UCL

Guardiola's obsession with control means Champions League success will remain elusive

On Wednesday, Pep Guardiola('s Manchester City) performed a now annual ritual: snatching defeat and elimination from the jaws of victory in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola

The site of this latest capitulation was Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, about as close as one gets to hallowed ground in that competition; Carlo Ancelotti, fittingly, was the high priest performing the evening oblation, drawing blood late and setting fire to the aspirations of the Citizens.

The reaction since has been nothing if not predictable. Guardiola is being raked over the coals, with a growing number of people willing to take the witness stand to testify to his guilt for the heinous crime of failing to win the Champions League without Lionel Messi. Allegations of arrogance, inflexibility and overthinking have not been in short supply either.

The point of all of this, the admission the Pep-deriding mob seems determined to beat out of everyone, is apparently that the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss is somehow overrated, not all he is cracked up to be, and has been "found out". (You would think that, by now, the once pithy but now thoroughly banal appellation 'Fraudiola' would have outlived its usefulness in the public discourse, but hey, whatever floats people's boats.)

However, to bring that up following Wednesday's events is to ignore one important reality: Manchester City were, over the two legs, comfortably the superior side. So much so that, until Rodrygo stole in front of Ederson (who looked for all the world like he was trying to locate the qibla) to score, Real Madrid had not so much as managed a shot on target in the second leg.

The visitors were off-colour by their own standards on the night in Madrid, but they kept the hosts at bay handily and then struck themselves after 73 minutes to double their lead on aggregate.

The irony of it then is that, even though they fail to realise it, those who focus solely on the outcome in a bid to criticise Guardiola are guilty of the same flaw as he is: the inability to accept that, by its very nature, it is impossible to completely control chaos at all times.

This is true even at the best of times, but for the Spaniard, his peculiar neurosis makes it even more difficult. This is, after all, a man who is obsessed with control, whose entire raison d'etre as a football manager seems to be "solving" football as much as actually winning trophies.

Still, chaos laughs at well-laid plans, mocks any attempts to transcend it.

On Wednesday, he actually did everything his traducers claimed would guarantee success. He slowed the tempo of the game from the start and risked little, even to the detriment of his own side's precision and clarity on the night. Following the Riyad Mahrez goal, he brought on an extra defensive midfielder in Fernandinho to shut the game down, and then a dribbling, transitional forward in Jack Grealish to act as a release valve on the break and kill Real's momentum by winning fouls high up the pitch.

But the default state of all things is chaos.

To watch Guardiola down the years in the Champions League is to see an ideologue who has been humbled by the competition. In his quest to reach the summit once again, he has preached, bluffed, held his nerve, given in to emotion, eaten grass, railed and sought counsel. All to little avail. He has gone through every stage of grief except one. Acceptance.

That is a step too far, it seems. He simply cannot bring himself to; it would go against his very nature, his keenest inclination being to keep chaos at bay just long enough to win.

It is a neurosis that transmits itself to his players as well, becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas Muller famously admitted that Guardiola's habit of turning back on himself and wracking every faculty in the build-up to these matches often put a mental and emotional strain on the playing staff at Bayern.

The contrast to a manager like Carlo Ancelotti (and, by extension, Real Madrid, could not be starker: seasoned professionals who do not agonize over chaos, who do not consider it inherently inimical to their aims. They understand that, while its effect is random, like a frothing wave it can just about be surfed, but only if one keeps his composure and is not entirely preoccupied with fighting it.

Objectively, Guardiola did little wrong on Wednesday, and could not have done much more. Because it was neither his tactics that needed to change, nor his substitutions. It was his very nature, his personality.

Did Real Madrid have some balls bounce kindly for them? Absolutely. But they get lucky a lot, don't they? By contrast, City (and Guardiola) seem to be serially unlucky within the context of the Champions League.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

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