Rudi Garcia was generous in the extreme. No crowing, no gloating, the man who has steered Lyon from 14th in Ligue 1 last October to the brink of a Champions League final this week, was not about to veer from the popular wisdom on Pep Guardiola.
‘We knew he could come up with a tactical surprise, because he’s a master at tactics,’ Garcia said. ‘The fact we knocked out Manchester City takes nothing away from the character of the team or its coach.’
But it does. The tactical surprise Guardiola came up with left Manchester City at their most vulnerable. It negated their attacking impetus, negated some of the finest forwards in Europe and condemned others to the margins. One moment Phil Foden was in the Lionel Messi role against Real Madrid, the next he was back to being Phil Foden — a docile observer as players with considerably less talent were entrusted in midfield.
Manchester City should be better than this. Better than three quarter-finals and a round of 16 exit under Guardiola. This is not like Jurgen Klopp’s streak of losing cup finals, or even Arsenal’s run of copycat Champions League exits under Arsene Wenger. Between 2011 and 2017, Arsenal were eliminated at the first knockout stage every year. Yet look at who they drew: Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. Monaco aside, there was not a single tie in that stretch that Arsenal would have entered as favourites.
It is not the same for Manchester City. Lyon were seventh, albeit improving, when the French league was curtailed in March; Tottenham were 27 points inferior to them in 2018-19; Liverpool 25 points behind the season before. Only Monaco, who won the French title the season they beat City in the first knockout round, might have been considered to have the edge. But then, not by much.
Even when City are not winning the league, they still have one of the most expensively assembled squads in Europe. They plunder clubs like Lyon and Monaco for players, so should not lose to them. City’s response to the Monaco defeat was to take Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy back to Manchester. It’s quite the insurance policy.
Houssem Aouar was Lyon’s outstanding player on Saturday night, so Arsenal may now have a rival for him this summer.
On nights like this, the buck stops with the manager. We know that. Yet not at Manchester City. For who walks up to Guardiola and questions his thinking? Who would tinker with the famed project, shine light on magic?
Ferran Soriano, Manchester City’s chief executive officer, is Guardiola’s friend and business partner. He was, in many ways, specifically brought to the club to recruit him. Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, is another ally. He was scouting Guardiola’s type of players before the man had set foot inside the club.
City are pretty much structured to keep Guardiola happy these days. Yet make no mistake. If it was any other coach and any other club of Manchester City’s size and ambition, there would be speculation this morning over the manager’s future. That will not be the case here.
A few loudmouths on social media may have been saying the unsayable, but there is no appetite for the nuclear option, on either side it would seem.
‘Life is that you stand up again,’ said Guardiola. ‘So we will try again next year.’ He has been relaying the same message privately, too. There was a sombre mood at the Sheraton in Cascais on Saturday night, as City prepared for an early departure, but the club do not expect any surprises before the season recommences next month.
Guardiola will be their manager and, if he is prepared to extend his contract beyond the end of the 2020-21 season, the will from the club is there for that, too.
Their reasoning is simple: who’s better? Who could Manchester City get to replace Guardiola that would be considered an improvement? Mauricio Pochettino? He was a wonderful option when it was thought Guardiola might be leaving, but as a straight substitute? The manager who has rewritten the record books in Spain, Germany and England, who has won 29 trophies, against one whose next will be his first.
The problem with challenging Guardiola, even after a result like this, is balancing the most recent memory against so many great ones. He got it terribly wrong against Lyon. Yet eight days earlier we watched as City played Real Madrid off the park. That was his strategising, too, do not forget: playing Foden in the Messi role against the best team in Spain. So when Garcia talks of his opponent as a tactical master, in most instances he would be right.
City often win matches because of the way Guardiola reads the game. Individuals and strategies evolve through his vision. From Kyle Walker at centre half for England, to making Kevin De Bruyne arguably the finest midfielder in Europe, to introducing keeper-sweepers and turning Raheem Sterling into a prolific goalscorer, Guardiola’s football intelligence shines through. Most matches.
Strangely, he seems to have a recurring problem with one tournament, and at one stage. The moment City’s team-sheet arrived, there was a sense Guardiola had thought himself into a corner again.
It would need several years in therapy, perhaps, to figure why this happens. An easy explanation would be that, with Messi’s genius getting the credit for Barcelona’s glory years, deep inside Guardiola wants to show how clever he is.
Yet he does not seem shallow or egotistical like that. He’s Pep Guardiola — what does he have to prove? Seriously.
Undoubtedly, though, Champions League knockout games bring the chess player out in him. These are the games when he sets out not to lose, when a simple list of comparative personnel screams attack, attack, attack.
Of course, the idea that City should have simply brushed Lyon aside affords their opponents scant respect. Garcia transformed Lyon in five months which is why they were furious when Ligue 1 was cancelled, freezing them in seventh place and out of Europe next season.
Even so, City’s squad is far superior. The players Guardiola left on the bench — Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Foden — would all be leading lights at Lyon. To play a back three with Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan ahead seemed needlessly cautious, and was both out of character and misplaced, given how often City were then caught on the break.
Sterling’s open goal miss for a late equaliser was the most shocking moment of the night — particularly when he has been so sure of late — but the reason he panicked was that Guardiola’s strategy was not working. Hadn’t worked all game, in fact. City looked slow and were creating nowhere near their usual overload of chances. In the first half, De Bruyne found Sterling with a single pass.
That is a massive disconnect between the two most talented players on the field. Yet Guardiola made no changes at half-time and the win slipped away.
A cautious City is a struggling City. Ederson was at fault for the third, but he’s a decent goalkeeper, the type Guardiola favours.
In previous defeats, it has been possible to blame a fragile defence but Ederson and Sterling are stalwarts. Their mistakes were costly because Guardiola’s plan didn’t work and then he stuck with it far too long.
‘In the first half we haven’t played the way we usually do,’ De Bruyne admitted. ‘We haven’t created enough, we haven’t found the chances. It wasn’t good enough.’
He’s not going to blame Guardiola for that — but he didn’t need to. It was his fault; and City played like they knew.