Hit darkness my old friend. While Pep Guardiola entered the field in the final whistle at the Bernabéua familiar skinny-legged figure, that gleaming bald head that looked terrifyingly tender in the harsh white lights, still dressed from head to toe in black suit like a famous magician, or a college professor on his way to a funeral, it was hard not to feel the pathos of the moment.
Guardiola shook hands, patted his players and said something to the referee. He stood near the center circle, facing waves of triumphalism from the seats, on a stage where this is truly personal, where Guardiola stands as a gargoyle of deep tribal rivalries.
Coaches often use that postgame break as a buffer before their media duties, a time to collect their thoughts and prepare a face to meet faces. This was a crushing night for Guardiola, one of those moments around which a career is defined, horizons are opened. But City have another game on Sunday, at Newcastle, with another prize at stake. Guardiola knew that this was a moment to swallow it.
Shortly after, he would tell a press conference that at no time had he seen defeat coming, nor had he had any idea that Real Madrid would be capable of turning a game like this around. Really? Because he was out there in plain sight. In the press seats, a Spanish soccer correspondent had pointed out that defeat was looming. manchester city even as they dominated possession early on, increasingly confident of Madrid’s eventual victory as Riyad Mahrez put City 1-0 up on the night.
And while this may be a familiar pattern to those who have studied this Madrid team closely, the question remains: how did City manage to lose this game? They will talk about magic, about the powers of the sun king of Madrid itself. There is no doubt that the Bernabéu will make you tense, it will test your upstart nerve.
That talk of light and heat seemed to tell the story at the time. This was, of course, Madrid’s victory rather than City’s defeat, carried out with thrilling and nerveless precision. But the fact is that it also raises some very difficult questions for Guardiola.
Madrid will look for your limitations and jump over them with joy. This is what that rarefied air does to you. What they found in this City team was not the standard errors of poor planning or failed execution, but rather more systemic, flaws built into the model.
There is an annual spring pantomime surrounding the selection of Guardiola’s team in this competition. What will he do? Will he stick a screwdriver in his own fuse box again? Or try to play the piano with a pair of boxing gloves? But there was none of that here. Guardiola picked the best team of his, and at times that best team seemed what it is, a beautifully fluid thing totally committed to his patterns and rhythms.
But here too there are limitations. Guardiola has rightly been feted as the best pure coach in the world. Nothing is lost in preparation. He knows, in an unimaginable depth of detail, the textures and patterns that the rest of us just watch from the sidelines. This is what makes his willingness to accept the weaknesses of his team so fascinating.
Why didn’t City win? Because they continued to refuse to kick or head the ball into goal, missing at least eight very good chances in a one-goal draw. This is not bad luck or a bad day. This is wasteful by design. It is still surprising that Guardiola’s squad does not have a single player whose main skill, whose specialty, is scoring goals.
And yes, City works so well as a team precisely because they don’t play with an orthodox striker. It’s the overload in midfield that allows them to create all these opportunities in the first place. The system works. But pragmatism is also a strength, and that lack of avant-garde from a one-punch knockout artist, while intellectually uninteresting to Guardiola, is a weakness at the moment.
More prosaically, the City players looked tired on Wednesday night. The template has depth, but not much. It feels like another part of Guardiola’s absolutism that the same core has tended to play most of the key matches. The same refusal to bend was present in the use of his substitutes at the Bernabéu.
At first it seemed that the story of the night could be the excellent performance of Kyle Walker to reduce the threat of Vinícius Júnior. Instead, City lost the game after Walker’s injury. Guardiola brought in Oleksandr Zinchenko as left-back and swapped João Cancelo, converting his two full-backs in order to resolutely remain Pep. Bringing in Nathan Aké would have recognized that this was a time to hold back and spoil, to spend 18 minutes cursing that side. Madrid’s two late goals came from those relaxed flanks.
It might seem perverse to find fault with a systems team that plays like a systems team; to urge the current group of series league champions to scrap all of that and attack the throat. But knockout football at this level also takes you into these weird emotional spaces. A team trying to chase the same perfect game every week will sometimes play cold when they need to play hot, just as City never really sank their teeth into this second leg.
Perhaps that fragility is also a function of the origin of the club. It is not an insult to say that this City team is a construction. Guardiola’s success has been to install culture and method in something that is just over a decade old. It is a new construction, a prefabricated house, an idea. Not surprising, maybe it doesn’t bend in the wind like real Madrid.
For Guardiola, the challenge now is to make sure his players are ready to chase the season to the end, when a slip-up in the remaining four league games could leave them without a trophy this season. Guardiola also has a useful life. He has been working for six years in an environment totally adapted to his wishes. It’s no secret Champions League, however far and difficult it may be, has always been the goal. The main flaw on Wednesday night is that it didn’t really feel any closer.