Guardiola 10 games without a big European away win - is it more than a blip?
Spurs loss makes it eight years without quarter or semi final victory
Pep Guardiola last won a big European away fixture in 2011 with Barcelona. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty
Eight years ago Pepe was sent off and Lionel Messi scored two goals, one of them brilliant, as Barcelona beat Real Madrid in the semi-final of the Champions League. It was an apocalyptic night, the climax of that run of four clásicos in 17 days (although there was the second leg still to come) that came to define José Mourinho’s first season in Spain.
It came after Guardiola had finally snapped back at Mourinho’s constant goading, a moment his players seem to have regarded as the lancing of a boil. It was an exhausting, euphoric victory and yet one from which Guardiola has perhaps never quite recovered: eight years on, he is yet to win another away leg of a Champions League quarter-final or semi-final.
By definition, sample sizes for the latter stages of major competitions in football tend to be small, but this feels now like more than a blip. Manchester City’s 1-0 defeat at Tottenham on Tuesday was the 10th straight away game in the Champions League quarter- or semi-final that Guardiola has failed to win.
A skim down the list shows a range of games. Draws at Milan with Barça in 2012 or at Manchester United with Bayern in 2014 were good results. Nobody was initially concerned by what were widely seen as unfortunate 1-0 defeats by Chelsea and Real Madrid in the following round in those two seasons. But more recently results have become increasingly hard to explain. With Bayern there was a 3-1 defeat at Porto in the 2015 quarter-final, overcome in the second leg, as well as a very nervy 2-2 draw at Benfica in the 2016 quarter-final after a 1-0 win at home. And there have been the 3-0 shellackings at Barcelona with Bayern in 2015 and with City at Anfield last year.
There is a danger of oversimplification. Of course a team will have a worse record in the latter stages of the Champions League than in other games because that’s when they face the toughest opposition. But there does seem to be a recurring, perhaps self-perpetuating, pattern of Guardiola overthinking these away games, selecting an unfamiliar team and reaping the consequences. One of his greatest strengths is the research he puts into all matches, the thoroughness of his preparation, and yet that, when allied to his desperation to win the Champions League, seems paradoxically to prepare the ground for his failure.
In 2015, he sent Bayern out to press Barça at the Camp Nou, a shock tactic that he was forced to abandon after 20 minutes. The score then was 0-0 but the fatigue of that opening firefight was a contributory factor in the three late goals Barça scored. Last season, at Anfield, it was the use of Ilkay Gündogan in a withdrawn role that seemed to sow confusion.
At Tottenham, the issues were nowhere near so acute and had Sergio Agüero not had his 12th-minute penalty saved the tenor of the game might have been very different but still, the questions were there. It’s a little unfair on a very fine player but the presence of Gündogan often seems to be a warning sign. In the absence of the injured Bernardo Silva, there was no reason for a resurgent Kevin De Bruyne not to play but Guardiola preferred the more conservative option.
His first defeat in English football came at White Hart Lane in October 2016, a pummelling in which his City were overpowered. Although City had beaten Spurs comfortably in their last three meetings, Guardiola has often seemed preoccupied by the physicality of Mauricio Pochettino’s team. Yet by picking Riyad Mahrez to tuck in on the right of midfield, restricting the buccaneering of his full-backs (which was always Louis van Gaal’s criticism of Guardiola in big games) and having his side, as they had in the league at Anfield in October, adopt what was effectively a 4-4-1-1 out of possession, Guardiola effectively created the conditions for the game to become a physical battle.
That perhaps explains Fernandinho’s dropped elbow on Harry Kane. Whether it was deliberate only he can say for sure (although if it were an accident, it’s an unfortunate coincidence that he should follow it up immediately by catching Kane with his elbow again) but it is at least a curiosity that VAR has led to strict liability for the ball striking an elbow, but not for an elbow striking a head.
That prevented City from exploiting their greatest asset, their passing, while at the same time doing little to protect their few weaknesses. Fernandinho seemed rattled by having Dele Alli snapping around him, his pass completion just 75.6 per cent as against an average in the league this season of 87.8 per cent. Pochettino’s use of two wide men high up put pressure on City’s full-backs, one of whom had a suspect hamstring, while the other is a converted central midfielder. In the end, that proved decisive, Son Heung-min first getting behind Fabian Delph and then luring him into a clumsy challenge that he comfortably slipped before scoring.
In that sense, Pochettino won the tactical battle. In itself, that shouldn’t be particularly troubling for Guardiola and City may still go through. But 10 games without an away win in the latter stages of the Champions League is a worrying statistic.- Guardian