Why does Guardiola make so many changes in big Champions League games? That


“Proper Football Man” plays the percentages. “Proper Football Man” is reasonable and conventional. “Proper Football Man” disdains change and is suspicious of those who try to be clever. The only outside the box thing about “Proper Football Man” is where he asks his players to shoot from when he wants them to “have a go” or “test the keeper.”

Pep Guardiola is not a “Proper Football Man” and we had further evidence of this Tuesday at Tottenham Hotspur’s new cathedral of a ground in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.

Manchester City went into that match having won 13 of their last 14 games and 21 of their last 23, the vast majority of them playing with pretty much the same formation: a 4-1-4-1, with a holding midfielder (usually Fernandinho) in front of the back four and two creative attacking midfielders deployed centrally (usually the Silva brothers and sometimes Kevin De Bruyne).

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But against Tottenham, he changed things around. It wasn’t his only change (more on this later) but it was significant. Fernandinho was joined by Ilkay Gundogan in a de facto 4-2-3-1, something we’d seen only three times since Boxing Day. Away to Huddersfield — in a match where both Silvas, Bernardo and David, were rested against a managerless opponent, so largely irrelevant — away to Everton (a 2-0 victory) and in the 6-0 home drubbing of Chelsea.

“I decided to play with two holding midfielders in that position [Gundogan and Fernandinho] to be a bit more solid,” Guardiola said after the game. “It’s not the issue… We have the second leg… it’s 180 minutes.”

Let’s be clear about this. Manchester City didn’t lose because Guardiola shifted to a scheme he rarely plays. If Aguero buries that first half penalty and if Fabian Delph remembers two obvious things — VAR is in effect and always play to the whistle — then maybe City win this game. And yes, had Bernardo Silva been fit, maybe it would have been a different story: it wouldn’t have come down to a choice between Gundogan and De Bruyne, whose frequent injuries mean he gets treated with kid-gloves right now. But it most certainly impacted performance. And, perhaps most tellingly, it follows a pattern of Guardiola throwing unexpected curveballs in big games.

In fact, it was deja vu from 12 months ago. Another Premier League opponent, another Champions League quarterfinal, first leg on the road. And again, Gundogan on the pitch with Fernandinho, except on that occasion he got even wackier by leaving out Raheem Sterling too.

The year before that? Manchester City away to Monaco, defending a 5-3 lead after the first leg? Admittedly it was his first campaign, he didn’t have the firepower he has now and City were still learning the Gospel of Pep, but he played Aleksandar Kolarov at center-back against the quick legs of Kylian Mbappe and a top-heavy side that conceded two goals inside half an hour. That same year, in the group stage, he dropped Sergio Aguero for the trip to the Camp Nou in the belief that City need to “control the midfield.” Man City lost 4-0.

While we’re at it, go back to his final year at Bayern and the first leg of the semifinal against Atletico Madrid. He dropped Thomas Muller — who had 31 goals at the time — to the bench. They lost 1-0 and ended up crashing out on away goals in the return.

Why does Guardiola make so many changes in big Champions League games? That
Pep Guardiola’s decisions are bold and don’t always work, but that’s the kind of manager he’s always been and playing in the Champions League won’t change his thinking.

Guardiola offered plenty more “second-guess” fodder against Spurs on Tuesday night. With Oleksandr Zinchenko sidelined, he opted for Delph at left-back instead of Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, both of whom played at the weekend, or switching Aymeric Laporte wide and putting John Stones or Vincent Kompany at center-back. Riyad Mahrez got the nod ahead of Leroy Sane. And then, of course, there were the late, late, late substitutions. It’s difficult for many to understand why you would wait until the 89th minute to send on Sane and De Bruyne, especially since you’re making like-for-like changes.

This isn’t a criticism of Guardiola. It’s a reminder that this is who he is: a guy who seeks an edge in every game and who seems to care not a jot for the conventional wisdom whereby if you’re better than your opponents (and City are better than Spurs… 16 points better in fact) you focus on your game and let them worry about you.

There may have been countless times in the past when Guardiola’s curveballs and unexpected changes worked a charm and were key to his success, which would explain why he continues down this path. And no, Tuesday night’s changes weren’t necessarily responsible for the defeat, though they contribute to the humdrum performance.

Guardiola can spin it saying they avoided a heavy defeat and 1-0 first leg deficit is no big deal; they can easily turn that around at home, especially if Harry Kane is going to be watching from the stands. But it’s fair to say that Guardiola’s changes backfired, both tactically and psychologically.

Speaking on Sky Italia, Esteban Cambiasso noted how changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1 sends a clear message that you will be more defensive.

And this City team is not built to be defensive.

“Look at the goal,” he said. “Manchester City had eight men behind the ball, which is good. But they’re all holding their position; you can tell they’re not comfortable.

“Nobody is actively defending, which means Christian Eriksen has all the time in the world to deliver the ball to Son Heung-Min, and that leads to the goal.”

Cambiasso is a “Proper Football Man.” In his world, teams play to their strengths and you don’t tinker when things are going well and you’re superior to your opponents because the more you change, the more that can go wrong. You can see both sides of the argument. There is no absolute truth here, only conventional wisdom of the sort that works for most people most of the time and outside-the-box thinking that can occasionally backfire badly.

Guardiola remains most definitely outside the mainstream. Nights like Tuesday will draw accusations of “arrogance,” “delusion” and “wanting to be too clever.” But be glad people like him are around, blessed with the courage to serve up weekly reminders that there is more than one way to play this game.

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