Pep Guardiola has long believed that winning the Champions League comes down to timing, which is why the manner of Leeds United’s goals on Saturday will be particularly galling. They have been playing on his mind the last few days.
Just when his Manchester City team had a lot of momentum, and their physical conditioning programme had them in the right shape for the European run-in, they go and concede two counter-attacking goals on the eve of a knife-edge second leg with Borussia Dortmund.
These are no mere details. They are precisely the kind of goals that have proven fatal to every single Champions League elimination he has suffered, creating a complex for Guardiola about this exact problem.
The figures say a lot.
Guardiola has been knocked out of the competition on nine occasions, and in those 18 legs conceded 36 times. Of those, 10 have been straight counter-attacks, which is more than any other type of goal his teams have conceded in those games. A further four have been from long punts up the pitch, and four from “transitions”, or opposition sides suddenly winning the ball close to the area.
Worst of all, 13 of the 36 goals have involved single simple long passes behind defenders, that cause all manner of complications for the Catalan’s teams.
There are a number of classic examples that come to mind, usually accompanied by an ashen-faced Guardiola.
There was Maicon’s surge forward in the Internazionale win over Barcelona that virtually set the template for this type of strike. There was Fernando Torres’ breakaway goal for Chelsea, before Cristiano Ronaldo’s cutting counter for Real Madrid against Bayern Munich, right up to Lyon’s Maxwell Cornet exploiting an opportunity out of nowhere last season.
The very suddenness of the moves, and the way the pitch just seems to open up, almost seems to foster the sense that it’s all falling apart.
Some of that really shouldn’t be that much concern, however, since it is a natural consequence of how Guardiola plays. When you are going to dominate possession and space, it will necessitate a high line, that can occasionally be undercut – or just undone by balls over the top. There is an inherent risk to the approach, but the reward usually greatly outweighs that. Except, for Guardiola, in Europe.
This is a necessary compromise, that has become a glass jaw, that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The particular problem for Guardiola – that means it is much worse for him, say, than even Vicente Del Bosque’s Spanish national team – is that every time it has happened has created more of an issue around it, and more doubt about his football in Europe.
Many see it as the source of so many tactical improvisations, that have only ended up impeding his teams.
The nadir was probably last season’s quarter-final against Lyon. Guardiola set up the midfield to mitigate against counters, only to make such moves more likely because City had ceded positions where they could take the ball on.
It was this strange hedged response to the issue of that high line.
This is why the timing of Stuart Dallas’s goals were so problematic.
Because, by all other logic, City should really eliminate Dortmund with relative ease. The Bundesliga team have been on a dismal run. City have been in imperious form. Guardiola’s squad also possess much more overall quality, and there’s the basic fact that any strike for his team means more, given it will be an away goal.
Any hesitation and doubt, therefore, should be with Dortmund. They have to score here, but any attack leaves them open to the kind of punishing counter from star attackers that could kill the tie.
And yet it’s impossible not to wonder whether the manner of Leeds’ goals will create more doubt and hesitation in Guardiola. They were just such a ruinous reminder of what has gone wrong in the past.
Put bluntly, these are precisely the kind of circumstances that could prompt to make a needless tactical alteration that unintentionally levels the playing field. There is also the issue, as one well-placed source says, that Dortmund have exactly the kind of “mobile attackers” that City tend to be particularly vulnerable to.
As much as any kind of tactical European tie, though, this might be a game where Guardiola has to hold his nerve and hold the line.