How Pep Guardiola reveals even geniuses have flaws
Late in the second leg at home to Liverpool, Manchester City were grasping at straws. For the second time in a week, they had been found out by Liverpool’s greater attacking verve and direct intent. For Pep Guardiola, it was a tough pill to swallow. His opposite number Jurgen Klopp has now beaten him three times this campaign, proof that even the greatest coaches have vulnerabilities.
Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't beat Pep. Jose Mourinho can now and then, but not as a rule. Guardiola can’t find joy against Klopp. Gegenpressing goes against everything the Catalan holds dear. Over both legs, Liverpool made Manchester City uncomfortable by pressing them high up the pitch and forcing them into mistakes. For all his genius, it seems Guardiola has no answer for this tactical method. The Reds' success offers a blueprint to the other teams looking to topple City from their high horse.
The Citizens have won many admirers for their style of play this term, but the last eight days have shown that there is a fundamental flaw in Pep’s tactical philosophy. After beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in September, he spoke with pride on how England had proved his philosophy could be executed to perfection at any stadium, against any opposition. City will win the league this term. They have been the best team in the country by a long mile. But Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham know that they are not invincible.
Pep lost his temper last week, getting himself sent off for trying to attack the referee, suggesting the suave, casual, almost dismissive demeanour is a veneer. For the most part, he has been a classy, well-behaved manager who doesn’t lose his cool. Occasionally, he has caved under pressure. The press has given him a free pass, putting it down to "passion".
Guardiola prides himself on his team's aesthetic. He must understand, however, there is a solution to every formation and strategy. For all his tactical prowess, Pep doesn’t have a Plan B. He has now failed to reach the semifinals of the Champions League again. His Etihad masters hired him and his fellow Barcelona outcasts to take their nouveau-riche club into the halls of the elite. To do so, he may need to develop a new trick.
With his clout, reputation in the competition, and players he has, City should be doing better. Under his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, City reached the semifinals and lost by the odd goal to eventual champion Real Madrid. Manchester City will buy more players this summer, but perhaps their problems run deeper.
Guardiola's next Premier League game is tonight against Tottenham. He will be without Sergio Aguero's services. The Argentine may miss the rest of the season. The manager will plug in Gabriel Jesus or play a false nine without the veteran. In the long run, however, he will need to exhibit more flexibility than that. The world is no longer waiting for him to weave his magic. There are other magicians around.