Does Pep really underachieve in big Champions League matches?
Pep Guardiola is rightly regarded as one of the best managers of his generation. In his ten seasons in management, Pep’s record clearly speaks for itself. Eight league titles in three different countries, eight domestic cups, three FIFA Club World Cups, three UEFA Super Cups, three Spanish Super Cups and two Community Shields. It’s hard to imagine how someone with such an impressive trophy haul can still have his management ability doubted by so many. Yet there are constantly questions about the one arena in which Guardiola has arguably underachieved – the Champions League.
Two Finals in Ten Attempts
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Champions League is very, very difficult to win. And Pep has won it. Twice. In his first season in management, he brought Barcelona to the Champions League final in Rome and defeated Manchester United 2-0. Two seasons later, he met the same opponents in the final at Wembley and came out 3-1 winners.
But outside those two seasons, Pep has not reached a Champions League final. For many managers or clubs, two finals in ten attempts would be an excellent achievement. But considering Guardiola has been managing a world class team in each of his ten attempts, is two finals really a sufficient return?
The table below is a summary of all of Guardiola’s knockout Champions League results. The percentage columns represent how big of a favourite (or underdog) Guardiola’s team was to qualify (or lift the trophy in a final) in each tie. These percentages are based on the odds bookmakers were offering pre-match.
Hindsight and human memory can be very flawed and subject to bias, so it’s important to give context to these matches. In the 2009 final, we may remember a Barcelona team with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and co and think they were substantial favourites heading into the final vs United. In reality, most fans, pundits and bookmakers had Barcelona as very slight favourites over the reigning champions. In the 2013-14 semi-final, Bayern faced a Real Madrid team that would go on to win four Champions League titles in five years. Again, easy to think back and assume Real were big favourites but in reality, Bayern were the Champions League holders and had already secured that season’s Bundesliga title. Real Madrid, on the other hand, sat 3rd in the La Liga table. As always, no system is perfect but it is important to have a reference point for each tie and not just rely on memory alone.
Guardiola has played 28 knockout Champions League matches (not including 2019/20 season). He has been victorious in 20 ties and has been knocked out in 8 ties. In 26 of these ties, Guardiola’s team entered as substantial pre-match favourites to progress.
Does this confirm the hypothesis that Guardiola has underachieved in big Champions League matches? Not necessarily. Some credit has to be given to Guardiola and the influence he had on his sides – part of the reason his teams were such big favourites was because Guardiola was their manager. It’s also important to realise that there’s never an ‘easy’ answer to why a team loses a football match. It’s almost always a combination of a huge number of factors – some within the control of the manager, and some out of his control. So, when judging a manager, it’s important to look at how he influenced the factors within his control – the result itself is not enough to judge a manager’s performance.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Guardiola is his team selection in big games. In his first Champions League campaign with Barcelona, Pep’s team selection was remarkably consistent. After progressing versus Lyon and Bayern with relative ease, Barca meet a well-equipped Chelsea side in the semi-finals. The first leg at Stamford Bridge sees Barcelona achieve 70% possession, but the game finishes scoreless. In the infamous second leg, Guardiola makes two enforced changes due to injuries to Rafael Márquez and Thierry Henry. Seydou Keita comes into midfield with Yaya Touré dropping back to centre-half, and replacing Henry is a 20-year-old Sergio Busquets who slots into midfield, while Iniesta shifts to the left wing. One could question replacing a centre-back and a forward with two central midfielders, but the decision is perfectly understandable. There was a lack of depth at centre-back with both Puyol and Márquez unavailable, so playing an inexperienced defender in Yaya Touré there is forgivable. Although arguably not his best position, a player of Iniesta’s talent and skill-set was more than comfortable playing wider than usual. In a game marred by controversy due to a number of questionable refereeing decisions, a 93rd minute equaliser from Iniesta sees Barcelona progress on away goals. In the final versus United, Henry comes back into the team, Iniesta moves back into the recognisable midfield trio of Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta, and Touré retains his place at centre-back. A well-earned 2-0 win gives Pep his first Champions League at the first time of asking.
