Manchester City won the coveted European treble after their 1-0 win over Inter in the Champions League final. Comparisons to Manchester United’s 1999 triple have dominated the conversation, but it feels as though the parallel to Guardiola’s outstanding Barcelona team from 2011 is more telling. A coach who has a reputation for being implacable has traveled quite a distance. If Barcelona’s victory at Wembley is the pinnacle of his — or anyone’s — football, this 2023 victory was harder fought. It shouldn’t worry him or his teammates in the least. The style of the performance in Istanbul is not one of the 115 other things that may yet taint this victory. After an incredible season, City was a deserving champion. Finals are won, not played.
However, the way in which it was accomplished, the contrast with the loose football played in the previous decade, and even portions of this season, do indicate Guardiola’s attitude change. He said afterward, as he has so many times before, that these cup tournaments are a coin flip and that it is important to challenge the notion that this City is definitely better than the teams that have come before them.
These games have narrow margins of victory. Despite losing to Tottenham in the quarterfinals, they have the most goals in the Champions League in 2019. Even though no other team played more games in the tournament than they did, they allowed the fewest projected goals of any team in 2021. However, the 2023 version was different in some ways. A Guardiola squad has never been more capable. It seems to be a back three, but neither Rodri nor John Stones—two players who defended the center in the December World Cup—are there in that trio.
“I believe we defend in the box a little bit better,” Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said after winning the European treble. “We have Kyle [Walker] in addition to four central defenders. We are capable protectors. We feel more solid than ever, even when we make errors.”
Oleksandr Zinchenko’s defeat to Kai Havertz in the Champions League final two years ago resulted in a defeat. Since then, the Ukrainians has left. When Guardiola lost trust in his defensive play, Joao Cancelo, a fantastic ball-handler, left the team as well. City is now more challenging to defeat. No clear vulnerability exists. In the second half of the team’s 0-0 away tie with Borussia Dortmund in October, Guardiola started Rodri, Stones, Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias, and Manuel Akanji for the first time. At the break, Akanji took over for Cancelo.
In a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace in March, the five players shared the pitch together for the first time. The very next game, a 7-0 victory against RB Leipzig at the Etihad Stadium, saw Guardiola start with the lineup that would ultimately win the Champions League. Once Nathan Ake started to experience health concerns late in the season, Guardiola only departed from that game plan in the most important matches. It was used again for both legs of the quarterfinal match against Bayern Munich. Walker entered to take his spot.
That was the starting lineup for the previous four crucial games of the season. For the championship match against Arsenal, the two-leg semifinal against Real Madrid, and the victory against United in the FA Cup final, Guardiola selected the same 10 outfield players. Since losing to Spurs 4-2 in January, City has followed the blueprint established by that game and has not given up more than once. That was the occasion when Guardiola called his squad the “happy flowers” and scolded his own players. A more cautious City has grown.
A pragmatic approach is one that assesses theories or beliefs based on how well they will work in practise. It is generally understood to refer to long passes and throws in football, which is a very different style from Guardiola’s style. He’s not a purist, though. Guardiola plays the positional game, or possession game, not because he thinks it looks good, but rather because he thinks it works. That is seen in how his defenders have changed, including how they have adjusted to make room for Erling Haaland.
It is simply one more instance of how Guardiola has completed a circle. Having previously won Champions League finals with Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano at the heart of his defense, the man who once desired a midfield-heavy squad now has defenders in the middle of his defense. Additionally, City has never been more resilient or likely to find a way to win even when the rhythm is off.
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