Time is a flat circle and Pep Guardiola can’t escape.

Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s theory that time doesn’t exist is, at first glance, violently jarring. Though many of us probably already understand the logging of seconds, minutes, hours and so on, are arbitrary measures that only benefit the structure of our society, the suggestion that the very passage of time is, in fact, an illusion, is unsettling. In his book, The Order of Time, Rovelli lays out the case for a more materially defined concept of existence. Objects congregate in a particular order at a particular speed and interact with one another based on these and other conditions. Underpinning our reality with a phenomenon that is entirely absent at a fundamental level is but a mere comfort to guide us on our journey through the void.

Amidst the confusion, one might take solace in the idea that if we could only recreate the exact material conditions in which we ruined a relationship or lost a job opportunity, our new understanding of how reality manifests itself would allow for redemption. Though the impossibility of repeating the molecular specificities that make up our experience stop us from being able to revisit pivotal moments, it seems some are continuously pulled towards a cycle of similarly ominous events.

In each of Pep Guardiola’s past seven seasons, he’s been booted out of Europe in every stage of the knockout rounds. At Bayern, three consecutive semi-final exits marred a record of unprecedented dominance in a league that knows nothing but. At Manchester City, a repeat of the exact scenario that saw a legendary domestic campaign overshadowed by a team that won nothing in the same year threatened to once more sully his achievements. In a frustrating hodgepodge of events that combined a hollow victory on the day with a Champions League exit to an English team in a three-legged series, Guardiola was, again, painstakingly eliminated from European competition.

While some have already attributed the setback to Guardiola’s narratively derived tendency to overthink at the very apex of the season, a closer inspection of how these events came to be might shed a brighter light than accusations of arrogance or over-complication. Last season, when Guardiola’s systematic approach to football combined with millions of dollars of re-investment, City bought themselves a significant gap at the top of the table. The football was highlight worthy nearly every week, and a tie with top-four hopefuls, Liverpool, was the only thing that stood in the way of European glory. The dismemberment Guardiola and his sky blues would go on to suffer was as shocking at the moment as it was sensical in post-match analysis. For a year, City manipulated opponents into vacating vital space through positioning, passing, and pressure. Liverpool’s solution was to cut the jugular and stop them from ever doing so.

By employing a midfield pressing block, Liverpool stopped Manchester City from advancing play in a meaningful manner while simultaneously giving themselves a better chance at besting the most successful defense in the league. The front three corralled possession into the sections of the pitch where they’d be most successful in regaining possession, while the back line compacted the space so that the area the midfielders and forwards pressed into was as small as possible. When City went back to their goalkeeper or their defenders were afforded time on the ball, Liverpool’s back line tracked the City attackers a long ball might’ve picked out. Their only way forward was through a minefield, and even the deftest of feet have trouble evading a pyro-technically minded Jurgen Klopp.

It was the perfect solution to a team so very competent in harnessing the confines of the game. The second leg might’ve seen some slight tweaks that had a greater effect on City’s ability to progress the ball -their three-man midfield rotated more as possession cycled through the defenders, making it more difficult for Liverpool’s midfielders to track, thus opening up space through the middle- but the tie had already been won. Ironically, Pep’s trump card, Benjamin Mendy, failed to return from injury in time for the tie, making it so that the 4–3–3 that had essentially won Guardiola their domestic title was the same thing that robbed them of their shot at the Champions League.

As much as Manchester City deserved credit for their consistent excellence in play, Liverpool’s tailor-made solution would, over time, reveal itself to be an equally monumental feat. With the blueprint to disassemble Guardiola’s modern masterclass now available to anyone with an internet connection, one might imagine their title defense would suffer like the Champions of years prior. But, as opponents would soon learn, enacting the intelligent, perfectly balanced pressing strategy that decimated a dominant City was a challenge in and of itself. It’s like learning your final exam will be open book, only to arrive and see it’s three short answer questions that require you to explicate concepts in their entirety. The book might help, but it’s up to you to make the connections and put everything together.

Even Tottenham, a few weeks after City’s final 4–3 loss at the hands of their silver bullet, would err too far in the wrong direction within a pressing strategy. In a comprehensive 3–1 victory for the runaway Champions, Pochettino’s side pressed City too far up the field, allowing Ederson’s distribution to shine in a way Jurgen Klopp made sure it didn’t. Without sufficient compactness across the defensive formation, the area Spurs attempted to defend was simply too large. An inability to press the Brazilian directly off a goal kick made Wembley a driving range- and Ederson nailed every shot.

A year on and two favorable results against the team that embarrassed them in their almost perfect season and it seemed Guardiola’s team had again evolved. Klopp’s improvement of Liverpool’s defense made it so that they’re neck and neck with the defending champions in the league, but if the Catalan had changed the lock on their former skeleton key, who could dream of stopping them in Europe? Despite a lack of analytical evidence, a tactical view of the performances painted a brighter picture for the Citizens.

John Stones’ ability to complete the circulation of possession across their back line meant that the formation and measures Liverpool had previously taken to limit the area in which Manchester City could start their attacks had failed. It might’ve been through both the individual brilliance and failure of two players, but a jump ball of chances against an opponent that had their number like no other was a massive improvement. As far as anyone could tell, Liverpool were the originators and best perpetrators of this strategy, so drawing a Spurs team in the Champions League that not only had their fair share of injuries but had also pursued less than ideal strategies in meetings past appeared to be a very doable -albeit challenging- run of games.

