Manchester City are one game away from greatness, so it is curious that the manager who has taken them to this point is also seen by many as a potential obstacle at the finish line.
Such is the narrative that has built up around Pep Guardiola overthinking his tactics in big games. Manchester City head into the Champions League final having already won a domestic double but, in this competition, they – and their manager – have baggage.
Much of it comes from their last appearance in the final. City were strong favourites to beat Chelsea in 2021, just as they are against Inter Milan now, but instead suffered a loss which felt self-inflicted as Guardiola opted to start without a natural holding midfielder.
It was just the latest in a long line of surprising tactical changes by Guardiola on the European stage and fed into a reputation for over-elaborating which at once amuses and frustrates him. “I love to overthink and create stupid tactics,” he said sarcastically last year.
The accusations of overthinking actually began during his time in charge of Bayern Munich, where he started to mix things up more readily, having rarely deviated from his preferred 4-3-3 formation while at Barcelona, winning two Champions Leagues in four years.
The increased tactical flexibility helped Bayern dominate domestically, but it came to be seen as a flaw in Europe, starting in his first season, when he opted to play four forwards, rather than three, for the home leg of their semi-final against Real Madrid.
The decision had disastrous consequences, with Bayern, beaten only 1-0 in the first leg, suffering a chastening 4-0 loss at the Allianz Arena and Guardiola describing his decision to switch to a 4-2-4 formation, having resisted it all season, as “a complete ****-up”.
Despite that, Guardiola changed his system at the same juncture of the same competition in the following season, deploying a back three in an attempt to thwart Barcelona’s front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez at the Nou Camp, only to revert to a four mid-game following a chaotic opening period.
It should be noted all three of Barcelona’s goals that night came after he had abandoned his back three, but Bayern were lucky not to fall behind earlier and, ultimately, it felt like another misstep.
The same could be said of the decision to drop Thomas Muller in order to incorporate an extra midfielder for the first leg of their next semi-final, against Atletico Madrid, a year later.
Muller had been excellent that season, scoring 31 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions, but he was sacrificed for Thiago Alcantara and did not appear from the bench until the 70th minute, his threat missed as Bayern went down to a costly 1-0 loss.
Guardiola’s critics were quick to pounce on those perceived tactical errors and, with the overthinking narrative established, they found more opportunities after his move to Manchester City.
Indeed, before the 2021 final defeat to Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, there were earlier exits against Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon, all of which left the spotlight on Guardiola’s decisions.
Against Liverpool in 2018, he asked Aymeric Laporte to play in an unfamiliar left-back role, only for Mohamed Salah to run riot, while also using Ilkay Gundogan on the right in place of Raheem Sterling. Against Tottenham a year later, there was the controversial decision to omit Kevin De Bruyne for the first leg, which they lost 1-0.
Then, in a hint at what was to come in the final in 2021, Guardiola opted to use Gundogan, rather than Fernandinho, as his holding midfielder in the second leg, with City lacking their usual control as they crashed out on away goals following a crazy 4-3 win.
Arguably most damningly of all, there was the quarter-final loss to Lyon in 2020, played as a one-legged tie at a neutral venue, for which Guardiola named an uncharacteristically negative side, including five defenders and leaving out three of his most creative players in David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, as City fell to a 3-1 defeat.
Does Pep’s tinkering hinder players?
Mark Bowden, a mental performance consultant who works with Premier League footballers, explains why Pep Guardiola’s tactical tinkering can negatively impact his players.
“Pep should be advised against changing things so significantly,” he tells Sky Sports. “He has wanted his players to perform these new tactics like the old ones, but the brain doesn’t work like that.
“The automatic part of our brains can process over two million pieces of information at any one time. It’s fast, it’s effective, and you don’t even really need to think about it.
“The City players train, train and train more. Their style is conditioned and instinctive – they don’t need to think about what Pep wants them to do.
“But in an unfamiliar role, that gets taken away. You can’t utilise that automatic part of your brain in the same way and move instead to the conscious part of the brain – which can only process about 20 pieces of information simultaneously.
“Not only is it slower and less effective, it uses more energy too. It stops it from being possible to play to the same limits of that conditioned ability.”
It all adds up to make the Champions League look like something of a blind spot for Guardiola, but the narrative fails to acknowledge the many occasions his tweaks and adjustments have paid off.
Indeed, Guardiola’s ability to affect his team, often through bold tactical decisions, is a large part of what makes him such a special manager and there has been plenty of evidence of it recently.
Consider the way in which, this season, the completely unexpected decision to let Joao Cancelo leave in January and dramatically adjust the profile of City’s defence facilitated their subsequent march to Premier League and FA Cup glory.
Consider how, in each of City’s crucial Premier League meetings with Arsenal, he completely overhauled their style of play, going direct to inflict maximum damage, and even using Manuel Akanji at left-back to successfully nullify Bukayo Saka.
City averaged only 44 per cent possession in those games against Arsenal and the figure was similar over the two legs of their Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich, during which they again absorbed pressure and capitalised on transitions in order to hit their opponent at speed.
That 4-1 aggregate win over Bayern provided an element of catharsis for Guardiola given it was Tuchel, his conqueror in 2021, in the opposite dugout, and the same can be said of how emphatically City subsequently dispatched Real Madrid, the side who knocked them out last year, winning 4-0 at the Etihad after a 1-1 draw in Spain.
Guardiola continues to innovate, of course, with John Stones effectively playing as an out-and-out central midfielder, rather than a hybrid right-back, in City’s FA Cup final win over Manchester United last weekend. But there is also a feeling that his team is far more settled than in previous years in terms of personnel.
In both of the ties against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, he used the same line-ups in the first and second legs, with the only change seeing Kyle Walker replace Nathan Ake for the semi-final.
Erling Haaland has provided a focal point where previously there was flexibility, while Jack Grealish, Gundogan, De Bruyne and Silva are clearly favoured to support him in the biggest games.
Maybe, then, this is the year it all goes off exactly as expected. Guardiola has already steered Manchester City two thirds of the way to an historic treble. This time, the possibility of any self-inflicted damage at the finish line feels slimmer than ever.