Mastering the psychology of two-legged knockout format is critical for Pep Guardiola’s men
There have been peaks and troughs – times when Liverpool and Bayern Munich were able to convincingly argue otherwise, points when Real Madrid and Chelsea have been the continent’s reigning champions – but perhaps unsurprisingly, the most consistently excellent side over the past half decade has been the one coached by Pep Guardiola.
Building City’s case for being the best begins with a statement of the obvious: they have won four Premier League titles in the past five seasons, dominating the most competitive of Europe’s major leagues to raise questions about whether it is really that competitive at all. Two of those titles were won by a single point from Liverpool, but the other two were secured by much wider margins.
Since the first of those titles under Guardiola, City have finished with the most points-per-game of any side in Europe’s top leagues, even when accounting for their sole runners-up finish in 2019-’20.
Not even Bayern or Paris Saint-Germain can match their average of 2.41 points-per-game over the same period, despite practically having a monopoly on success in Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga respectively.
The underlying performances are just as impressive as the results. City’s xG difference per game averages at +1.50 since 2017-’18 – again, the best in Europe. And beyond titles, trophies, points and goals of both the real and the expected variety, they are once again the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Champions League.
And so on the first morning of a seventh European campaign in the Guardiola era, as City prepare once more to play for the prize that still eludes them, the only question is how exactly are they going to mess it up this time?
If they do, that is. But if they do, it will probably be in exactly the ways that we have come to expect.
Some shrugged their shoulders after last season’s semi-final exit at the hands of Real Madrid. Whatever magic was surging through the Santiago Bernabeu that night, whatever alchemy was driving Carlo Ancelotti’s side to a place in the Paris final and ultimately a 14th European Cup, it was irresistible. Call it fate, destiny or whatever, but even with a two-goal lead with only stoppage time left to play, City were never safe.
Except there was a pattern there, one which went beyond talk of Madrid’s magic. This most stunning collapse was not without precedent. The three goals conceded in six minutes in the Bernabeu – either side of the start of extra-time – followed two conceded in eight minutes when exiting to Lyon in 2020, two conceded in three when crashing out to Tottenham in 2019, three conceded in 19 minutes to Liverpool in 2018, and two in eight minutes against Monaco in 2017.
Other examples from Guardiola’s post-2011 Champions League career pre-date his time in Manchester, suggesting the issue lies with the Catalan himself.
How to explain it, though?
This is a coach who has been brilliantly successful by prioritising control over all else. Why should the sudden and often irreversible loss of it happen so frequently to him across different clubs, different playing squads and different decades? The common denominator – other than Guardiola himself – is the competition.
If City are to end their wait for European glory this year, coping better with the psychology of the two-legged knockout format will be key.
Again, over the past five years, there is not a team in Europe’s top leagues that can hold a candle to Guardiola’s defensive record, with an average of just 29 goals conceded per season.
Yet in their two-legged knockout eliminations under him, City have conceded at least four goals each time, twice shipping six. Even during 2020’s single-leg quarter-final, they let in three.
Whatever vulnerabilities pop up now and again during the domestic season, they always seem to eventually rear their head at a critical moment in Europe.
After a somewhat mixed start to the Premier League campaign by their exemplary standards, Guardiola has expressed genuine concerns over City’s susceptibility to the counter-attack and to set-pieces, with Newcastle United and Crystal Palace already exposing those weaknesses this season.
This is Guardiola’s biggest concern about the lethal frontline he has constructed this season with the arrival of Erling Haaland. The careful, considered approach that has proved so successful is at risk of speeding up and causing issues elsewhere.
“If Erling is going, Phil [Foden] has that aggression to get there. If it’s Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez they are more calm and help us to come together, and if we lose the ball we are there and [the opposition] cannot run [and counter-attack],” he explained after the Newcastle draw.
Guardiola need not worry too much – the indications are that City’s attack is still as slow and intricate as ever so far – but having needed to come back from two goals down twice already this season, there are clearly creases to iron out.
That tendency to be in complete control one moment then pegged back the next reared its head again at Villa Park this weekend. And if City are still widely fancied to win a third successive domestic title, perhaps the seeds of their seventh straight European exit under Guardiola are being sown.
At least the group stage, starting against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan tonight, should be relatively straightforward.
City have not failed at the first hurdle since Guardiola’s arrival. It is essentially a mini-league format, after all, and the records suggest that they are best in Europe when they can either win, lose or draw in 90 minutes.
Two-legged knockout football has proved a different beast, though, and only when they conquer this competition will they get the full recognition that their sustained brilliance deserves.
Sevilla v Manchester City, Live, BT Sport 2, 8.0