Football Features

Does Pep Guardiola really overthink Champions League semi-finals?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:29, 4 May 2021

Manchester City are trying to win their first-ever Champions League semi-final, while manager Pep Guardiola is trying to win his first for a decade.

It sounds ridiculous given how good Guardiola has been as a coach, with 30 trophies won in his 12-year managerial career, but he honestly has not won a Champions League semi-final tie since 2011 when he led his Barcelona side past Real Madrid en route to winning the title.

Since then his teams have played four semi-finals (one with Barcelona, three straight with Bayern Munich) and come up short every single time. The popular meme that cropped up in the wake of these inexplicable failures was that Guardiola “overthought” things in these games.

This meme has only intensified when, after moving to Manchester City in 2016, Guardiola has suffered four straight Champions League defeats without even reaching the last four, and all but one of those defeats came against an opponent City were superior to.

Now, as his Manchester City bid to overcome Pep Guardiola’s Champions League semi-final woes and beat PSG to reach this year’s final, and they made a great start by winning 1-2 in Paris to make themselves 7/10 favourites according to Sky Bet, we look back and ask… did he actually overthink those semi-finals?

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 themselves had problems. That season Guardiola had 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. Moreover, Guardiola was starting to lose trust in some of his most important players (namely Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves) and this came to a head in the first leg where he dropped Piqué.

However, when it comes to the match itself, Guardiola couldn’t 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 Piqué was on the field, which he was for the first 28 minutes of the second-leg).

VERDICT: didn’t overthink

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.

VERDICT: OVERTHOUGHT

2015: Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona

Guardiola was 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 Suárez): man-marking.

No, seriously; in the first leg at the Camp Nou, Guardiola went 3v3 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. Atlético 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 Saúl settled things, but Bayern felt confident they could turn things 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, however, 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. 12 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

2021: Manchester City vs. PSG

So far, so good for Manchester City against PSG. Pep crowned his return to the final four of the European Cup with his first away win at this stage since 2011, the last time he won a semi-final! Of course, his City side struggled against PSG, and you’d imagine that had he brought a striker on instead of persisting with a strikerless formation then City could have all but ended the tie in the first-leg. But it was finally Guardiola’s time to get lucky as both City goals came from incredible unforced errors from PSG, giving his side a huge advantage.

VERDICT: OVERTHOUGHT?

And if Guardiola manages to press home that advantage and help City overcome PSG, it’s hard to see either of the other two teams stopping his side. City are, after all, 4/6 favourites to win the Champions League outright ahead of the second legs, according to Sky Bet.