Pep Guardiola and the Ones That Got Away

Alex Ferguson might, when the temper took him, be gracious in defeat. Often, that was when he was at his most ruminative, his most thought of, his most obliging in his reward of an opponent. In all his years at Manchester United, although, he was by no means fairly so effusive as he was deep inside Wembley Stadium precisely a decade in the past.

The Barcelona crew that had simply crushed his United facet in the Champions League ultimate — for the second time in three years — was the greatest he had ever confronted, Ferguson mentioned. He had been “mesmerized” by the patterns painted by Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Lionel Messi and the relaxation. Barcelona ranked, with out query, as the greatest crew in Europe. “No one,” Ferguson mentioned, “has given us a hiding like that.”

His paean was interrupted solely by one transient observe of warning. Pep Guardiola, the architect of his defeat, was rumored to be pondering of leaving Barcelona, exhausted by the depth of the work that had gone into his masterpiece. Ferguson — maybe wanting to provide the youthful Guardiola the advantage of his knowledge — cautioned towards it.

Guardiola would remorse abandoning the crew he had constructed at Barcelona, he mentioned. He would discover it arduous to duplicate a facet able to such surprise, such devastating magnificence. He could be abandoning the pinnacle. “If he’s really considering that, he’ll never have this experience again, that’s for sure,” Ferguson mentioned.

As prophecies go, it has proved extra prescient than Ferguson himself might have envisaged. He might need imagined that Guardiola would by no means be capable to forge a crew pretty much as good as his Barcelona elsewhere, however even he would have stopped wanting suggesting that it could be a decade earlier than Guardiola as soon as once more graced a Champions League ultimate.

Guardiola in 2009, after his first Champions League victory with Barcelona. Two years later, he and his crew stood at the recreation’s summit.Credit…Albert Gea/ReutersHis Champions League luck has since run dry. Last yr, wanting targets and options, he and City misplaced to Lyon in the quarterfinals.Credit…Pool picture by Miguel A. Lopes

That he has not — that Ferguson, lengthy since retired, has competed in the most vital recreation in membership soccer as not too long ago as Guardiola — is a type of well-established details that also retain a capability to shock. It appears, by some means, counterintuitive, the kind of factor that merely can’t be attainable, a glitch in the matrix.

Ilkay Gundogan was dimly conscious of the truth that he’s the solely participant at Manchester City with any expertise taking part in a Champions League ultimate: He was a part of the Borussia Dortmund crew that misplaced at Wembley in 2013. But it had not occurred to him that he had newer expertise of the event than his coach. “Is that right?” he mentioned. “He was there before me? I suppose he has won it three times, though.”

To Gundogan, Guardiola’s absence is all the proof required of the exigencies of this competitors. “He has been the best coach in the world for a decade,” he mentioned. “That just goes to show that there are so many different things that have an influence in winning that trophy. It is very complicated.”

In some interpretations, Guardiola has been responsible, ever since that destruction of Ferguson’s United, of creating it just a little too sophisticated. If rotten luck mitigated his failure to make a ultimate in his three years at Bayern Munich — a missed penalty right here, an inspirational Messi there — then his disappointments at Manchester City have appeared just a little extra self-inflicted.

Blame for a number of of City’s eliminations over the final 4 years has been laid, in hindsight, squarely at his door. He was too open towards Monaco’s vibrant younger crew in 2017. He was too cautious towards Liverpool a yr later, and too dour towards Spurs in 2019. It was arduous to work out his pondering in any respect towards Lyon in 2020, one thing even his gamers observed. “This feels like the same old story,” City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne mentioned.

After City’s latest disappointments, even Guardiola’s gamers have raised doubts about his techniques.Credit…Pool picture by Dave Thompson

The Champions League, the principle went, did one thing to Guardiola: It acquired inside his head, uncovered some kind of insecurity. He had grown up, a faithful Barcelona fan, at a time when the membership’s competitors hung like an extended white cloud over the membership. He was a ball boy at Camp Nou the yr his crew made the ultimate, in 1986, solely to lose — on Spanish soil — to Steaua Bucharest.

