On Saturday, Manchester City came closest to the Champions League trophy, a title that the English side has spent millions of pounds to put in their coffers. Alas they could only watch Chelsea, a rival English side, snatch it away.
The loss was blamed by many on City’s coach team selection, starting the game without a defensive midfielder. But it was more than that.
The Champions League final was decided by a lone goal scored by Chelsea’s Kai Havertz in the first half. Man City was unable to put the ball across the winners’ goal line because they put up a massive defense. It is a situation that City’s coach, Pep Guardiola is familiar with. He had seen it before, a lot of times.
In 2012, Barcelona was gunning for a back-to-back Champions League title, when they met Chelsea in the semifinal. The Spanish side were the favorites, basking in their tiki-taka revolution that had made them the best team in Europe. Guardiola was the coach.
The first leg of the semifinal duel had ended 1-0 in favor of Chelsea. But Barcelona was confident of qualifying for the final, given its domineering play then and the quality of its players.
Well, the game ended in a 2-2 draw (3-2 in aggregate), and Chelsea made it to the final and eventually won the title for the first time in their history. What went wrong with Barcelona?
Guardiola who is known for attacking football has one weakness that was exploited by his rival coach Jose Mourinho, back then in Real Madrid and subsequently Inter Milan. Following Mourinho’s instruction, Real Madrid players would fall back, leaving one or two players up front and counting on counter-attack to score. It doesn’t matter if Barcelona had 90% ball possession, Real Madrid only cared about one thing – converting their chances when they come. It was dubbed “cynical football.”
In 2010, Mourinho was one match away from the Champions League title with Inter Milan. He was up against his nightmare, Barcelona. He knew he stood a little chance defending his 3-1 first leg win. Lionel Messi was in his prime, an unstoppable machine. To win, Mourinho needs more than a miracle. But he knew where the trick lies and he executed it perfectly.
At the end of 90 minutes in Camp Nou, Inter was the team heading to the final. Gerard Pique’s lone goal was not enough to see Barcelona to the final. How Mourinho managed to keep Barcelona from scoring more than one goal was something every other team started learning. Chelsea learned it as a craft, and has applied it at every meeting with Guardiola, and it has always worked.
Mourinho’s tactic is to “park the bus.” It has over the years become a Chelsea technique, to be applied whenever the opponents’ coach is Guardiola, or by extension, when a match is a must-win.
So on Saturday night, when many bet on Guardiola’s win, it’s because they thought he must have learnt from the past to tie up the loose ends. Although Chelsea has changed many coaches in time, the “park the bus” tactic has remained with the London club. In fact, it has become an identity. And at the receiving end of it, is Guardiola among others.
This season alone, Chelsea has beaten Guardiola’s Man City three times. A remarkable feat for a team that struggled to qualify for Champions League, and a disappointing record for the Premiership champions.
In the end, Man City’s disappointing loss to Chelsea Saturday night boils down to two things; Guardiola has failed to learn from the past, or he is helplessly vulnerable against bus parking teams.
From Spain to Germany to England, it has been exciting to watch how every side guided by Guardiola beautifully does the round leather business. But cynical football has come to stay, all that matters in the end is who wins. For a successful coach like him, whose prodigy places at the best of football teams, vulnerability against bus parking teams will remain a downside to be exploited.