Pochettino’s competence and Spurs’ motley crew of talent ensured they always had a fighting chance, but a tendency to either over-press or try and dominate the ball staved off drawing pessimistic similarities to last years three-legged English draw. Furthermore, even with Klopp’s blueprint as study material, Guardiola had what he didn’t the year prior. Mendy’s availability gave City the option to employ the formation he’d been keen on before being handcuffed into their title-winning 4–3–3. The 3–5–2 they’d experimented with prior to losing the Frenchman might not be synonymous with the success bolstered by their inverted fullbacks, but it was a perfect theoretical solution to the mid-block. With sufficient numbers in the buildup provided by the deepest midfielder and central defenders, the width held by the wing/fullbacks forced any defensive setup that sought to stifle ball progression into a difficult decision. Either they spread across the pitch and allow inefficient spacing through the middle, or they stay compact and let City progress the ball more directly up the flanks.

The theoretical advantages provided by this alternative formation, however, don’t suggest that it’s a wholly superior approach- simply an alternative one. At the start of the season, City could be seen morphing between the two basic shapes as a way of testing which was going to be more effective on the day. The flexibility provided by players like Kyle Walker and Aymeric Laporte being able to play as both central defenders and fullbacks meant that City could feasibly change the base of their attack on the fly. Guardiola’s consistent use of the 4–3–3 this season has been less dependent on Mendy’s varying fitness and more on the sheer deluge of attacking potential the formation typically provides, and it’s with this preference in shape that Guardiola entrusted leg one of this year’s Champions League tie.

While some might’ve seen Spurs’ first leg approach from a mile away, Guardiola’s belief in both his players and the concepts he believes to be true about the nature of football reinforced the decision to stick with a 4–3–3. With enough movement from the midfielders, whatever iteration of a pressing mid-block Pochettino hobbled together could likely be superseded by intelligent play. Nico Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte are City’s best long ball progressors in possession, so between the defensive partnership and Ederson, City had all their bases covered in the buildup. Mendy’s trial as an inverted fullback against Palace meant that they could get the best of his wide play while still harnessing the preferred shape, but required axing Leroy Sané as the field only has space for one flank dominant player on the left.

Despite the sound logic, Spurs’ deployment of the mid-block turned out to be almost as effective as the one they faced the year prior. Part of what made Liverpool’s use of the strategy so powerful was the defensive play of their forwards. Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, and Dele Alli all excelled in doing the same as they funneled City possession into the center where Jonathan Liew’s favorite anarcho-syndicalist, many-limbed enigma, Moussa Sissoko, bounced around like a particle in a hadron collider. Without the ability to progress the ball as much as they’d like, City were stopped from grabbing the ever-important away goal.

Synthesizing whatever happened in the first twenty-ish minutes of the second leg presents certain difficulties, not because the game lacked any sort of tactical structure, but because the events that change the nature of a match did. Spurs scored three goals off a total 0.8 xG, and while that kind of spectacular finishing is something we’ve come to expect from Son, it’s difficult to fault anyone on the opposite end of the kit clash for erring in approach.

Guardiola rolled out a hybrid lineup that shifted between the two formations on and off the ball. The wide spacing of the 3–4–3/3–5–2 nullified Spurs’ compact shape and provided the advantage of arriving in the final third through various forms of progression, while the four-man defense offered a direct matchup to Spurs’ attackers and maintained two lines of players as pressing triggers. In yet another agonizing victory, Pep’s side fell just one goal short of advancing due to some defensive mishaps and phenomenal finishing.

In the final leg of the three-game series, Guardiola employed a similar strategy. The team shifted between a three and four man base, before eventually settling on the 4–3–3 due to the loss of Kevin De Bruyne through injury. The width provided by Zinchenko, who also inverted when the ball went to the opposite side or if Sterling dropped deep enough to connect the width he held with the defenders, mimicked the lopsided nature of the shape in the game prior. For the second time in just a few days, Bernardo Silva inexplicably ran out ninety minutes while providing the majority of the defensive and offensive output from the right flank. Tottenham, however, changed their approach.

With less to play for and with (in terms of personnel), Pochettino tried to adjust their shape to account for the width City was likely to provide. Five conservatively positioned defenders and a narrow 3–2 of midfielders & forwards worked to stop City from enjoying space through the middle. Though the shape they employed no longer stopped or even mitigated City from progressing the ball further up the field, Pochettino hoped for another smash and grab performance as their pyramid of compactness camped out in front of goal. City, however, still went on to create a solid number of quality chances, with the wavering of their defensive suppression more down to a forced change in shape than a product of Spurs’ actions.

Kevin De Bruyne’s injury the 37th minute forced City into a 4–3–3, where their possession and the way it was circulated presented a more exploitable shape given the width of Tottenham’s original approach.

City walked away from this year’s series with two wins out of three but unable to compete for the trophy they’ve been chasing for over a decade. For Guardiola, the European mountaintop remains in sight but out of reach- at least for another year. Perhaps his ability to influence the game in such a seismic manner through both his era-defining philosophy and the positions he’s been afforded is partially responsible for the existential nightmare in which he currently exists. To have such significant success always overshadowed by consistent failures certainly seems like a punishment doled out by a higher power in some Greek tragedy, and the constant re-contextualization of his doomed narrative surely adds to the myth, but like Rovelli’s underlining of material conditions, maybe it’s his football that creates a space for the Mourinhos and Klopp’s to exist. Perhaps the coach with the greatest metaphysical understanding of how the game currently manifests itself unconsciously demands a physical response for how he’s exploited its very reality and is nonetheless subjected to its randomness. Perhaps, as hard as he strives for perfection, the more he guarantees the creation of a system destined to destroy his own.




Freelance football analyst and writer | Featured on NBCSN | host of The Weekly Rondo Podcast | inquiries: nickmorales25@me.com

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Nicó Morales

Nicó Morales

Freelance football analyst and writer | Featured on NBCSN | host of The Weekly Rondo Podcast | inquiries: nickmorales25@me.com

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