In the 2009-10 season, Guardiola is again relatively consistent with his team selection. Ibrahimovic joins the club and is usually played through the middle. Messi remains on the right wing, and Henry, Bojan and Pedro tend to rotate, with Pedro cementing himself as the first-choice in big games. In their semi-final first leg, Barcelona’s high line and lack of defensive coordination are punished by Mourinho’s Inter Milan. Trailing 3-1 going into the second leg, Barcelona play without a recognised left-back despite having Maxwell (who had started 32 league games that season) on the bench. Thiago Motta is controversially dismissed in the 27th minute and Barca play against ten men for over an hour. A Piqué goal in the 84th minute give Barca some hope but the ten men of Inter remain resolute and prevent Barcelona from reaching their second consecutive Champions League final.
In Barcelona’s victorious 2010-11 season, we start to see seeds of one of Guardiola’s biggest weaknesses – lack of appreciation for centre-backs. With Puyol suffering injuries throughout the season, Guardiola never seems to settle on a consistent back four. Busquets, Abidal and Mascherano are all tried there at various times, with Mascherano eventually being seen as the best partner for Piqué. Despite a lack of consistency in defence, Barcelona produce one of the most impressive campaigns in modern Champions League history culminating in an impressive 3-1 victory over Manchester United in the final.
Following the 2011 victory, Barcelona are being spoken about as one of the greatest club sides of all time. Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sánchez are brought to the club to bolster their already impressive midfield and attack. Meanwhile Piqué and the now 33-year-old Puyol remain the only two established centre-backs in the squad. The manager’s influence over recruitment policy differs from club to club so I’m always hesitant to lay blame with a manager when it comes to transfers. However, the question does have to be asked, how good would this already excellent Barcelona side have been had they obtained one more top-quality centre-back in the squad?
In Guardiola’s final season with Barcelona, we start to see some unconventional team selections and tactics. After an away 0-0 vs AC Milan in their 1st leg quarter-final, Guardiola starts Isaac Cuenca in the 2nd leg leaving Pedro, Sánchez, Adriano, Thiago and Keita on the bench. Guardiola adopts a back-three type defensive shape with Puyol tucking in beside Piqué and Mascherano, and Alves playing wide right. The semi-final first leg versus Chelsea is where we see the first real head-scratcher. Gerard Piqué is left out of the starting eleven and Puyol and Mascherano start instead. Despite having twenty-four shots to Chelsea’s four, Barcelona leave Stamford Bridge with a 1-0 loss. In the return leg, Guardiola brings Piqué back into the side (having also left him out of Barca’s 2-1 El Clasico loss that weekend) and plays another unusual three-at-the-back type formation. Cuenca starts again and the usually ever-present Dani Alves drops to the bench.
A strange match ensues that sees three centre-halves leave the field of play in the first half. First, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill limps off injured in the 12th minute, next, Piqué clashes with his own goalkeeper and is briefly left unconscious, and finally, John Terry receives a straight red card for violent conduct. Despite playing against ten men for over 55 minutes, Barcelona fail to overturn the first leg deficit and crash out after a 2-2 draw on the night.
After taking a year’s sabbatical, Pep takes over at Champions League (as well as Bundesliga and German Cup) holders Bayern Munich. In Guardiola’s first season with Bayern, his team selection is very consistent in the Champions League and he’s eventually knocked out by a Real Madrid team that would go on to achieve amazing things. Despite having over 70% possession in the first leg vs Real, Bayern looked far too susceptible to being caught in behind. The opening goal of the tie sees Real left-back Fabio Coentrão receive a pass in behind after getting in between Bayern’s full-back and centre-back. David Alaba fails to stay tight to Karim Benzema, and the resulting low cross from Coentrão is tapped in by Benzema. Both sides have chances during the remainder of the game, but Real generally look content to allow Bayern dictate the play and to use their pace and individual brilliance on the counter. The second leg sees Bayern continue to play with a high line and the original sweeper keeper himself, Manuel Neuer, makes several of his token headed clearances. Two Sergio Ramos goals from set pieces kills the tie off the by the 20th minute. When looking at the two goals, it’s easy to be critical of the Bayern defending, but it’s also easy to be complimentary of Ramos.
