In years to come, we may look back on Manchester City’s distressingly frantic 5-3 victory over AS Monaco as peak Pep, as the game that perfectly captured the central paradox of Guardiola’s first season in England.
Looking more like a half-arsed game of FIFA 17 than an actual match, it was an evening befitting of the tactical sophistication and chaos inherent in that beautifully expansive – but woefully expansive – formation that Pep Guardiola has been trialling since their humbling defeat at Everton in mid-January.
You cannot help but commend Guardiola’s pursuit of beauty. With Yaya Toure as the bumbling pivot, his midfield builds out in neat concentric circles – Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva rotate on the outside of the Ivorian; Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane on the outside of them – to create exactly the kind of neatly-tessellating, 45-degree-angle passing lines that dance in Guardiola’s head as he sleeps. But City’s pursuit of such glory has come at the expense of even the most rudimentary attempts to defend their own goal. 5-3 was a score-line that flattered both defences.
Nevertheless, things are looking up. Nicolas Otamendi remains a hopeless liability and their defensive woes may ultimately cost Guardiola silverware in his inaugural campaign, but it would be premature to assume that they cannot find greater balance between now and April, when the Champions League quarter-finals begin. If Guardiola can find a settled back four and fully educate Fernandinho on how to help in central midfield without reneging on his responsibilities as a full-back (how City must wish they still had James Milner) then this could be their year.
After all, the competition across Europe is weaker than it has been in some time.
The monopolies in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain have all taken a hit in 2016/17. Juventus have looked shaky throughout the season and, despite reasserting dominance over the past few weeks, remain beatable. Bayern Munich have struggled to adapt to the laissez-faire attitude of Carlo Ancelotti and will look considerably less dynamic when facing more competent opposition in the next round.
Real Madrid remain strangely directionless despite Zinedine Zidane’s achievements, and will surely be overpowered by more tactically sophisticated opponents in April. Barcelona are all but out, while Atletico Madrid have endured a torrid domestic season that could leak into their European campaign.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain have a history of flakiness and have been inconsistent under Unai Emery. Their unexpectedly hard-fought title race may deplete their energy reserves as the latter stages of the Champions League approach.
Of the six European super-powers, only five will remain in the quarter-finals and three are in transitional years, while the other two are not playing with the kind of fluency that ordinarily indicates a serious challenge. The 2016/17 Champions League is an unusually open tournament, and thus likely to be won – with a touch of fortune – by whichever team hits their stride at exactly the right moment. As it stands, Manchester City have as good a chance as any of being the team that turns it on when it counts.
Unlike all of the above clubs, bar Atletico, City will not be competing on multiple fronts when the quarter-finals begin on April 11. This is a big advantage. What’s more, Pep has an excellent record in the competition and has shown a tactical adaptability this season that is sorely lacking among many of his rivals. Atletico, for example, have failed to evolve during their crisis-hit season, but by contrast Guardiola’s formation and team selection are a perpetual mystery. This, when we reach the uber-hyped semi-finals, should go in his favour.
Improvements still need to be made. It is surely only a matter of time before Guardiola realises Vincent Kompany’s organisational influence would immediately improve the team’s defensive record, and after the frantic nature of Tuesday’s victory Pep may think twice before trusting Toure to hold down the fort in any future Champions League contest.
Over the past five seasons, only twice can the Champions League winners truly claim to have been the best team in the tournament that season. Bayern Munich and Barcelona dominated European football when lifting the trophy in 2013 and 2015 respectively, but Chelsea in 2012 and Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016 were forgettable sides; rather than dominate, they simply peaked at the right moment.
Manchester City, gradually building tactical complexity and with no title challenge to distract them, could be just the team to exploit an uncharacteristically weak season.