Pep Guardiola has just demolished his reputation as an over-thinker with his genius calls against Real Madrid
Man City 4-0 Real Madrid (5-1 on aggregate) (Silva 23′, 37′, Akanji 76′, Alvarez 90+1)
The most complete performance of Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City? No. The most complete performance of Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City so far. When you have this much money and these players and this astonishing, generation-defining coach, there is no mountain too high to scale, no opponent too good to avoid being humbled if things crumble in the right way.
Neither is this the peak, obviously. Real Madrid may have become the European Cup specialists over the last decade, but they are not the final step for Manchester City and Guardiola. That will come in Istanbul and may not be the formality many are assuming. Glamour finals come with a side order of nerves for free. City are used to being favourites, but you never quite get used to the pressure it brings.
But Guardiola’s City were irrepressible on Wednesday evening, taking the reigning champions through a dance that left them holding their sides and dizzy and eventually simply broken. After 15 minutes, City had completed 124 passes and Real Madrid just 13. If there was any possible criticism, any scintilla of doubt, at half-time, it was that the lead itself was not yet insurmountable. It never became an issue.
It is time to erase that reputation of Guardiola as the over-thinker. There were two team selections that may have caused momentary cogitation; Guardiola nailed both. Kyle Walker, picked at right-back to deal with the pace of Vinicius Jr, was probably the game’s best performer. Walker is 32 but his recovery pace remains a cheat code.
If Walker secured the tie, Bernardo Silva won it. Pre-game, several pundits stated boldly that City would be better served by asking Riyad Mahrez to run at Eduardo Camavinga. But no player in blue has a better understanding with Kevin de Bruyne. Bernardo continually drifted away from Camavinga and made mischief in the space he found. On the other side, Jack Grealish was magnificent too.
There was a change in Guardiola too – and not just with the sartorial shift to suit jacket and black shoes. When Manchester City are dominant (for which read: most of the time), Guardiola becomes the emphatic perfectionist. Even passes that make their target can be met with screams and waving arms if they do not match the plan, as if City’s manager is hailing a passing car in an emergency.
The bigger the game, the greater the leeway and the less likely Guardiola is to admonish his players with the match still in play. In the first 10 minutes, Kyle Walker shot wildly from 30 yards and received rapturous touchline applause.
A little later, John Stones overhit a pass by 30 yards, sending it out for a goal kick. He turned to his manager to apologise, only to be met with a cheer for the attempt. It is not always this way, but how could he not be happy now.
If Manchester City are victorious in Istanbul on June 10, it will provoke vast discussion of the inevitability of this omnipotent state-owned machine. That discussion is reasonable, given what we know and we don’t know the full extent of yet. Wealth greases the wheels of success and City are currently hurtling towards what their owners ultimately consider to be their destiny. Anyone ignoring that is blatantly guilty of one-eyedness.
But it would be equally selective to ignore the difference Guardiola has made; we will not fully understand that until he leaves. These nights might always be expected at Manchester City, but playing like this on them never could be. We have seen, here and elsewhere, that vast spending on players does not simply equate to domestic or European glory. At Chelsea this season, it won’t even lead to a top-half league finish.
This is different not just because of money. It is more powerful than we could ever have comprehended because Guardiola has built a team that perfectly matches his own vision of how he believes football should be played and how it can be played most successfully. Pep has created Manchester City teams that were prettier, that scored more goals and that won the Premier League title by a greater distance. But he might never have made one that were this ruthless. That matters; give it a month, and they may just be treble winners.