In Guardiola’s second season with Bayern, he does well to reach another semi-final despite missing key players Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry for both quarter-final legs vs Porto. In the 2014-15 semi-final, Guardiola enters a Champions League tie as an underdog for the first time. With Robben and Ribéry both still absent, Guardiola opts for an unusual looking narrow shape in the first leg.
Bayern play quite well and look tactically astute, but 3 Barcelona goals in the final 15 minutes effectively kills off the tie. Dealing with Messi, Neymar and Suárez was always going to be difficult and Messi’s second goal of the game was absolutely vintage magical Messi. In the second leg, Bayern are given a life line with an early set piece goal from Benatia. Following this, Guardiola throws the kitchen sink a bit too early and ends up conceding in the 15th minute, killing the tie for good this time.
|Bayern concede 4 seconds later
With Messi on the ball well inside the Bayern half, Guardiola’s defence finds themselves with seven defenders versus Barca’s three attackers. However, Bayern’s line is so high that Neymar and Suárez both have 30 yards of space to work with. A ball into space finds Suárez and he squares it for Neymar to tap in. The goal was well executed by Barcelona, and it would’ve been very difficult for Bayern to keep that trio quiet with whatever defensive shape they chose.
In his 7th Champions League campaign, Guardiola
makes the semi-finals for a 7th straight time, this time to be
undone by Diego Simeone’s iconic Atlético Madrid team. With Dante leaving the
club and Boateng only returning from injury in May, Guardiola finds himself
having to play a makeshift defence in many crucial games. Alaba, Kimmich, Martínez
and Benatia all play at centre-back at various points. On their path to the
semi-final, the common theme of Bayern dominating possession and the opposition
sitting back and playing on the counter-attack is evident yet again in ties versus
Juventus and Benfica. After a 2-2 first leg in Turin versus Juventus, Bayern
fall two goals behind in Munich – both goals coming from Juve getting in behind
the Bayern back line. Bayern respond impressively and eventually break down the
Juve defence with a headed Lewandowski goal in the 73rd minute. With
Juventus defending deep, Bayern’s constant jabbing eventually results in Thomas Müller heading home a Kingsley Coman cross on the stroke of 90 minutes. In the
second half of extra-time, two well worked goals from Thiago and Coman sees
Bayern progress. In the quarter-final, a 22-year-old Ederson impresses
Guardiola but an early Arturo Vidal goal in the first leg sets Bayern on their
way to beating Benfica to set up a semi-final meeting with Atlético Madrid. Atlético
produce one of their now famous Champions League performances and knock Bayern
out via away goals. Outside of not starting Thomas Müller in the first leg,
it’s tough to find much fault with Guardiola’s approach in this tie. Atlético
are disciplined and resolute and play in a purposeful way. A great individual goal from Saúl Ñíguez gives Atlético a 1-0 advantage to bring into the second leg in
Munich. Boateng, Ribéry and Müller come back into the side and Bayern restore
parity through a Xabi Alonso free kick in the first half. With Bayern
dominating possession, Atletico strike on the counter with a crucial (and
possibly offside) goal from Antoine Griezmann. A 74th minute
Lewandoswki header isn’t enough to avoid elimination and Bayern are left to
bemoan their luck.
Having left Bayern without landing the big one, Pep gets off to an unimpressive start at City with a round-of-16 loss to the season’s surprise package, Monaco. A team containing Mbappé, Falcao, Lemar, Bernardo Silva and Fabinho, City’s loss may not be the catastrophe it looks to be on the surface. With Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov both unavailable for the first leg, Guardiola selects Fernandinho at left-back and Otamendi and Stones as the centre-back pairing. In his first season at City, Guardiola tinkers with both personnel and positions in his back four. Fernandinho plays left-back, right-back, and in midfield during the season and Kolarov is often deployed at centre-back, as opposed to his more comfortable position of left-back. For the second leg, Guardiola drops Touré and Otamendi, moves Fernandinho into midfield, and brings in Kolarov and Clichy – going from zero left-backs in the first leg to two left-backs in the second leg. A goal filled tie sees City bow out on away goals. Taking a two-goal lead into the second leg, Guardiola says “We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don't score in Monaco we will be eliminated” – a nod to the attacking prowess of Monaco and also a realisation of his own side’s defensive limitations.
