Crazed Conductor Pep Guardiola Sees Champions League Dream Fall Apart

Pep Guardiola...after the final whistle in Porto, Portugal
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Manchester City’s manager – the defining tactical brain of his age – picked a team that malfunctioned and looked muddled

At the final whistle in the Estádio do Dragão, as the air whooshed out through the stadium roof and the night sky crackled with a weird, irresistible energy, Pep Guardiola wandered off into a patch of green space and stood watching.

He edged away from the capering figures skirting him tactfully like a hazard in a water course. He ran a hand over his gleaming skull, oddly tender in all that noise and light.

Eventually he noticed Sergio Agüero standing on his own nearby and went in for a jittery hug. Oh, Pep. You do it to yourself. You do. And that’s what really hurts.

All glory to Chelsea, champions of Europe and a brilliantly managed half-season winning machine. There will be time to unpack this 1-0 victory, and a moment of footballing ultimacy for Thomas Tuchel five months after his sacking by Paris Saint-Germain. But this was also, inevitably, a Pep joint. On a thrillingly boisterous summer night in the suburbs of Porto the defining tactical brain of the age sent out the strongest squad in Europe to face a team that had lost three of their last four games. And yet again he blinked.

Manchester City have been irresistible for the past five months. Manchester City have found a shape, a set of rhythms that have carried them through the field without breaking stride. Default City, basic City momentum should, all things being equal, have presented their best chance of winning the Champions League final.

At which point, welcome back, doubt, uncertainty, damaging obsession. I’ve been expecting you. When the City team dropped, 10 minutes before 7pm, there was a tremor of electricity around this vast, open concrete bowl.

Was that a misprint? Guardiola didn’t just take the handbrake off here, he sheared it off with an angle-grinder, and hurled it out of the passenger window.

On paper there was only one real change, with Raheem Sterling in and Fernandinho and/or Rodri absent. But with that stroke Guardiola had removed an entire position from his team, choosing to go into a Champions League final without a single career defensive midfielder, with a defensive pivot who was also (there’s a clue here) City’s top goalscorer.

It looked muddled, a City team that was all sauce, no linguine. What about things like balance and ballast? What about trying to win by winning, rather than win by some act of tactical messianism. And fine, if we’re not playing by the rules, how about trying it out once or twice before the biggest game of your post-Barça career?

“[Ilkay] Gündogan has played there before,” Guardiola shrugged afterwards, of his rejig in the defensive pivot. Gündogan is a fine footballer. But the most recent occasion that springs to mind was in Germany’s 6-0 defeat by Spain.

There were 16,500 people inside the Estádio do Dragão at kick-off, but it felt like more, such was the delicious sensory shock at being there out in all that space and light and noise. It was a feeling that seemed to transmit to City’s players.

The midfield looked like a three at the start, then became a one with two in front for a while. It was fluid, it was loose, it was a whirl, the kind of rhythms that liberate players, but also make huge demands of their in-game intelligence, the ability to read the flow. For five minutes the prospect was raised of some devastating total midfield triumph.

And then for a while City just kind of fell apart. Suddenly there were spaces, channels opening up in the backline. Three times Chelsea were able to carve a way through, let down on each occasion by Timo Werner’s reverse-Terminator impression, the man who can’t be called off, who will never stop, but who also refuses to kill you. Werner really should have scored twice and set the day decisively one way.

Throughout all this Pep was on his feet in full crazed modernist conductor guise, whirling and lunging, doing rapid-fire double-handed midge-swats, pointing at things only he could see – objects, planes, holes, possibilities.

Could Guardiola not see what was happening in front of him? Did he feel his fate set, Birnam Wood already marching up the hill? Why, to put it more practically, didn’t he just stiffen up that midfield end allow this team to play as it has?

As half-time approached Chelsea scored the goal they had almost but not quite been scoring for 42 minutes. It was startlingly easy, made by a single pass that cut through the heart of this City formation like a hot knife through butter made specifically, and to order, without any added Fernandinho.

Mason Mount took the ball with so much time, too much time a hole in City’s shared energy field, and sent a long pass into the path of Kai Havertz’s run through the heart of the City midfield.

The ball travelled 45 yards along the ground uninterrupted, straight into that rangy, eager stride, the stride of a Victorian housemaster completing a particularly rugged early-morning cross-country dash. There was no flesh, no obstacle, no parts of this City team to create resistance. Havertz rounded Ederson and rolled the ball into an empty net.

As a goal against, it was an embarrassment, evidence of some basic malfunction in structure. At half-time the City players trudged off looking bemused.

Finally, with an hour gone Fernandinho made an appearance, striding out into that central hole and restoring order as City began belatedly to wind up their spring, to apply those weather fronts of pressure to the Chelsea goal. Somehow they never really looked like scoring.

Then came that final whistle and the walk, the arrogance, the human frailty of inviting this upon himself; and the strange flawed beauty of that 10-year march to reach this spot.

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