Pep Guardiola’s four big Champions League mistakes since leaving Barcelona
Pep Guardiola hasn’t won the Champions League since 2011 when he won it with Barcelona.
That’s pretty bad for a manager who is universally accepted to be if not the very best then certainly one of the top three in the world at all times since about 2009. He never reached the final during his time with Bayern Munich, and with Manchester City hasn’t even gotten to the semi-finals (which he had done for seven straight seasons before).
Despite winning the league title in seven out of his nine seasons in management (failing only in 2011/12 and 2016/17) Pep has only ever captured the Champions League twice, both times with Barcelona. Since leaving Catalunya despite assembling some incredible teams he’s never managed to get even close to winning the European Cup.
Well, there are four key reasons for Guardiola’s struggles. What are they? Read on and find out!
1. Leaving Barcelona
The first mistake he made was leaving Barcelona in the first place. Alright Sandro Rosell was a terrible president and he had to make some difficult decisions regarding a squad that he had come to love, decisions he really didn’t want to make, but this was a dream set-up.
Even if Xavi and Dani Alves had reached the end of their peak eras and Gerard Piqué’s lack of commitment to football was at an all-time low, Barcelona still had Leo Messi, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Victor Valdés, David Villa, Pedro… even Cesc Fabregas!
There was so much quality in the squad and they all knew exactly what Pep wanted from them, walking away was such a bold move and also a bad one – because recreating the conditions that allowed him to succeed in Catalunya elsewhere would require a tonne of work and luck. It’s admirable that Pep (after a sabbatical) took up the challenge, but it ended up leading to all his other errors.
2. Not enough strikers
One of the most underrated things about Guardiola’s great Barcelona side was their use of strikers. The commitment to width which is baked into Pep’s philosophy was always there, but in Catalunya the width was often provided by strikers.
Sure, sometimes Andrés Iniesta played wide and of course wing-forward Pedro became a fixture, but look at Guardiola using Thierry Henry and even Samuel Eto’o in 2008/09. Both men were central strikers, yet often played wide. Henry was almost exclusively a left-winger under Pep, as was David Villa when he joined the club in 2010/11.
This gave Barça a never-ending goal threat. Every single forward had a striker’s instincts so you could get got from any angle. At Bayern Munich and Manchester City, however, Pep has relied exclusively on wingers to fill his wide roles. Sure, some of them have been wing-forwards like Raheem Sterling and Arjen Robben, but they are balanced out by a true winger (Leroy Sané and Franck Ribery) rather than a striker like Villa or Henry.
With no striker filling the wide role, a whole heap of pressure is then mounted onto the central striker to score goals. And even if they deliver (Lewandowski scored 67 goals in two seasons under Pep, Aguero has 93 in three) it means that if they have a bad game or get snuffed out by an opposing defence, the ability of Pep’s side to score goals drops off a cliff.
This was blatantly evident in the 2016, 2018 and 2019 Champions League exits against Atlético Madrid, Liverpool and Spurs respectively. In all of the second legs, Pep’s side were excruciatingly dominant yet didn’t score anywhere near the amount of goals their display deserved. Even in the first leg this season, Guardiola’s gameplan to keep it tight and not give anything away at the start of a triple header with Spurs should have worked, but Aguero played terribly, breaking down numerous attacks with bad touches, decisions, and a missed penalty!
It’s worth noting that this phenomenon was also witnessed in Barcelona’s 2011/12 Champions League exit against Chelsea. They bombarded the Blues at the Camp Nou couldn’t score more than two goals and ended up getting turfed out. Why bring this up? Well after David Villa broke his leg in the middle of the season Barcelona were forced to play that Chelsea tie with no striker out wide and, well, yeah.
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3. Not recruiting the right defenders
The lack of an multi-player goal threat in attack then heaps pressure on the defence. Now, Pep’s sides have never been the best at the art of defending despite being pretty good defensively. But at Barcelona what he had were centre-backs who were absolute masters of defending in a high-line, so his team could always play on the front foot.
