Revel in the irony: of course it would be just as the great rupture comes that Manchester City at last produce a great European performance.
Enlightenment is achieved through the abandonment of desire. And yet even within that irony there are deeper ironies, the suspicion that a great European performance may not actually have been necessary, the suggestion that Pep Guardiola’s true opponent was less the 11 men in different coloured shirts than himself, and the realisation that good as City were, this Real Madrid are deeply ordinary, little more than the memory of a team despite their branding.
But who knows what strange process of attrition can undo a team? Who knows what demons may be raised by finding yourself thwarted at every turn by an opponent playing in a way that was entirely unexpected so that you, the most successful team in the competition’s history, end up chugging around fruitlessly at home in front of a crowd that, even at 1-0 up, was audibly restless? Just because Madrid collapsed in the final 17 minutes after Raheem Sterling came on doesn’t mean they necessarily would have been susceptible to him from the off, before Dani Carvajal had been run into the ground by Gabriel Jesus, who produced a supremely disciplined performance on the left before shifting into the middle to equalise then end Sergio Ramos’s tie.
When a pragmatic approach has been adopted, it is reasonable to judge it on its merits. Did Guardiola’s plan work? Manifestly it did: City beat Madrid for the first time, had much the better of the game, scored two away goals and should now go through to the quarter-finals. And yet Madrid were so poor, so pedestrian, it was hard not to wonder whether Guardiola’s uncharacteristic embrace of caution – City had only 30% possession in the opening 20 minutes against a side that weren’t exactly looking to impose themselves – were not a way of combatting his own history as much as the opponent in front of him.
Which is not a criticism – or at least not of Guardiola or City. Games are won and lost on many fronts and one of them is within a team or a manager’s own psyche. Guardiola bears the scars of European ties lost to soft goals conceded, often in clutches: to Real Madrid in 2014, to Barcelona in 2015, to Monaco in 2017, to Liverpool in 2018, to Tottenham last season. Just as Alex Ferguson accepted after the defeat by Madrid in the quarter-final in 2000 that it’s not enough to be better than the opponent, you also have to take risk out of the equation as far as possible, so Guardiola did everything to ensure there would be no sudden two- or three-goal blast against his side.
And in a sense the formation he adopted represented a reversion to first principles. After his Bayern had lost 4-1 at Wolfsburg in January 2015, Guardiola blamed himself and wrote what he called his bible on a whiteboard in his office. It was a very short bible, containing just three key strictures. He would deploy:
This is how you achieve the key aim of post-Cruyffianism, as set out in his 2001 memoir La meva gent, el meu futbol: “to fill the centre of the pitch in order to play having numerical superiority.” Against a 4-3-3, then, unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise, you field a 4-4-2 – even if it’s an unorthodox interpretation of that shape, featuring a centre-forward on the left of midfield and two midfielders playing as false nines.
City perhaps lost some counterattacking fluency by fielding Kevin De Bruyne so high and there were a couple of early long balls to nobody, but that supremacy in midfield was achieved and, broadly speaking, City had control, other than a couple of crosses and Isco’s goal, which was the result of three individual errors – which can be mitigated but never entirely eliminated by the tactical framework.
That such care probably wasn’t necessary against such a limited Madrid is neither provable nor, really, City’s issue: win the game, move on, let the opposition worry about their problems. But Madrid really were dreadful, lacking energy or inspiration, even worse than Barcelona had been away to Napoli on Tuesday.
In fact other than Bayern and City, none of the superclubs played well in the first legs of their last-16 ties. Liverpool can be expected to improve but there are major problems elsewhere, some to do with transition, some that run far deeper than that. And that really is what is so repellant about the superclub era, even if the money came from the purest of sources and was spent in scrupulous observance of financial fair play regulations: it means clubs such as Madrid and Barcelona can be run staggeringly badly with no real consequence, their wealth and status sustaining them so they can come back for another large slice of the pie the following year.
With so many of the giants stuttering, the competition feels unusually open this year. City would have been among the favourites even before Wednesday’s suggestion that they have developed a new edge, a less risky means of playing. This, at last, could be their year. And with the ban looming, that would be the greatest irony of all.