Manchester City and the Champions League trophy. Two things that seemingly should go together and yet remain so far apart.
When City appointed Pep Guardiola in 2015, it was supposed to be the dawn of a new era to put them in the company of the Continent’s elite. One of the greatest managers that has ever lived and one of few to have lifted Europe’s greatest prize twice was coming to change the game on the blue side of Manchester.
The Spaniard has been heavily backed in the transfer market by City’s Abu Dhabi owners – allowing him to splash out on a number of players for eye-watering sums. Yes, he’s brought success to the club. Back-to-back Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, and an unprecedented domestic Treble. But he was brought to the Etihad Stadium for even more.
Guardiola’s side have suffered heartbreak in the Champions League over the years, but Saturday night’s crushing 3-1 loss to underdogs Lyon in the quarter-final was their most tragic yet. He has been given the tools to forge an empire at City – spending a staggering £693million on players – but in the tournament they crave to win so much, the army he has assembled still fails to conquer.
In truth Guardiola has fared even worse than the man he was brought in to replace. Even Manuel Pellegrini reached a semi-final in 2015-16. Three successive exits in the last eight points to a serious problem – one Guardiola appears unable to solve by throwing money at it.
A spectacular loss to Tottenham in the 2018-19 edition could be deemed incredibly unlucky after VAR deemed that Fernando Llorente had not touched the ball with his arm in the build-up to the decisive goal in the second leg.
The year before they were ousted by a rampant Liverpool side starting their own surge to becoming European champions. This time there are no excuses for Guardiola, and the blame seems to land at his door. Since leaving Barcelona in 2012 – where his starting XI often picked itself – he has developed a reputation as a tinkerman.
That title was fully earned in the recent Premier League season as he made 144 alterations to his starting XI. We know City’s squad is brimming with depth and talent, but his preference to ring the changes points to an underlying issue. Does a manager with full confidence in his players feel the need to consistently switch things around?
It’s not just players who are being shuffled, however: it’s tactics too. The decision to line up against the French side with a 3-5-2 formation on Saturday raised a fair few eyebrows, even from his own players.
Guardiola had been preparing for the clash with that system in training all week, but reportedly the team were led to believe they were using it ahead of a possible clash against Bayern Munich or PSG should they have progressed.
The shape, seen as a way to thwart Lyon’s pacey attack, didn’t pay off at all and left the players confused and frustrated as they struggled to get a foothold in the game during the early exchanges.
It wasn’t until after the break – with Lyon already 1-0 up through Maxwell Cornet, that Guardiola shifted back to his normal 4-3-3 – the set-up City have become accustomed to for most of the season.
A source close to City told the Athletic: ‘The players are devastated. It is tough, especially for the players. You play the whole season with one system and then it comes to these games and he changes it.’
Of course, it was Guardiola’s tinkering that got them to the quarter-final as he outsmarted Zinedine Zidane to mastermind a famous win over Real Madrid.
Most fans thought he had lost his mind when he deployed a 4-4-2 at the Bernabeu for the first leg, with Gabriel Jesus on the left and Kevin De Bruyne up front with fellow midfielder Bernardo Silva.
But it worked a treat, pressing Madrid into submission and creating space to get in behind them as City won the first leg 2-1.
Yet previous tactical switches in Pep’s career have ended in a more similar manner to the Lyon game.
At Bayern Munich, another club who struggled to reach Europe’s elite under his guidance, he suffered a humiliating 4-0 home loss to Real Madrid in the 2014 semi-final – a 5-0 defeat on aggregate.
He turned away from his regular 4-3-3 again and told his players to play more cautiously – and, according to his former assistant manager Dominic Torrent, the players defied his orders.
‘Pep’s idea would have been a more wait-and-see tactic, but essential players wanted to act more urgently, more stormily. Maybe with Pep’s idea of more control we still would have lost 0-4, maybe even 0-5.’
The German team were reportedly left confused by Guardiola’s tendency to switch things up – a sentiment echoed by De Bruyne even after City’s win over Madrid.
‘I think in the four years we are here with Pep we had some surprises and even the players, they don’t really know until the game starts what we need to do.’
The tinkering appears to come from a lack of trust in Guardiola’s squad, despite overseeing a spend of well over half a billion pounds. More than £300m has been splurged on improving the defence, yet we’ve still seen stars being played out of position and others underperforming.
Seven major defensive signings have been made since he took charge – the latest being Nathan Ake for £41m. Nearly every recruit at the back has arrived for a fee exceeding £50m, including John Stones – who looks to be on his way out this summer.
Such is his crisis in defence, he opted to play a back three in their biggest game of the season, featuring midfielder Fernandinho and wantaway youngster Eric Garcia alongside £60m Aymeric Laporte.
On the bench sat £50m Benjamin Mendy, who has failed to emerge as the first-choice left-back, next to Stones and out-of-favour Nicolas Otamendi – almost screaming out City’s failure in the market.
Additions at the other end have been more successful. Jesus, who arrived for £27m, looks to be a worthy successor to Sergio Aguero up front, while club-record Rodri appears to have settled in well after joining from Atletico for £63m last summer.
And while money doesn’t by any means equal success, you would have banked on a Guardiola-managed City to go on to win the Champions League with nearly £700m invested in the playing squad.
For a team that registered a Premier League high of 17 clean sheets this season, it seems a bizarre thing to say – but you feel that until they improve their quality of purchases in defence their ultimate goal will continue to elude them.