Carles Puyol had been doing it all his life at the Camp Nou (conceding many goals in the process), Eric Abidal has the technical and physical skill-sets to do it perfectly, Rafa Márquez and Javier Mascherano were midfielders at heart so were used to defending around the middle of the field and finally Gerard Piqué is a miracle footballer.
But at Bayern and City he has just one such defender in Aymeric Laporte (and even he has a rick in him). You could make a case for John Stones as well, but injury keep on preventing him from progressing. By and large, Pep has only had access to defenders that work best in a deep or mid-line (Bayern finally signing Mats Hummels the summer he left Bavaria must have been galling for Guardiola).
This creates tremendous uncertainty when they are asked to defend high and so either the defence moves deeper which pulls the whole team back neutering them or they stay high and get rinsed. This can be seen in the 2015 and 2017 exits to Barcelona and Monaco where they were ripped apart defensively home and away, and also the 2018 away leg against Liverpool which went, shall we say, quite badly.
4. Overestimating his midfield’s control
The final mistake Pep has made since leaving Barcelona is probably his biggest, however, and it’s that he has overestimated his midfield’s ability to control the game. At Barcelona he had a midfield of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets so they controlled literally every game they played. Well, maybe not the away game against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in 2011/12, but by then Cesc Fabregas and his Premier League anarchy had somewhat disrupted the balance Guardiola had achieved.
Anyway, at Barcelona he could always rely on his midfield to both supply his forwards and full-backs with the right kind of passes, ones that cut through defences like a hot knife through butter and were weighted like a god damn Hattori Hanzo sword, and also protect their defence by simply moving the ball amongst themselves in the world’s most high-profile game of keep-away.
But since leaving Catalunya he’s never been able to recreate that level of control. Part of that has been down to personnel, at Bayern Munich he had to use Philipp Lahm in midfield for a year because he lacked a player of requisite intelligence and skill to play at the base of midfield.
Eventually he got Xabi Alonso and then Thiago Alcantara, two midfield maestros, a new Busquets and Iniesta respectively who should have been able to allow Bayern to control games and to a degree they did but Xabi was old and Thiago was made of pink wafer biscuits so the effectiveness of the pair was more theory than practice, and Bayern really paid for that in pretty much every Champions League elimination.
At Manchester City meanwhile he’s only got Kevin de Bruyne who’s really what you’d call good enough. Bernardo Silva and David Silva are both miraculous players and they have settled so well into playing central midfield roles but they are principally no. 10’s and do not have the kind of patience needed to really take control of a game and bend its pace to your will. Even De Bruyne who has the skill to do that often doesn’t, preferring to drive things forward whenever he gets the chance.
That increased verticality does help them in the notoriously chaotic Premier League but it can leave them to come unstuck in Europe where you need a bit more consideration. You need more of what the Spanish call pausa. For City, however, it’s like everyone’s Cesc Fabregas and there’s no Xavi or Iniesta. Moreover there’s certainly no Busquets; Fernandinho is a phenomenal player he plays more like, well, a mobile Cesc Fabregas, driving the ball forward whenever he can.
So City’s midfield can be dangerous but has very little control of games. And in two-legged European ties where you only have one striker so if you want your wing-forwards to score you need to create very specific kinds of chances and moreover your defenders can struggle in a high-line so you better be able to slow the game down and defend with the ball when you need to… you need control.
But Pep’s City side don’t have control. They’ve conceded 15 goals across the six matches in which they’ve been knocked out under the Catalan. And his Bayern side only had control intermittently.
In fact, every single Guardiola exit from the Champions League since he left Barcelona, even 2014 which is mostly impossible to analyse in a wider context due to personal tragedy clouding Guardiola’s mind ahead of the second leg, has at some point seen a period where his midfield should have simply possessioned the opponent to death. Just kept their calm and kept the ball. But they haven’t, because they can’t, even though Guardiola puts them out there assuming that they can.
Until he corrects these mistakes, until he fixes these errors, then for all of Guardiola’s genius and league title wins (and they will continue to be a dominant force on the domestic front, you can bet on that) he won’t be lifting the Champions League again.