• April 21, 2024

Pep Guardiola and the Ones That Got Away

Alex Ferguson could, if the mood drove him, be gracious in defeat. Often this was when he was most thoughtful, most deliberate, and most obliging when praising an opponent. In all his years at Manchester United, however, he has never been as exuberant as he was deep at Wembley exactly a decade ago.

The Barcelona team that had just hit His United squad in the Champions League final – for the second time in three years – was the best he has ever faced, Ferguson said. He was “fascinated” by the patterns that Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Lionel Messi and the others had painted. Barcelona were without question the best team in Europe. “Nobody,” said Ferguson, “gave us such a hiding place.”

His paean was only interrupted by a brief warning. It should have been Pep Guardiola, the architect of his defeat remember to go Barcelona, ​​exhausted from the intensity of the work that went into his masterpiece. Ferguson – perhaps he wanted to give the younger Guardiola the benefit of his wisdom – warned against it.

Guardiola would regret leaving behind the team he built in Barcelona, ​​he said. It would be difficult for him to replicate a site capable of such wonder and such devastating beauty. He would leave the summit. “If he really takes that into account, he will never have that experience again, that’s for sure,” said Ferguson.

Prophecies have shown that it is more forward-looking than Ferguson could have imagined. He might have imagined Guardiola would never be able to forge a team as good as his Barcelona elsewhere, but even he would have stopped claiming that it would be a decade before Guardiola graced again a Champions League final.

That he didn’t – that long-retired Ferguson didn’t appear in the most important game in club football until Guardiola – is one of those well-established facts that can still come as a surprise. It kind of doesn’t seem intuitive, which just can’t be possible, a bug in the matrix.

Ilkay Gundogan was hardly aware that he is the only player in Manchester City who has experience of a Champions League final: he was part of the Borussia Dortmund team lost at Wembley in 2013. But it hadn’t crossed his mind that he had more recent experiences with the occasion than his coach. “Is that right?” he said. “Was he there before me? I suppose he won it three times. “

For Gundogan, Guardiola’s absence is proof of the demands of this competition. “He’s been the best coach in the world for a decade,” he said. “It just goes to show that there are so many different things that will affect winning this trophy. It is very complicated. “

Guardiola has since been guilty of some interpretations this destruction of Fergusons Unitedto make it a little too complicated. If bad luck mitigated his failure to reach a final in his three years at Bayern Munich – a missed penalty Here, an inspiring Messi There – Then his disappointments in Manchester City seemed a little more self-inflicted.

The blame for City’s multiple eliminations in the past four years was retrospectively put right on his door. He was too open against Monaco’s lively young team in 2017. A year later he was too cautious against Liverpool and too grumpy against Spurs in 2019. It was hard to reconsider one’s thoughts against Lyon in 2020 which even his players noticed. “It feels like the same old story,” said City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne.

The Champions League, it was said in theory, did something to Guardiola: It penetrated his head and revealed a kind of insecurity. He grew up an avid Barcelona fan at a time when the club’s competition was hanging a long white cloud about the club. The year his team reached the final in 1986, he was a ball boy at Camp Nou, only to lose to Steaua Bucharest on Spanish soil.

He was a young Barcelona player when the wait finally came to an end at Wembley in 1992 when he was selected to present the trophy to the city when the players landed at home. This final was seen as conclusive evidence that the club could now see itself as a legitimate European power and on a par with its archenemy and hegemon Real Madrid. In Barcelona he had only sharpened his reputation as the best coach of his generation at Wembley in 2009 and 2011.

And it was increasingly all that interested him. At Bayern, the record points, goalkeepers and winning runs that his team recorded in the Bundesliga were no problem for him. All that interested him, he told his biographer Martí Perarnau, was “to win these big games” in Europe.

When he arrived in City a club was designed and built to hire him so he could take a Champions League title, his desire to win it, his need to win it – and this outside of Barcelona, outside of Messi -. seemed to have turned his strengths into weaknesses. “He told us everything that was going to happen,” said defender Daniel Alves of Guardiola ahead of the 2011 final. “He gave us the key.”

However, by 2020, its players were wondering if this obsessive preparation was the problem. Guardiola was so preoccupied with what his opponents might do that he compromised his own principles. The ideas and imagination that made Bayern Munich and then Manchester City sacrosanct over the course of a season have been discarded in favor of a more pragmatic approach.

Crucially, it didn’t seem to work a sight expressed inside and outside the club after losing to Lyon. Even Gundogan, as passionate a Guardiola acolyte as one could wish, used that word – “overcomplicated” – in an interview this week. The key to a finale, he said, “isn’t doing anything different or unexpected: stick with the stuff you believe will work for you. You’re not making it too complicated. “The spirits of the past four years have not yet been fully exorcised.

Guardiola’s assessment of his lost decade is somewhat different, more poetic than prosaic. Standing on the sidelines at the city’s Etihad Stadium a few weeks ago, fresh from his team’s semi-final win over Paris St.-Germain, he spoke of the Champions League with a kind of dazed awe. “In this competition,” he said, “there is something in the stars.”

The example he prefers to quote is Chelsea. In 2008, this club would have won its first Champions League if John Terry hadn’t slipped onto grass that had become greasy from a downpour in Moscow. It is a story that Guardiola told one after the other about his teams in Manchester and Munich, and which he picked up again that night after the win against PSG.

This season it feels like the stars are finally lining up behind City. Guardiola’s team goes into the final on Saturday as convincing favorites despite convincing defeats against Chelsea, his opponent in Porto. Thanks to the spirit of adventure typical of Guardiola’s team and a more unusual defensive frugality, he achieved the title of the Premier League, the third in four years.

“We were really solid,” said Gundogan. “In the other years we conceded a lot of goals in decisive games: three against Monaco, three against Tottenham, three against Lyon. That didn’t happen this time, and that’s important. Of course we can always score, but that makes it a lot more difficult. “

Guardiola – the defining coach of his generation – has finally found a formula to return to the game that defines greatness and move within touching distance from the trophy he longs for before anyone else. He couldn’t have foreseen in 2011 that it would take him a decade to be here again, to be so close to reclaiming the summit and being able to slide his fingers against the stars again. He waited 10 years for this moment, a decade of longing just to experience it again.

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