If you gaze long into England, England also gazes into you. In his five years at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has grappled with assumptions and sacred cows, expanded perceptions of how football may be maintained, and forced a reconsideration of the role of the goalkeeper and the centre-forward. He has changed the English game, but the English game has also changed him.
How else to explain the fact that by the end of Saturday’s Champions League final the team of the high priest of juego de posición, the most influential coach of this century, should have become reliant in its search for an equaliser on long throws from a full-back? The sight of Kyle Walker drying the ball on his shirt, preparing to launch another ball into the mixer, may have become emblematic of those final minutes, but it was only one part of a tactical story that had two distinct themes.
The most urgent was Guardiola “Pepping it up” again, taking a system that had worked superbly for months and then, for a key European game, radically altering it, bringing in Raheem Sterling, who has been out of sorts for a few weeks, and starting without either Fernandinho or Rodri for only the second time this season. That meant City’s top goalscorer this season, Ilkay Gündogan, was left as the deepest-lying midfielder. There are those who see this as hubris, as a genius determined not merely to win but to do so in a way that confirms his genius.
A more likely explanation is anxiety, induced by all those other defeats in big European knockout games that leads Guardiola to second-guess himself. Terrified by the prospect of being undone on the counter, the coach takes steps to avert his fate which themselves then cause that fate to come about. Playing Gündogan wide on the left against Liverpool in 2019, deploying a back three against Lyon in 2020 and then selecting no holding midfielder on Saturday. He has become like Oedipus leaving Corinth to try to ensure he should never meet his parents again.
What is the most extraordinary about Saturday’s team selection is that Guardiola’s great success this season had precisely been working out a way of pressing aggressively (or at least, aggressively enough) without being so vulnerable to balls played in behind the high defensive line as City had been last season. This, really, is the grail of modern football: how can you operate proactively with a compact team without being exposed by any side who is good enough to play through the press?
Bayern Munich managed it last season by pressing even harder, denying the opponent any time on the ball, but that was always a high-wire act: one slight slip can have devastating consequences, as in the first half of the first leg of this season’s quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain when the tie could have been out of sight. City went the other way, easing back, seeking to maintain possession, trying to ensure there was always one defender more than opposing forward in dangerous areas, operating regularly with five men behind the ball, so those who didn’t have specific marking duties were available to stifle counters. Fernandinho has excelled over the past couple of months as that floating fire blanket.
And then the protection was removed. Look at the Chelsea goal. Timo Werner’s run dragged Rúben Dias right. John Stones covered across and Oleksandr Zinchenko, perhaps befuddled by the complexity of the role he was being asked to play as left-back and auxiliary holding midfielder to an actual holding midfielder who didn’t exist, let Kai Havertz run. Mason Mount then played the killer pass between Stones and Zinchenko, through precisely the zone an orthodox holding midfielder would usually have been occupying. As he did so, a retreating Gündogan was only just crossing the halfway line.
And that’s where Thomas Tuchel has to take great credit, and where the wider tactical theme emerges. The transformation he has enacted since taking charge at the end of January is astonishing. A team notoriously susceptible on the counter under Frank Lampard has come through seven Champions League knockout games conceding only twice. City didn’t have a shot on target after the seventh minute, despite the fact that Thiago Silva was forced off.
The back three plus two holders (and one of them N’Golo Kanté) offers a solid base and, while that may mean Chelsea are a little lacking in attacking variety, that is less of a problem when they are playing on the break. Further protection against the counter, meanwhile, is offered by how well Chelsea maintain possession. In that regard, Tuchel is the most guardiolista of the modern German school.
Guardiola won four and drew one of their first five meetings (two of them, admittedly, against Mainz) but Tuchel has won each of the three since. The dynamic of their relationship could dominate English and European football for the next few seasons. In part that’s because, as football enters a period of financial uncertainty, the ownership of Chelsea and City guarantees they will not be so stretched as other teams may be.
But it’s also because, while acknowledging that a more normal calendar next season may permit the return of the more aggressive pressing sides, Tuchel and Guardiola appear the two coaches closest to finding a balance that will allow them to be proactive while maintaining at least a level of solidity. What Guardiola does with that knowledge is another issue.