By J Hutcherson (Apr 9, 2019) US Soccer Players - Manchester City lost 1-0 at Sours to open their Champions League quarterfinal series. The result itself might not be much of a shock. Hosting the second-leg is an advantage, after all. Still, Manchester City is one of the favorites in the Champions League long with every other competition. This is an elite club playing at a level that leads to trophies. Anything else is a disappointment, something the club and it’s manager are well aware of.
Pep Guardiola knows what his position means. England may still sub in “manager” in place of “coach” but the job is coaching the first team. Guardiola built his reputation on research leading to results with the best collection of players in the world. He’s a super club coach, planning around the type of squads expected to win games. Guardiola’s tactics aren’t about maximizing available talent. They’re about going out and getting the talent necessary to see his vision play out on the field. When that doesn’t happen, the focus is on him.
So what to make of a Manchester City squad that didn’t seem to have an edge at Spurs in the Champions League? There are no excuses. It’s a familiar opponent using the same set of players and tactics that have led to issues in the Premier League. Spurs fell of the pace for the title weeks ago while City continues to battle it out with Liverpool. It’s worth the reminder that Liverpool had no problem shutting out Porto 2-0 at home in the other quarterfinal.
Meanwhile, City never seemed to pull together the kind of play that has marked their season. It wasn’t so much that Sours had answers for Guardiola’s changes and tactics. It’s that Guardiola’s plans never seemed to take hold. Obviously, this is the opening 90 minutes of a 180 minute series and there’s plenty of time for Pep to prove his point. That’s checking off the normal caveats in this situation, but it still doesn’t excuse that opening 90. The coach’s job is making sure the team is in sync and the tactical choices aren’t complicating things. That’s the biggest takeaway from Manchester City in the opening 90. That they made things too difficult to work against Spurs.
Fixing that may not be as straight forward as the coach getting out of his own way. Guardiola’s tendency to plan isn’t likely to change between now and the second-leg. He’ll have ideas and fixes that will once again change City. Sunday’s game at Crystal Palace isn’t likely to give him any additional inputs for what to do at home against Spurs on Wednesday. If anything, all Palace represents is additional difficulties should it cost him player fitness. Guardiola isn’t the type of coach to plan for anything less than 180 minutes in a Champions League series, and that might end up being his problem.
Spurs have 90 minutes of success against City in the Champions League. That’s their biggest takeaway, even though it comes with its own issues. Mauricio Pochettino’s critics have been loud and unrelenting during Sours run of not winning Premier League games. Not botching the opening of Tottenham Stadium last week by seeing off Palace said very little about this club. Now, there’s the pressure of that first-leg lead after Saturday’s Premier League game at home to already relegated Huddersfield Town.
Of concern for Spurs is what didn’t work against City. They needed an early penalty save and City misfiring to come out of the game with that one-goal lead. As the critics pile on to Guardiola’s record in the later stages of the Champions League, Spurs could be setting themselves up for a tougher second-leg than they expected. It’s not that City lost, it’s how they lost. That’s resonating louder with City in defense over tactics and choices. It’s still the underdog role for Spurs, with this series City’s to lose.
It would take more than piling on Guardiola's choices to subvert this particular narrative. Not that doing so would mean anything other than flattering Spurs. It wouldn't have taken much for the opening leg to end scoreless, 1-1, or 1-0 City. That's the pressure on Pochetinno to not pull a Guardiola and overthink the second-leg. What it's not is anything close to the scenario Guardiola faces, whether or not you happen to believe he created it.
Guardiola's job here isn't to stay out of the way. There's no such thing as a team coaching itself at this level. This is where coaches really are managers when it comes to balancing tactics, personalities, scouting, and what they know about their squad that the rest of us don't. What being a super club with a clear path to the semifinals does is compound all of that. The pressure, the choices, and ultimately what Manchester City looks like over the second half of this quarterfinal series at home against Spurs.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The Champions League knockout
- 2019 is another test of MLS parity
- The problem with soccer on TV
- Spurs play for the leagues after exiting the cups
Logo courtesy of Manchester City