He was a younger Barcelona participant when the wait lastly got here to an finish, at Wembley in 1992, when he was chosen to current the trophy to the metropolis when the gamers landed again house. That ultimate was seen as conclusive proof that the membership might now see itself as a professional European energy and the equal of its nemesis and hegemon, Real Madrid. Barcelona was the place he had honed his fame as the greatest coach of his era, first in 2009 and then, at Wembley as soon as extra, in 2011.

And it was, more and more, all that he cared about. At Bayern, the file factors tallies and purpose hauls and profitable runs that his crew recorded in the Bundesliga didn’t concern him a jot; all he cared about, he informed his biographer Martí Perarnau, was “winning these big games” in Europe.

By the time he arrived at City, a membership designed and constructed to rent him in order that he might ship a Champions League title, his need to win it, his have to win it — and to take action away from Barcelona, away from Messi — appeared to have turned his strengths into weaknesses. “He told us everything that was going to happen,” the defender Daniel Alves mentioned of Guardiola earlier than the 2011 ultimate. “He gave us the key.”

By 2020, although, his gamers have been questioning if that obsessive preparation was the downside. Guardiola was so preoccupied by what his opponents may try this he compromised his personal ideas. The concepts and the creativeness that made first Bayern Munich and then Manchester City untouchable over the span of a season have been jettisoned in favor of a extra pragmatic strategy.

Guardiola’s home dominance has by no means been questioned: City simply received its third Premier League title in 4 years.Credit…Pool picture by Peter Powel

Crucially, it didn’t appear to work, a view expressed inside and outdoors the membership in the aftermath of the defeat to Lyon. Even Gundogan, as ardent an acolyte of Guardiola as one might hope to satisfy, used that phrase — “overcomplicate” — in an interview this week. The key for a ultimate, he mentioned, is “not to do anything different or unexpected: Stick with the stuff that you are convinced by, that works for you. You don’t overcomplicate it.” The ghosts of the final 4 years haven’t been totally exorcised, not but.

Guardiola’s evaluation of his misplaced decade is just a little completely different, extra poetic than prosaic. Standing on the touchline at City’s Etihad Stadium a number of weeks in the past, recent from his crew’s semifinal victory towards Paris St.-Germain, he talked about the Champions League with a kind of dazed reverence. “In this competition,” he mentioned, “there is something in the stars.”

The instance he’s most keen on citing is Chelsea. In 2008, that membership would have received its first Champions League had John Terry not slipped on turf made greasy by a downpour in Moscow. It is a narrative Guardiola has informed successive iterations of his squads, each in Manchester and Munich, and he introduced it up once more that night time, in the afterglow of victory towards P.S.G., too.

This season, it feels as if the stars are lastly aligned behind City. Guardiola’s crew goes into Saturday’s ultimate as a convincing favourite, regardless of two latest defeats towards Chelsea, its opponent in Porto. It cruised to the Premier League title, its third in 4 years, thanks not solely to the spirit of journey typical of Guardiola’s groups, however to a extra uncommon defensive parsimony.

“We have been really rock solid,” Gundogan mentioned. “In the other years, we have conceded a lot of goals in crucial games: three against Monaco, three against Tottenham, three against Lyon. That has not happened this time, and that is important. Of course we can always score, but it makes it much more difficult.”

At final, Guardiola — the defining coach of his era — has discovered a method to return to the recreation that defines greatness, to maneuver inside touching distance of the trophy he craves above all others. He couldn’t have foreseen, in 2011, that it could take him a decade to be again right here once more, to be so near reclaiming the pinnacle, to have the ability to brush his fingers as soon as extra towards the stars. He has waited 10 years for this second, a decade of longing, simply to expertise it once more.