2018-19 quarter-final, first leg

Guardiola had raised some eyebrows with his team selection for the first game in London

Perhaps Guardiola’s thinking was to play the percentages over a two-legged tie and keep legs fresh for key games coming up in a nip-and-tuck title race with Liverpool.

It didn’t work on the night and City were a shadow of their usual fluent selves in a 1-0 loss, with Sergio Aguero seeing a penalty saved and only one other shot on target all game.

Little wonder Guardiola cut a frustrated figure as his team failed to move through the gears. When he introduced De Bruyne and also Leroy Sane in the 89th-minute, it was too little, too late.

The second leg at the Etihad was a classic, with Fernando Llorente sending Tottenham through

Mind you, neither Guardiola nor any manager could foresee the madness of the second leg, which City won 4-3 but still exited on away goals.

After Fernando Llorente bundled home from a corner via his hip – surviving a VAR check for handball – the technology intervened again to disallow what would have been a Sterling winner, with Aguero offside.

Lyon left laughing

2019-20 Champions League quarter-final vs Lyon, lost 1-3

With the world battling the Covid pandemic, the Champions League decamped to Portugal for its closing stages in 2020.

After eliminating Real Madrid in the last-16, City drew Lyon in the quarter-finals and hopes were sky-high this would finally be their time.

Alas, what followed was the most baffling example of Guardiola ‘overthinking’ yet as he completely ripped up his team’s successful structure for the most important match of their season and for no good reason.

City’s defeat to Lyon in the one-legged 2019-20 quarter-final was the most baffling of the lot

He ditched the usual 4-3-3 for a three-man defence City had only deployed on a handful of occasions that season, also leaving many of their best attacking players on the bench.

Lyon had knocked Juventus out in the previous round but City were heavy favourites and Guardiola was simply too respectful in trying to match their shape.

Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan together in midfield was too conservative and City’s high defensive line left them vulnerable to the counter. Lyon only really had De Bruyne and Sterling as creators to deal with and they did.

Guardiola stunned everyone by changing formations and City ultimately paid the price

It was evident from the outset that Guardiola’s plan wasn’t going to work but he froze and waited until the 56th minute to bring on Riyad Mahrez.

Lyon left them stunned by winning 3-1, with Moussa Dembele striking the two killer blows later on to leave Guardiola in despair.

‘It’s a different year, same stuff,’ said De Bruyne in the aftermath.

Raheem Sterling and his City team-mates are left stunned after Lyon score their third goal

Guardiola wasn’t willing to accept the blame, saying: ‘In this competition, tactics is not the most important thing.

‘We worked three days on this. We discussed it and reviewed it. The way we played was really good. It was not a problem. I know how it works. I know why we did it.’

That’s great, Pep, because nobody else understood it.

Midfield madness in the final

2020-21 Champions League final vs Chelsea, lost 0-1

After that debacle, City really thought they’d cracked it last season when they overcame Paris Saint-Germain handsomely in the semi-finals to meet Chelsea in Porto.

It genuinely appeared that lessons from the previous four exits had finally been learned by Guardiola and they were fancied to get the better of their Premier League rivals.

City’s dejected player walk past the trophy having lost to Chelsea in the 2021 final

Guardiola had learned not to tinker with his team and had made just four changes across the four quarter-final and semi-final matches, with nine players starting all the games.

Evidently that was all a bit too sane because Guardiola’s teamsheet for the biggest game of all left everyone staggered.

Rodri and Fernandinho had figured in 60 out of 61 games for City during that season, either individually or together. Neither started the final, with Gundogan entrusted to anchor the midfield.

Perhaps scarred by the Lyon experience, Guardiola instead went all-out in attack with De Bruyne, Sterling, Mahrez, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva starting.

Sterling hadn’t been in great form and barely featured in the wins over Borussia Dortmund and PSG, while Gundogan, Silva and De Bruyne, a false nine, looked completely confused as to their roles.

Guardiola again made some questionable decisions with his team selection and paid the price

De Bruyne was replaced by Gabriel Jesus on the hour mark after Antonio Rudiger left him with a fractured eye socket, by which time Kai Havertz had already given Chelsea the lead.

They held out and City were denied again in the Champions League with Guardiola’s odd tactical and team selection decisions costing them once more.

When he was asked about his tactical overthinking ahead of last season’s Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid, Guardiola gave a response dripping with sarcasm.

‘I overthink a lot. I love to overthink and create stupid tactics again. Tonight I will create an inspiration and do incredible tactics. We play with 12.’

Anfield agony again

2022-23 Premier League vs Liverpool, lost 0-1

Fast-forward to the present season and City had made a flying start, undefeated in their opening nine Premier League games as they clung to the coat-tails of leaders Arsenal.

Then they went to Anfield and Guardiola just couldn’t resist a tactical switch-up.

Having played with a back four in every game, he opted for a back three of Manuel Akanji, Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, with Joao Cancelo stationed as right wing-back and Phil Foden on the left.

Guardiola rues another defeat at Anfield after he switched from a back four to a back three

Mohamed Salah races away to score the decisive goal on 76 minutes as City were defeated

Potentially, Guardiola sniffed a little bit of weakness in an inconsistent Liverpool side but the gamble didn’t pay off as Mohamed Salah raced clear to win the game 14 minutes from time.

In fairness to Pep, it was a game of tight margins, with a Foden goal chalked off by VAR because Erling Haaland had fouled Fabinho in the lead-up.

But the result continued City’s bad run at Anfield, where they’ve lost 14 of their last 22 visits and won just two. It helped Arsenal establish a cushion at the top that still hasn’t been eradicated.

But Guardiola has got it RIGHT against United before 

Despite these tactical hiccups, Guardiola has also got his game plan spot-on in the past.

When City faced United at Old Trafford in the first leg of the 2019-20 Carabao Cup semi-finals, Guardiola surprisingly opted for a strikerless 4-4-2 formation.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus were left on the bench with Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne the furthest forward in blue.

Kevin De Bruyne (left) and Bernardo Silva (right) played in attack as City beat United 3-1 in the first leg of their 2019-20 Carabao Cup semi-final

The result was that City absolutely dominated possession and chances in a 3-1 win, with Silva among their scorers.

In last season’s Premier League encounter at Old Trafford, City dominated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United in a 2-0 win.

They enjoyed 67 per cent possession with Joao Cancelo unplayable on the left side.

Guardiola said after his tactical masterstroke: ‘If you don’t finish the attack you will be attacked much, much quicker and that is where they are so good.

‘That is why we needed a game with a thousand million passes. We need a game like with the ball in the fridge, keep it there.’

Cancelo gave United a torrid afternoon when City won 2-0 at Old Trafford last season

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