Pep Guardiola has earned a reputation for tinkering too much in big matches. This time around, however, it worked out in his favour.
You knew it was coming, and yet it frustrated you all the same when you saw it for the first time.
Of course, I’m talking about Manchester City’s starting lineup for their Champions League round of 16 match against the mighty Real Madrid at the grandiose Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Over the last few years, Pep Guardiola has become well-known for excessively tinkering around with his starting lineup ahead of big matches, often abandoning the structure that had made his Manchester City team so dominant in the Premier League at times. While most people would agree that you have to change some aspects of your tactical approach when coming up against an imposing foe, the massive changes that Guardiola has often put into place in these matches leave you scratching your head – and I’m sure his players sometimes feel the same way.
With Gabriel Jesus at left-wing, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne almost interchanging as false 9’s – you couldn’t help but think that: “Oh no, Pep has Pep’d up another crucial fixture”.
Of course, we ended up being wrong, as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City snatched a win over Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in stunning fashion – with 2 late goals from Gabriel Jesus and then Kevin de Bruyne.
In truth, Manchester City did stay rather conservative in their approach throughout the 1st half, and it seemed pretty obvious that the tactical switch made it tough for Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy to put in strong showings (Of course, it doesn’t help to have to play next to the erratic Nicolas Otamendi!).
In the 2nd half, however, Pep’s side cranked up the heat and really started taking advantage of the deficiencies in Real Madrid’s midfield and backline. The match changed when Raheem Sterling was introduced in the 73rd minute as a replacement for Bernardo Silva. The winger was extremely influential and allowed Manchester City to take control of the match.
Pep Guardiola explained after the match that his tactical plan was devised over the course of 10 gruelling days during the Premier League’s winter break earlier this month:
"“We had 10 free days and in those days I watched the most amount of matches of Real Madrid, their defensive game was different” – Pep Guardiola"
His previous instances of ‘tinkering’ also probably came after multiple days of meticulously studying the opposition – and for that, it’s difficult to place too much blame for it. He always has reasons for doing what he does. After all, his footballing brain is far greater than yours and mine combined times 500, so what can we really say about this habit of his?
Manchester City’s famous win over Real Madrid does not finish the job, however. Zinedine Zidane will likely forge his own masterplan for the return leg, and with just 1 goal separating the sides halfway through, albeit with 2 City away goals, the tie is not over.
While Pep Guardiola’s tinkering paid off in this match, he will have to be wary of overdoing it at home. Manchester City are at their best when they play fluid, vertical football that both excites the fans and strikes fear into the opposition. A masterplan was needed to win at the Bernabeu, but Guardiola needs to revert back to the basics at the Etihad to end this tie on top.