After years of drought, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are trying to win just their second Champions League semi-final together.
It sounds ridiculous given how good Guardiola has been as a coach, with 33 trophies won in his 16-year managerial career, but an entire decade once separated two of his three Champions League semi-final triumphs.
Pep won a semi-final in 2011 when he led his Barcelona side past Real Madrid en route to winning the title, and it would take exactly 10 years for him replicate that feat after guiding Man City past PSG in 2021.
Between those two showings — and including last season’s exit at the hands of Real Madrid — some have questioned whether Guardiola has a tendency to ‘overthink’ semi-finals, a notion that has only gained wider notoriety since his move to Man City, where he has really struggled in the knockouts.
During his first four seasons at the Etihad, City failed to make it beyond the quarter-finals — even crashing out of the last 16 in his maiden campaign — and exited last term to Real Madrid in the semis when they seemed destined to progress, but for Rodrygo’s late heroics at the Santiago Bernabeu.
It’s a pattern that preceded him at Bayern Munich as well, where he reached three semi-finals, but failed to make the final two on even one occasion.
So, does he really have a tendency ‘overthink’ them? Let’s take a look back at his defeats.
2010: Barcelona vs. Inter
It may be hard to suggest that Guardiola overthought things as his then reigning champions famously lost out to Inter in that epic clash over a decade ago. Things were going swimmingly at the San Siro in the first leg as Pedro broke the deadlock early on, but the quality of Jose Mourinho’s attack soon wrought havoc.
The impeccable Diego Milito was involved in all three goals that would soon come in Lombardy as he set up Wesley Sneijder on the half-hour mark to restore parity, before teeing up Maicon soon after and then bagging one for himself. It was a Milito masterclass, but question marks could perhaps be raised of Guardiola.
In the 62nd minute he took Zlatan Ibrahimovic off for Eric Abidal and left the likes of Thierry Henry, Bojan Krkic and Yaya Toure on the bench — Gerard Pique also switched to a target man at one point in a desperate roll of the dice . A failure to react quick enough allowed Inter to preserve their lead and head to the Camp Nou with a two-goal cushion.
He cannot be accused of overthinking the second leg as Barca won 1-0, but the damage was already done in that San Siro tie, with Mourinho’s infamous low block holding out in Catalonia.
VERDICT: OVERTHOUGHT (the first leg)
2012: Barcelona vs. Chelsea
Coming into this season, Guardiola’s Barcelona were the best team in the world. The footballing revolution they began in 2008 was taking off in a serious way, but the squad itself had problems. That season Guardiola adopted a 3-1-4-2 — or 3-4-3 — formation in an effort to stay ahead of the curve in terms of counters for his side.
The issue is that system relied on the unique skill-set of Eric Abidal, and he was stricken by cancer and unavailable for the run-in. This led to a reversion to the 4-3-3 template. On top of that, Guardiola was starting to lose trust in some of his most important players (namely Gerard Pique and Dani Alves) and this came to a head in the first leg when he dropped Pique.
However, when it comes to the match itself, Guardiola cannot be accused of overthinking. He got his tactics right in both legs as Barcelona utterly dominated the Blues, but they were simply unable to finish the chances they created. They honestly could have scored four or five at Stamford Bridge only to come away with none. And the goals they conceded were defensive errors (none of which came when Pique was on the field, which he was for the first 28 minutes of the second-leg).
VERDICT: didn’t overthink
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2014: Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
After a sabbatical, Guardiola was back in management with Bayern Munich and he’d taken the German side to another level in terms of tactics. Could he guide them to retain the Champions League? Well, they played well in the first leg of their semi-final but lost 1-0, and this is where the idea of Pep being an overthinker comes from.
In his book ‘Pep Confidential’, Marti Perarnau says that Guardiola became obsessed with the idea of turning the game around. He changed his mind about what formation to use on three separate occasions. “Pep changes his mind again. The 3-4-3 had become a 4-2-3-1, but now he opts for a 4-2-4 formation,” writes Perarnau.
