Hhello darkness my old friend. As Pep Guardiola entered the pitch at the final whistle of the Bernabéu, a familiar figure with lean legs, that bald head gleaming and terrifyingly tender under the harsh white lights, still dressed head to toe in tailored black like a famous magician, or college professor on his way to a funeral, it was hard not to feel the pathos of the moment.
Guardiola shook hands, patted his players and said something to the referee. He lingered near the center circle, facing the waves of triumphalism from the seats, in an arena where it is truly personal, where Guardiola presents himself as a gargoyle of deep tribal rivalries.
Often managers use this post-game lull as a buffer before their media functions, a time to compose their thoughts and prepare a face to meet the faces. It was a crushing evening for Guardiola, one of those moments around which a career is defined, horizons shaken. But City have another game on Sunday, at Newcastle, with another prize on the line. Guardiola knew it was time to swallow it.
A little later, he would tell his press conference that he never saw the defeat coming, or that he had any idea that Real Madrid were capable of transforming a game like this. Really? Because he was there in plain sight. In the press seats, a Spanish football correspondent had reported that defeat was coming to Manchester City even as they dominated possession early on, growing increasingly confident of Madrid’s eventual victory as Riyad Mahrez put on City 1-0 overnight.
And while this may be a familiar pattern to those who have studied this Madrid side closely, the question remains: how did City manage to lose this game? We’ll talk about magic, about the powers of the Sun King of Madrid. There is no doubt that the Bernabéu will put you to the test, test your upstart nerves.
Paris Saint-Germain crumbled under this gaze. Chelsea came here and won, but still lost, or lost just enough.
This conversation about light and heat seemed to tell the story of the moment. It was of course Madrid’s victory more than City’s defeat, won with thrilling precision and without nerves. But the fact remains, it also raises very difficult questions for Guardiola.
Madrid will seek your limits and happily jump on them. That’s what that rarefied air does to you. What they found in this city team were not the standard errors of poor planning or failed execution, but something more systemic, flaws built into the model.
There is an annual spring pantomime around Guardiola’s team selection in this competition. What will he do? Will he stick a screwdriver in his own fuse box again? Or try playing the piano with a pair of boxing gloves? But there was none of that here. Guardiola picked his best team, and sometimes that best team looked like what they are, a beautifully fluid thing totally tied to their patterns and rhythms.
But there are also limits here. Guardiola was rightly celebrated as the best pure coach in the world. Nothing is missing from the preparation. He knows, in unimaginable depth of detail, the textures and patterns that the rest of us just look at from the sidelines. That’s what makes his willingness to accept his team’s weaknesses so fascinating.
Why didn’t City win? Because they continued to refuse to kick or head the ball into goal, wasting at least eight very good chances in a draw they lost by one goal. It’s not bad luck or a holiday. It is profligacy by design. It’s still surprising that Guardiola’s squad doesn’t contain a single player whose main skill, whose specialty, is scoring goals.
And yes, City function so well as a team precisely because they don’t play with an orthodox striker. It’s the overload in midfield that allows them to create all those chances in the first place. The system works. But pragmatism is also a strength, and that lack of cutting edge, one-punch knockout artist, while intellectually uninteresting to Guardiola, is a weakness in these times.
More prosaically, City’s players just looked tired on Wednesday night. The team has depth, but not much. It feels like another part of Guardiola’s absolutism that the same core has tended to play most key games. The same refusal to bend was there in his use of his substitutes at the Bernabéu.
At first it looked like the story of the night might be Kyle Walker’s fine performance reducing the threat from Vinícius Júnior. Instead, City lost the game after Walker was injured. Guardiola brought in Oleksandr Zinchenko to play at left-back and swapped João Cancelo, rearranging his two full-backs in a bid to remain staunchly Pep. Bringing in Nathan Aké would have recognized it was a time to contain and spoil, to spend 18 minutes overwhelming that side. Both of Madrid’s late goals came from those loose flanks.
It may seem perverse to blame a system team for playing like a system team; to urge the current group of serial league champions to throw it all away and go for it by the throat. But knockout football at this level also takes you into these weird emotional spaces. A team trying to chase the same perfect game every week will sometimes play cold when they need to play hot, just as City never really dug their teeth into this second leg.
Perhaps this fragility is also a function of the origin of the club. It’s no insult to say that this City team is a construct. Guardiola’s success has been to install culture and method in something that is just over a decade old. It is a new construction, a prefab, an idea. No wonder, maybe he doesn’t bend with the wind like Real Madrid.
For Guardiola, the challenge now is to ensure his players are ready to continue the season to the end, when a slip in their last four league games could leave them without a trophy this season. Guardiola also has a shelf life. He has now been working for six years in an environment fully adapted to his wishes. It’s no secret that the Champions League, however distant and difficult it may be, has always been the goal. Wednesday night’s main flaw is that it really didn’t feel closer.