Pep Guardiola left to ponder his fatal flaw with quadruple dream in ruins

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Jonathan Wilson
·5-min read
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Photograph: Ben Stansall/PA
Photograph: Ben Stansall/PA

And so the quadruple remains out of reach for another season. Perhaps Pep Guardiola is right to banish talk of it: when goals are set so high, even an extraordinary season could feel like failure. And so it lingers, forever on the edge of perception, as the double did for Liverpool for much of the 70s and 80s, something that feels often in their grasp and yet keeps on eluding them.

For a long time, the double was rare enough to be an almost mystical quest. Growing up in the 80s, the sides who had achieved it felt vaguely otherworldly, to be spoken of in hushed and reverent tones: Preston 1889, Aston Villa 1897, Tottenham 1961, Arsenal 1971 and then, at last, Liverpool 1986. Then came the Premier League and a redistribution of resources, and suddenly it lost its lustre. There have been seven doubles in the past three decades, and an inflationary effect that means now only the trebles are truly memorable: Manchester United’s of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999 and Manchester City’s domestic variant of Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup in 2019.

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As the rich continue to accumulate resources and the financial stratification of football grows ever more stark, a quadruple feels almost inevitable at some point – the most likely barrier to prevent it happening being the abolition of the League Cup rather than the limitations of the super-clubs.

Yet whatever unease the domination of a small elite may provoke, a quadruple would represent a remarkable achievement; even what City have already done this season is extraordinary. The league is all but secure; they play an ailing Tottenham, probably without Harry Kane, in next Sunday’s League Cup final; they have Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semi-final; and they reached the FA Cup semi-final. They were perhaps 10 games from a clean sweep. No side has ever come closer.

Even that statistic suggests just how difficult a quadruple is. In the league here are plenty of second chances (as City have shown this season, having recovered from their worst start in 12 years) but in knockout competition, it only takes one unfortunate bounce of the ball, one poor refereeing decision, one off-day, and a season’s work is over. The quadruple is an unforgiving dream.

But the question for City is whether this was just an off-day, or whether Saturday’s defeat to Chelsea is evidence of a more persistent problem. It may only have been 1-0, but it was a comprehensive 1-0. City were flat, devoid of creativity and, perhaps most troublingly for Guardiola, looked susceptible to that most characteristic flaw: pace running on the balls played in behind them.

It may simply be that eight changes were too many. Guardiola’s complaints that he had had only two and a half days to prepare after Wednesday’s victory in Dortmund will not have elicited much sympathy: when fighting on multiple fronts, juggling resources is a critical skill and few clubs have more resources than City It did, however, mean fielding a forward line of three players – Ferran Torres, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – who are all out of sorts.

But it was less the lack of attacking spark than the nature of the threat Chelsea posed that felt significant. Had Ilkay Gündogan started it might have been different; Fernandinho struggled all game with Mason Mount. But the one great vulnerability of all Guardiola sides has been to teams good enough to play through or bypass the press and release runners into the space behind the defence.

Lionel Messi scores as Barcelona see off Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in 2015.
Lionel Messi scores as Barcelona see off Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in 2015. Photograph: Paul Hanna/Reuters

Few opponents are good enough to do that, which is what creates the apparent paradox of teams that concede very few goals over the course of a season but look defensively shaky in the biggest games. It’s what led to Barcelona’s collapse against Bayern, Bayern’s against Barcelona and Real Madrid and City’s against Monaco and Liverpool. It’s why Guardiola’s City have such a weirdly poor record against Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s counter-attacking Manchester United.

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And, of course, it’s why Guardiola so often seems to complicate his selections in the biggest European games, changing system to counter the threat of sides who might be able to expose that glitch. Last season, City lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final in circumstances not dissimilar to Saturday, undone by an opponent with a clear plan to plan on the counter, particularly down the inside-left channel. A little under a month later, apparently seeking to avoid something similar against Lyon in the Champions League, Guardiola opted for an unfamiliar back three.

The fascination now, with Saturday’s defeat coming so soon after the league defeat to a counter-attacking Leeds, is what Guardiola does in 10 days when City meet PSG in the Champions League semi-final. Given how brilliantly the trio of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Ángel Di María (the architect of Madrid’s devastating win over his Bayern in 2014) counter-attacked against Bayern, can Guardiola afford not to take specific action?

Defeats happen to even the best sides. It may be that this was a blip and nothing more. There were plenty of explanations to be found for those minded to look. But the characteristic nature of the defeat could not but cause concern. It has come to feel as though Guardiola’s whole career has become a wrestle with the one flaw in an otherwise crushingly effective method.

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