Football Features

Does Pep Guardiola really overthink Champions League semi-finals?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:00, 4 May 2022

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 31 trophies won in his 13-year managerial career, but he honestly went an entire decade between Champions League semi-final victories.

Pep won a semi-final in 2011 when he led his Barcelona side past Real Madrid en route to winning the title, then his teams played four semi-finals (one with Barca, three straight with Bayern Munich) and came up short every single time until finally triumphing over PSG last season.

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 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.

Pep’s men ended that streak in 2021 and are looking to repeat the feat in 2022, albeit this time against the mighty Real Madrid. City hold a first-leg lead after a heart-stopping 4-3 win at the Etihad and you can get 21/20 on the Citizens to win the second leg with Sky Bet – while the hosts are available at 21/10 and the draw is priced at 3/1

But did Pep really overthink those previous semi-finals? We have a look at them and see.

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.


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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

2FKY6Y1 Soccer Football – Champions League – Semi Final Second Leg – Manchester City v Paris St Germain – Etihad Stadium, Manchester, Britain – May 4, 2021 Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates REUTERS/Phil Noble

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.

In the second-leg at the Etihad his City side pressed home their advantage and extended their lead with two goals, one in each half, from Riyad Mahrez. The 4-1 aggregate win reflected City’s excellence and was Pep’s biggest Champions League semi-final margin of victory by some distance (his other triumphs were 1-1 on away goals and 3-1), with Pep keeping his cool throughout.

Of course what ended up happening was Pep then overthought the final as his strange tactical decisions gave Chelsea an advantage they took and held, letting the Blues capture their second Chamnpions League in a decade while City remain frustrated looking for their first ever.

VERDICT: didn’t overthink

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2022: Manchester City vs. Real Madrid

The first-leg of City vs. Real Madrid was an absolute classic, with Guardiola using his tactical excellence to overcome some key injuries and win a thrilling tie against Los Blancos. City were superior from start to finish but Madrid’s refusal to concede defeat kept things close the on the scoresheet.

Rather than overthink things, Guardiola made several smart tactical calls including replacing John Stones with Fernandinho at right-back. The veteran Brazilian played with an intensity and intelligence that cowed Madrid for the most part, and while he did get burned by Vinicius for the youngster’s goal, had Aymeric Laporte correctly covered then the goal could have been prevented.

VERDICT: to be decided…

If Guardiola can avoid overthinking things for the second-leg, and if his City side can survive the searing heat of the Santiago Bernabeu in the second-leg, then they will book their place in another all-Premier League Champions League final, this time facing off against Liverpool.