Manchester City won the Champions League for the first time thanks to a 1-0 win over Inter in Istanbul. Pep Guardiola’s adjustment to City’s defence should worry Europe – he has evolved as a coach and found a new template to win the big games
Eight league titles have been won since Pep Guardiola last lifted the Champions League, three in Germany and five in England. No wonder there is talk of it being his obsession. Twelve years on and he is finally celebrating European glory again.
The discourse has been dominated by comparisons with Manchester United’s treble of 1999 but it is the comparison with Guardiola’s great Barcelona side of 2011 that feels more revealing. A coach sometimes styled as intransigent has been on quite the journey.
If Barcelona’s win at Wembley represents the high watermark for his – or anyone’s – football, this 2023 triumph was more of a grind.
It should be of no concern to him or his players. There are 115 other factors that may yet tarnish this triumph but the manner of the performance in Istanbul is not one of them. Finals are won not played and City were worthy winners after a stunning season.
Even so, the way in which it was achieved, the contrast with the free-flowing football of a dozen years earlier, and indeed parts of this season, does reveal something of Guardiola’s shift in approach.
He suggested afterwards, as he has so often before, that these cup competitions are a coin toss – and it is worth pushing back on the idea that this City are self-evidently superior to the sides that have come before them. The margins in these matches are tight.
In 2019, they were the top scorers in the Champions League despite being knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Tottenham. In 2021, they conceded the fewest expected goals of any side despite nobody else playing more games in the competition.
But there was something different about the 2023 version. There has never been a more robust Guardiola team. Ostensibly, it is a back three but that three includes neither Rodri nor John Stones – two men who played centre-back at the World Cup in December.
“I think we defend a little bit better in the box,” said Guardiola when asked to cite a difference. “We are four central defenders plus Kyle [Walker]. We are proper defenders. Even when we make mistakes, we have the feeling that we are more solid.”
Two years ago, the Champions League final was lost when Oleksandr Zinchenko lost Kai Havertz. The Ukrainian has since departed. Joao Cancelo, a wonderful footballer with the ball at his feet, moved on too when Guardiola lost faith in his defensive work.
City are more difficult to beat now. There is no obvious weakness.
The first time that Guardiola went with the quintet of Rodri, Stones, Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji came during the second half of the goalless draw away to Borussia Dortmund in October. Cancelo was replaced by Akanji at the interval.
The five men started together for the first time in a 1-0 win at Crystal Palace in March. Guardiola named what would go on to become the Champions League final starting line-up for the first time in the very next match, beating RB Leipzig 7-0 at the Etihad Stadium.
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It was deployed again for both legs of the quarter-final against Bayern Munich with Guardiola only deviating from that plan in the biggest games once Nathan Ake began to suffer fitness issues late in the season. Walker came in to replace him.
For the four most important matches of the season prior to Saturday, that was the go-to team. Guardiola named the same 10 outfield players for the title showdown with Arsenal, the two-legged semi-final against Real Madrid and the FA Cup final win over United.
The template set, City have not conceded more than once in a game since the 4-2 defeat of Spurs in January. That was the night that Guardiola berated his own players, labelling them his ‘happy flowers’ team. A more risk-averse City has emerged.
“It was really interesting listening to Pep talk about proper defenders because he has conditioned our minds,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “The idea of a team that was four centre-backs playing in the one team was very different to the usual Pep style of play.”
Pragmatism is defined as an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. In football, it is taken to mean long throws and longer passes, a rudimentary approach that is a world away from Guardiola’s game.
But he is no purist. Guardiola plays the positional game, the possession game, not for its aesthetic appeal, but because he believes it is effective. The change in the profile of his defenders, like the adjustment to accommodate Erling Haaland, reflects that.
It is just another way in which Guardiola has come full circle. The man who once wanted a team of midfielders, who won his previous Champions League finals with Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano in the centre of his defence, now has defenders in his midfield.
And City have never looked less vulnerable, never more likely to find a way to win even when the rhythm is not there.
Their players were aware of their own lack of fluency in the final. “We were not at our best,” said Ilkay Gundogan. “I was awful,” said Jack Grealish. Rodri chose more industrial language to describe his own display. They attempted only seven shots in the match.
But they have found a way to win the big games.
That is the key difference. City’s Premier League points tally of 89 this season is lower than their average points tally during Guardiola’s seven seasons at the club. The goals tally of 94 is lower than their average goals tally during Guardiola’s seven seasons at the club.
The coach who specialised in winning league titles, whose football has so often won out over the course of long seasons while contriving to find ways to come up just short in the big moments, has flipped the narrative. A new one could now follow.
A celebratory Guardiola, whose demeanour spoke of relief, of a weight lifted, was in no mood to discuss what will happen next. Perhaps, freed of the pressure that has been put on him, a more expressive City will emerge. His rivals around Europe might hope so.
Because while his brilliant Barcelona never did retain the Champions League, this Manchester City machine just might.