City meet Liverpool in the quarter-finals the following season and Guardiola opts to only play with one winger in the first leg at Anfield. In the weeks leading up to this crucial Champions League match, City play with two wide men in all of their league games. In a 3-0 loss, 50% of City’s attacking is done down the left-hand side (with 25% going down the middle and 25% going down the right). This was likely done to target a young Alexander-Arnold, but it should be noted that Aymeric Laporte started at left-back in this match. If your offensive game plan revolves around attacking down a given flank, it would surely be optimal to have an overlapping full-back on this flank as opposed to a centre-back. The selection of İlkay Gündoğan over Bernardo Silva is also questionable. If insistent on playing narrow, Silva offers just as good ball retention attributes as Gundogan and adds even more with his dribbling and attacking play. The argument that Gundogan offers more defensively than Silva in a 4(!) man central midfield feels weak. Liverpool notch up 3 goals in the opening half of the first leg and City never really look like coming back into it.
|City players average position vs Liverpool
In the 2018-19 season, Guardiola is beaten again by a domestic rival, this time in the shape of Spurs. Guardiola opts for a familiar looking 4-3-3 in both games with Mahrez and Sterling starting the first leg, and Bernardo Silva and Sterling starting the second leg. The most controversial selection decision of the tie is to leave Kevin De Bruyne out of the starting team for the first leg. Suffering from injuries during the season, it’s likely this decision was influenced partly by tactical factors and partly by fitness factors. In an uninspiring match, a Son Heung-Min goal sees City lose 1-0 in the first leg in London. The dramatic return leg produces one of the most entertaining matches of the season. A frantic start sees both teams fall behind and come back and by 11 minutes, the score reads 2-2 on the night. Raheem Sterling scores his second of the night in the 21st minute to give City a 3-2 lead. On the hour mark, reminiscent of his famous Premier League winning goal vs QPR, Sergio Aguero scores the crucial 4th to give City a 4-2 lead and more importantly, put them ahead on aggregate. Two more goals are scored in the match, one is awarded by VAR, and one is disallowed by VAR. In the first instance, a 73rd minute Tottenham corner is bundled in and is adjudged to have come off Fernando Llorente’s hip as opposed to his arm. With the score at 4-3 and City now behind on aggregate, Raheem Sterling serves up an absolutely clutch moment in the 92nd minute of the game to send City into the quarter-finals. Guardiola and the stadium erupts only for the goal to be cruelly disallowed due to an offside in the build up.
Summary: Centre-backs, Tactical Judgement, Away Form…and Luck
Looking at all of Guardiola’s successful and unsuccessful Champions League campaigns, there are some common themes worth highlighting.
Time and again, game plans seem to revolve around midfield and forward areas. There is seemingly a lack of focus (or more harshly, a lack of appreciation) on defensive aspects of the game. This can be seen with both personnel decisions and with tactical decisions. At times, Guardiola’s hand is forced and he must play players out of position. However, over the course of ten seasons, this situation presents itself far too often. In the summer of 2008, both Guardiola and Gerard Piqué arrived at Barcelona. During Guardiola’s 4-year tenure, 3 other centre-backs arrive (Martín Cáceres, Henrique and Dmytro Chyhrynskyi) and make a combined 37 appearances between them. Did Guardiola really have so little influence over transfer policy that he couldn’t land a centre-back to his liking? Or, was he simply content with playing a 5ft9 defensive midfielder like Javier Mascherano there? Guardiola often claims he needs a ‘certain type of centre-back’. This is code for, he wants a centre-back that is technically proficient and isn’t just a ‘stopper’. Are these special centre-backs really in such short supply that it warrants playing full-backs like Abidal, Alaba and Kolarov, or defensive midfielders like Yaya Touré, Mascherano and Fernandinho, over established, specialist central defenders? Papering over the cracks when suffering injuries and suspensions is part of being a good manager, but too often Guardiola leaves himself in a position where his squad lacks a solid defensive foundation.