The formation didn’t work at all: Bayern were utterly overwhelmed by the Real Madrid counter-attack and got demolished 0-4. “I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up,” Guardiola said of his approach to that game.
Now, one can perhaps understand why Guardiola wasn’t thinking clearly as, between the two legs of the semi-final, his great friend and former assistant at Barcelona, Tito Vilanova, passed away after a battle with throat cancer. But even allowing for that, he definitely overthought things and wrecked his side’s chances of progression.
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2015: Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona
Guardiola is obviously a genius coach and had Bayern Munich back in the semi-finals the following year; this time against his old club, Barcelona. The big mystery was going to be how Pep would handle his former players, especially Lionel Messi? Well, as it turns out, Guardiola had an overly ambitious solution to dealing with M-S-N (Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez): man-marking.
No, seriously; in the first leg at the Camp Nou, Guardiola went three-v-three at the back against the most deadly attack on the planet. And the thing is, it worked! Barcelona were overwhelmed by the Bayern press and although they had some joy going direct to the famed M-S-N, no goals came until the second-half, by which point Guardiola had reverted to a more orthodox approach. And even then, the goals were more a product of the singular genius of Messi than any sort of exploitation of a tactical flaw.
Bayern even won the second-leg 3-2, this time seeing his defence taken apart by the cohesive excellence of M-S-N. Bayern here were outplayed by a better team at the peak of their powers. It’s as uninteresting as that.
VERDICT: didn’t overthink
2016: Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid
Pep had Bayern back into the semi-finals for the third straight season after his losses to Madrid and Barcelona. This time he was facing the third of Spain’s “big three” and he had to have felt confident in finally making the Champions League final. His Bayern were now a perfectly humming machine; he had Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller in frankly ridiculous form in attack and David Alaba looked one of the best defenders on the planet.
But just like in 2014, they lost a closely fought first-leg 1-0 in Madrid. A wonder goal from Saul settled things, but Bayern felt confident they could turn it around, and sure enough, they spent the whole second leg assaulting the Atleti goal. They even took the lead through Xabi Alonso but they let Antoine Griezmann breakthrough to equalise for Atleti. Bayern kept going, and indeed scored a winner on the night through Lewandowski, but the Polish striker and Bayern’s other forwards were so profligate.
Bayern had 32 shots at goal that night, nine of which were blocked. Of the remaining 23, an astonishing 12 hit the target. Twelve shots on target and only two goals? One of those shots was a penalty from Thomas Muller! Obviously, Jan Oblak is brilliant, but when your strikers are that inept at shooting, it’s just bad luck, not a result of overthinking. This was 2012-redux, where his excellent team just couldn’t take their chances.
VERDICT: didn’t overthink
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2022: Manchester City vs. Real Madrid
Guardiola may have been accused of ‘overthinking’ his tactics in 2020 when he deployed Phil Foden and then Bernardo Silva in two legs against Real Madrid in the last 16. But as the old expression goes, ‘necessity is often the mother of invention’, and with Sergio Aguero injured, he improvised. The result? Two 2-1 wins.
Last season, though, in the semi-finals, he refrained from anything close to resembling ‘experimental’. Guardiola went with a classic, Dutch-esque 4-3-3 across both legs, with Gabriel Jesus deployed as a conventional No. 9. The first leg was a frenetic affair that City edged 4-3, as both heavyweights traded leather.
And the second leg looked as good as done 20 minutes from time when Riyad Mahrez broke the deadlock to give City a commanding 5-3 aggregate lead. However, as so often is the case, write Real Madrid off at your peril. Carlo Ancelotti’s men came back with two goals in the dying embers from Rodrygo to force extra-time.
From there, and with Guardiola having already made a raft of defensive changes, Karim Benzema completed a turnaround for the ages from 12 yards, made all the more spectacular by Real’s eventual triumph in the final.
It was a cruel twist of fate, coupled with a healthy dose of Real’s brilliance, but nothing more than that really. Guardiola can lament an inexplicable collapse, but to blame it squarely at his tactical convictions in those dying embers would be nothing short of absurd.
VERDICT: didn’t overthink