Has Pep really underachieved in the Champions League?

Date published: Wednesday 1st April 2020 7:32

Question marks remain despite Pep Guardiola’s stellar coaching career. Read the full article here…

Pep Guardiola is rightly regarded as one of the greatest managers of his generation. In his ten seasons in management, Pep’s record clearly speaks for itself. Eight league titles in three different countries, eight domestic cups, three FIFA Club World Cups, three UEFA Super Cups, three Spanish Super Cups and two Community Shields. It’s hard to imagine how someone with such an impressive trophy haul can still have his management ability doubted by so many. Yet there are constant questions about the one arena in which Pep has arguably underachieved: the Champions League.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Champions League is very, very difficult to win. And Pep has won it. Twice. The table below is a summary of all of Guardiola’s knock-out Champions League results. The percentage columns represent how big a favourite (or underdog) Guardiola’s team was to qualify (or lift the trophy in a final) in each tie. These percentages are based on the odds bookmakers were offering pre-match. Hindsight and human memory can be very flawed and subject to bias, so it’s important to give context to these matches. As always, no system is perfect but it is important to have a reference point for each tie and not just rely on memory alone.

Guardiola has played 28 knock-out Champions League matches (not including 2019/20 season). He has been victorious in 20 ties and has been knocked out in eight. In 26 of these ties, Guardiola’s team entered as substantial pre-match favourites to progress.

Does this confirm the hypothesis that Guardiola has underachieved in big Champions League matches? Not necessarily. Some credit has to be given to Guardiola and the influence he had on his sides – part of the reason his teams were such big favourites was because Guardiola was their manager. It’s also important to realise that there’s never an ‘easy’ answer to why a team loses a football match. It’s almost always a combination of a huge number of factors – some within the control of the manager, and some out of his control. So, when judging a manager, it’s important to look at how he influenced the factors within his control; the result itself is not enough to judge a manager’s performance.

Looking at all of Guardiola’s successful and unsuccessful Champions League campaigns, there are some common themes worth highlighting.

Time and again, game plans seem to revolve around midfield and forward areas. There is seemingly a lack of focus (or more harshly, a lack of appreciation) on defensive aspects of the game. This can be seen with both personnel decisions and with tactical decisions. At times, Guardiola’s hand is forced and he must play players out of position. However, over the course of ten seasons, this situation presents itself far too often.

In the summer of 2008, both Guardiola and Gerard Piqué arrived at Barcelona. During Guardiola’s four-year tenure, three other centre-backs arrive (Martín Cáceres, Henrique and Dmytro Chyhrynskyi) and make a combined 37 appearances between them. Did Guardiola really have so little influence over transfer policy that he couldn’t land a centre-back to his liking? Or, was he simply content with playing a 5ft9 defensive midfielder like Javier Mascherano there? Guardiola often claims he needs a ‘certain type of centre-back’. This is code for him wanting a centre-back that is technically proficient and isn’t just a ‘stopper’. Are these special centre-backs really in such short supply that it warrants playing full-backs like Eric Abidal, David Alaba and Aleksandar Kolarov, or defensive midfielders like Yaya Touré, Mascherano and Fernandinho, over established, specialist central defenders?

Papering over the cracks when suffering injuries and suspensions is part of being a good manager, but too often Guardiola leaves himself in a position where his squad lacks a solid defensive foundation.

Tactically, it’s obvious that Guardiola favours a possession-based offensive strategy and a high-pressure, high-line defensive strategy. In crucial Champions League games, his teams have conceded a disproportionate number of goals from the opposition getting in behind. Is this just the nature of the beast – you live by the sword; you die by the sword? Goals will be conceded in football and every defensive system has its flaws; one sacrifice of playing with a high press is that sometimes, the opposition will get in behind.

Guardiola has struggled against many ‘specialist’ counter-attacking teams – Inter Milan in 2010, Juventus and Atletico in 2016. And this tactic is not just limited to counter-attacking teams as numerous more balanced sides have also looked to exploit this Guardiola trait – Real Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona in 2015 both played slightly deeper than normal and looked to get their exquisite attacking talent in behind the Guardiola defence. Guardiola is usually happy that his attacking threat and dominance of possession will give his team more than enough opportunities to win the game. Opposition managers – even managers of top ‘attacking’ teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid – also seem happy to let their defence try to contain the Guardiola attack and look to use their clinical and quick attackers to exploit the space in behind.

Aside from defensive tactics, Guardiola has also made other questionable calls in his Champions League managerial career. Thomas Müller has suggested that Guardiola may ‘overthink’ in the Champions League. Müller claims Guardiola becomes conflicted, unsure whether to alter his tactics and set up to combat the opposition in the biggest games, or stand by his trusted philosophy. This is a reasonable criticism and there is much evidence to back up the claim.

Guardiola is guilty of playing unconventional formations (Barcelona vs AC Milan in 2012, Bayern vs Barcelona in 2015, City vs Liverpool 2018) and leaving out big players in critical matches (Piqué vs Chelsea in 2012, Müller vs Real Madrid in 2014, De Bruyne vs Spurs in 2019). There is a fine line between genius and stupidity. I’m not qualified enough to say that Guardiola was wrong to make these calls in these matches but I think Müller’s suggestion of Guardiola overthinking is a fair one.

Looking at a breakdown of Guardiola’s results in the above table, it’s impossible not to notice how poor his away form seems to be. In 21 first legs played away from home, Guardiola’s record is W5, D7, L9. On three occasions, Guardiola has found himself facing into an away second leg with the tie still in the balance. In 2009, he drew 1-1 with Chelsea to progress on away goals after a 0-0 first leg; in 2016, he drew 2-2 with Benfica to progress after a 1-0 win in the first leg; and in 2017, he lost 3-1 to Monaco and was eliminated on away goals after a 5-3 win in the first leg.

At the beginning of this article, we talked about judging a manager on the factors within his control. What about the factors outside of his control? How did luck affect Guardiola’s ten seasons in the Champions League and is it possible that had he gotten a fair rub of the green, he’d have an extra trophy or two in his cabinet?

In his time at Barcelona, Guardiola got more than his fair share of luck. Barcelona received favourable refereeing decisions in their semi-final matches versus Chelsea in 2009 (too numerous to mention) and versus Inter in 2010 (a questionable straight red card for Thiago Motta in the second leg). Barcelona were relatively fortunate with injuries, and can’t feel too aggrieved with any losses they suffered. Perhaps versus Chelsea in 2012, Guardiola will feel his team had done enough to progress but luck just wasn’t on their side that day. With Bayern, Guardiola was probably a little unfortunate with injuries during his three seasons. Key players Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and Jerome Boateng were missing for crucial games whilst Bayern’s opposition in each of their three semi-finals were more or less at full strength.

Guardiola will feel most aggrieved with Bayern’s 2016 exit to Atletico Madrid. Bayern’s chief executive stated Bayern felt “a little bit cheated”. He went on to say that “the Atletico goal was offside, the foul for the penalty [which Atletico missed] was outside of the box”. At City, Sergio Aguero missed their 2018 quarter-final, and their 2019 second leg versus Spurs will be remembered most for a contentious Fernando Llorente goal and a (correctly) ruled out Raheem Sterling goal. What may be less remembered is that Spurs were missing Harry Kane for the second leg.

It’s impossible to measure, but overall, I think it’s fair to say that Guardiola has not been overly lucky or overly unlucky in his Champions League campaigns. They say these things even out, and for Guardiola, luck has had a fairly neutral effect on his Champions League results. So has he underachieved? We are inclined towards a ‘yes’.

Jamie Flynn

You can read the full article here


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