Tactically, it’s obvious that Guardiola favours a possession based offensive strategy and a high pressure, high line defensive strategy. In crucial Champions League games, his teams have conceded a disproportionate number of goals from the opposition getting in behind. Is this just the nature of the beast – you live by the sword; you die by the sword? Goals will be conceded in football and every defensive system has its flaws – part of the sacrifice of playing with a high press is that sometimes, the opposition will get in behind. Guardiola has struggled against many “specialist” counter-attacking teams – Inter Milan in 2010, Juventus and Atlético in 2016. This tactic is not just limited to counter-attacking teams though, numerous more balanced teams have also looked to exploit this Guardiola trait – Real Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona in 2015 both played slightly deeper than normal and looked to get their exquisite attacking talent in behind the Guardiola defence.
Aside from defensive tactics, Guardiola has also made other questionable calls in his Champions League managerial career. Thomas Müller has suggested that Guardiola may “overthink” in the Champions League. Müller claims Guardiola becomes conflicted, unsure whether to alter his tactics and set-up to fit the opponent in the biggest games, or stand by his trusted philosophy. This is a reasonable criticism and there is much evidence to back up the claim. Guardiola is guilty of playing unconventional formations – Barcelona vs AC Milan in 2012, Bayern vs Barcelona in 2015, City vs Liverpool 2018 – and leaving out big players in critical matches – Piqué vs Chelsea in 2012, Müller vs Real Madrid in 2014, De Bruyne vs Spurs in 2019. There is a fine line between genius and stupidity, I’m not qualified enough to say that Guardiola was wrong to make these calls in these matches but I think Müller’s suggestion of Guardiola overthinking is a fair one.
Looking at a breakdown of Guardiola’s results in the above table, it’s impossible not to notice how poor his away form seems to be. In 21 first legs played away from home, Guardiola’s record is: 5 W, 7 D, 9 L. On three occasions, Guardiola has found himself facing into an away second leg with the tie still in the balance. In 2009, he drew 1-1 with Chelsea to progress on away goals after a 0-0 first leg; in 2016, he drew 2-2 with Benfica to progress after a 1-0 win in the first leg; and in 2017, he lost 3-1 to Monaco and was eliminated on away goals after a 5-3 win in the first leg.
At the beginning of this article, we talked about judging a manager on the factors within his control. What about the factors outside of his control? How did luck affect Guardiola’s ten seasons in the Champions League and is it possible that had he gotten a fair rub of the green, he’d have an extra trophy or two in his cabinet? In his time at Barcelona, Guardiola got more than his fair share of luck. Barcelona received favourable refereeing decisions in their semi-final matches versus Chelsea in 2009 (too numerous to mention) and versus Inter in 2010 (a questionable red card for Thiago Motta in the second leg). Barcelona were relatively fortunate with injuries, and can’t feel too aggrieved with any losses they suffered. Perhaps versus Chelsea in 2012, Guardiola will feel his team had done enough to progress but luck just wasn’t on their side that day. With Bayern, Guardiola was probably a little unfortunate with injuries during his three seasons. Key players Robben, Ribéry and Boateng were missing for crucial games whilst Bayern’s opposition in each of their three semi-finals were more-or-less at full strength. Guardiola will feel most aggrieved with Bayern’s 2016 exit to Atlético Madrid. Bayern’s chief executive stated Bayern felt “a little bit cheated”. He went on to say "The Atlético goal was offside, the foul for the penalty [which Atlético missed] was outside of the box.”. At City, Aguero misses their 2018 quarter-final vs Liverpool, and their 2019 second leg versus Spurs will be remembered most for a contentious Fernando Llorente goal and a (correctly) ruled out Raheem Sterling goal. What may be less remembered is that Spurs were missing Harry Kane for the second leg.
It’s impossible to measure, but overall, I think it’s fair to say that Guardiola hasn’t been overly lucky or overly unlucky in his Champions League campaigns. They say these things even out, and for Guardiola, luck has had a fairly neutral effect on his Champions League results.