No ‘stupid tactics’, just brilliance from Pep and Phil

Date published: Tuesday 5th April 2022 10:35 - Sarah Winterburn

Pep Guardiola with Phil Foden and other substitutes

Oh how we laughed at Pep Guardiola over-thinking his tactics in the Champions League, even ranking the scale of his daftness after he bristled at questions in a pre-match press conference, leaning into the criticism with talk of “stupid tactics” and ending his one-man stand-up show with the threat to play 12 players against Atletico Madrid.

The truth is that Manchester City could barely have enjoyed much more possession had they fielded 12, 13 or 14 players, with Atletico Madrid happy to indulge in their most extreme incarnation of Sufferball, barely leaving the safety of their own half and ending 90 minutes with a shot so weak that some statisticians generously recorded it as a cross. It was ambitionless asphyxiation and it was pure, undiluted Diego Simeone.

For what felt like hours but was actually just 68 minutes, City patiently passed the ball forwards, backwards, sideways and then eventually to somebody on the right who inevitably tried to fizz it into the box but largely found the hands of Jan Oblak. There was little joy to be found in this repetition, nor in the many fruitless penalty appeals that punctuated a lengthy game of striker-less attack v defence.

It had taken 55 minutes for Manchester City to muster a shot on target and 64 minutes to create a chance that should have been converted. In between, Atletico Madrid had made a triple substitution that had made no difference to the pattern of the game, only to the fatigue in the legs.

On 68 minutes, Guardiola made his own triple substitution, not borne of over-thinking but simply of thinking that he needed to initiate change because every one of the 22 players on the pitch were locked into playing the same game in perpetuity. Off came Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling and on came Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. Within a few seconds the latter had been fouled for the first of an astonishing five times in just 23 minutes; within 79 seconds the other English substitute had changed the game with his first touch.

Perhaps Sterling would have wriggled away from four Atletico players; perhaps Mahrez would have played the slide-rule pass through to Kevin de Bruyne; but perhaps only Foden could have done both in that moment, unburdened by the frustration of what had come before. It was a moment of pure brilliance from a player whose genius has been normalised. And he is somehow still only 21.

We are bound by journalistic codes to say that this tie is still ‘poised’ but it’s a damn sight less poised thanks to that goal from De Bruyne, created by Foden, unleashed less than two minutes before by Guardiola. The same coach who made no substitutions through a 90-minute stalemate with Crystal Palace made three in a Champions League quarter-final clash with Atletico Madrid at exactly the right time to punish a disciplined but inevitably tiring defence. This was the opposite of “stupid tactics”.

Atletico will insist that losing 1-0 at the Etihad is not even close to a disaster but Guardiola should not worry himself with their perspective; he has wriggled his team into a half-time lead against obdurate opposition while simultaneously saving the legs of the brilliant Foden for Liverpool on Sunday. It sounds like he gave it just the right level of thought.

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