How Pep Guardiola betrayed his ‘biggest f*** up’ promise with Man City gamble

After betraying his own footballing philosophy in Bayern Munich's 4-0 defeat by Real Madrid in 2014, Pep Guardiola made a promise to never second guess himself again.

"I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong," he is quoted as saying in Marti Perarnau's insightful 2014 book 'Pep Confidential'.

"It's a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach.

"I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4. The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year.

"A complete f***-up."

In his debut campaign at the Allianz Arena, Guardiola attained a stranglehold on German football by setting Bayern up in flexible 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations; wherein both full-backs became part of the midfield and the deepest-lying midfielder became part of a back three while in possession of the ball.

Doing so meant the eventual Bundesliga and DBF-Pokal winners almost always enjoyed superiority in midfield – one of the most essential principles in Pep's playbook.

Yet following a narrow 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Madrid, in which his side dominated the ball and missed a number of clear-cut chances, Guardiola traded his beloved midfield superiority for an all-guns-blazing approach in the decider a week later.

He instead opted for an audacious 4-2-4 setup that would see Bayern try to take the game to his former El Clasico rivals, and fail miserably.

"Never again," he said after the 5-0 aggregate thumping.

"From now on, if I mess up I will at least have stayed true to my own ideas."

Though six years on from that supposed managerial lesson, Guardiola has once again crashed out of the Champions League courtesy of a tactical gamble gone wrong.

While Manchester City have not exactly flourished in the Premier League this term, the majority of their success during his trophy-laden four-year reign has come via a 4-3-3 setup.

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Even in their 2-1 victory away at Real Madrid in March, where Pep demonstrated some pragmatic genius by deploying Bernardo Silva as a false nine and Gabriel Jesus out wide, City still played with similar dimensions – four at the back, three in midfield, two out wide and one upfront.

Taking this into account makes his selection in last night's 3-1 defeat by Lyon all the more puzzling.

Up against the seventh-best team in France's Ligue 1, Guardiola strayed from a four-man defence and instead pulled out a 3-1-4-2 system, with Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo fielded as wing-backs.

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As a result, City were a shadow of their former selves in an uncharacteristically rigid opening 45 minutes. The speed, tenacity and adventure from their game was gone and Lyon deservedly took the lead after 24 minutes. Pep's bold strategy was falling flat on its face.

Ten minutes into the second half the former Barcelona and Bayern boss acknowledged his error, replacing Fernandinho with Riyad Mahrez and switching to a back four.

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In the end that change shone an even more damning light on his failed 3-1-4-2 experiment; City were soon back in their groove at the Estadio Jose Alvalade and De Bruyne netted a vital equaliser with 20 minutes remaining, shifting the momentum completely in their favour.

Just as the tide had turned, however, Lyon were granted a huge slice of luck when Moussa Dembele raced through on goal and tucked the ball home despite appearing to foul Aymeric Laporte in the build-up, before a mistake from Ederson allowed him to add his second and send the French club into the last four.

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Guardiola would be well within his rights to feel aggrieved by Dembele's first goal, especially given the lengthy VAR check which followed.

He could also point to Raheem Sterling's staggering miss seven minutes later as proof that it just wasn't their night.

Nevertheless, City's clear improvement after reverting back to 4-3-3 in the second half means Guardiola must take full responsibility for a third successive Champions League quarter-final exit – just as he did with Bayern six years ago.

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Devising a completely untested plan for City’s season-defining outing was nothing short of madness from the most talented manager on the planet. Instead of setting up to neutralise Lyon, he should have focused on playing to his side’s tremendous strengths.

When he rolled the dice with a gung-ho 4-2-4 against Madrid in 2014, Guardiola became a victim of his own meticulous preparation, overthinking his lineup so much that the final product was untrue to his footballing beliefs.

Clearly, he encountered a similar problem in Portugal last night.

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  • Some have questioned whether this defeat marks the end of the 49-year-old's spell in England but his comments last night suggest otherwise.

    "Life is how you stand up again and next season we're going to try again," he said.

    If he wants to steer City into the Champions League semi-finals next year, though, Pep should try sticking with his guns.

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