Pep Punished for Uncharacteristic Plan in First Leg of UCL
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Pep Guardiola is known around the world for his tactical brilliance as a manager, but did the Manchester City coach misfire with his lineup and tactics in the first leg of the Champions League? Does it even matter?
Manchester City's uninspiring performance in their 1-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their Champions League tie left much to be desired. For a team that produces some of the most beautiful soccer in the world, very little of that beauty found its way onto the pitch last Tuesday night. So what went wrong for City?
The night got off to an odd start before the match had begun, as the release of the team's lineup had fans scratching their heads. Breakout star Bernardo Silva was omitted from the squad with a muscle injury, while two of the team's attacking cornerstones, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane, started the game on the bench, replaced by Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez respectively.
Injuries are unfortunate, but they happen. Leaving the red-hot Bernardo Silva out of the squad was likely difficult for Guardiola, but in this case, he didn't have a choice. The choice he did make, however, was to leave De Bruyne and Sane out of the lineup. While resting players is necessary to maintaining consistency throughout the long season, choosing to do so in a Champions League Quarter Final seems like the wrong decision. De Bruyne and Sane are too important to this team to not play in big games, and their absence was felt on the pitch. At the end of the day, if City had won, Pep would have looked like a genius for letting his stars rest. Instead, they lost, so this is one of the few times we get to criticize the prodigal manager.
Pep's selection of Riyad Mahrez in particular left many perplexed, as the Algerian has not seemed to adapt to City's system in his first year with the club. Mahrez is undoubtedly a high quality player, as his 2016 PFA Players' Player of the Year and 2017 African Player of the Year awards demonstrate, but it's still not clear how well he fits into the City system. City thrive on quick one-two passes and crosses driven along the end line, while Mahrez has preferred individual flair and brilliance to achieve his glory this season. Maybe he is trying too hard to prove himself in the limited minutes he gets to play? Or maybe the freedom of Leicester's counterattacking scheme simply fits his style of play better than the fast-paced, possession dominant style with which City play? Either way, City is far better off in big games with the Sane in the lineup than Mahrez.
From the moment the sound of the first whistle rang throughout Tottenham's beautiful new stadium, it was clear City was playing cautiously. Per the norm, City held most of the possession, but rather than the incisive quick passes around the box that define their style of play, the team chose to pass the ball around the back for the better part of the first half. Sergio Aguero, the club's all-time leading scorer, had a penalty saved in the 13th minute and looked rusty in his return from injury. After the early chance, neither side seemed to particularly control the game.
The game's slow pace resumed after the half until Tottenham's talisman, striker Harry Kane, went off with an injury, and the game seemed to open up a bit. But just as City seemed to be taking control, Spurs hit back with a clever piece of skill by Heung-Min Son to take the lead in the 78th minute. After going down 1-0, Pep finally seemed poised to bring on De Bruyne and Sane, who had both been warming up for nearly the entire second half. Instead, the manager left his stars on the bench until the 89th minute, by which time City was struggling to put together a cohesive attack.
Full credit to Spurs for their performance, as Mauricio Pochettino's men frustrated City's attackers with a solid defensive scheme at the back. Aguero saw very little action in the game other than a few chances that he could not keep on target, and Gabriel Jesus spent more time offsides than onside after replacing the Argentine striker, pointing to the strong communication between the defensemen throughout the game. The always dangerous attacking combo of Delle Alli, Christian Eriksen, Heung-Min Son, and Harry Kane created a few decent chances before Son's eventual moment of brilliance. Spurs, like City, are a very fun team to watch this season, so it is sad we must wish one of these top Premier League sides an early goodbye after this upcoming match.
City did not play this game to win; rather, they seemed to play to not lose. Their cautious plan backfired, as they walked away with a 1-0 defeat to a team that played the final third of the game without their best player. It's rare to see a tactical mistake by one of the game's great managers, but Pep seemed to get this one wrong. Relish it now, Spurs fans, because I don't see this happening again in the next meeting. I would be willing to bet that the dominant City we have become accustomed to seeing will return for the second leg. Expect a much higher tempo from the reigning Premier League champions as this game gets underway. I'm predicting a 3-1 scoreline in favor of City.
Well, I was right to predict a higher tempo from City, but I did not see that game coming! As the match commentators noted on numerous occasions, that had to be one of the best UCL matches ever played. Unbelievable end-to-end play from both sides led to chance after chance on either end. And let's not forget about the controversy! City fans will be moaning about this result for a while, and I'll have to admit, it's hard to blame them. What a game!