PORTO, Portugal – Another attack had taken place, another minute had passed, and now there was just a hint of panic in Kyle Walker’s eyes. The Champions League title was slipping away. And so he did what he’s been conditioned to do for the past five years. He turned to the place that always gives him the answers.
As Chelsea hesitated to shoot a goal, hoping to see a few more seconds pass as they wrapped up their victory, Walker and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola staged an impromptu sideline summit. It was not difficult to work on the dynamics. Walker wanted to know what to do. What had Guardiola seen? Where was the breach in the line? How did they save it?
Guardiola responded with a torrent of instructions, as he always does. He is never short of ideas. Usually, he passes them on to one or the other of his full-backs – the players closest to him – and they spread them to the rest of the team. This time, however, it was different.
Walker could see Guardiola’s lips moving. He could hear the words come out, roughly, above the din of cheering Chelsea fans. But there was a blank look of incomprehension on his face, as if Guardiola had accidentally addressed him in Catalan or given his instructions like a rap.
Walker frowned and stared at his trainer, in a futile attempt to make sense of it all. Whether what Guardiola said passed, put it into practice or not, moments later Walker was back on the sideline, this time with the ball in his hands. He took a few steps, then threw it long, deep into the penalty area. A while later the same thing happened again.
Manchester City, synonymous with sophistication, planning and command under Guardiola, the exceptional strategist of his generation, had resorted to the last roll of the dice in football, his last resort for the damned: the long touch.
In the biggest game in club history, in his own long-awaited return to the Champions League final, the system Guardiola has so obsessively, so painstakingly coded into his players’ double helixes for half a decade n hadn’t just failed. He had completely collapsed.
There is a reason why, in times of unrest, Manchester City players seek advice from the bench. For all that Guardiola’s teams are often called freewheeling, expressive, adventurous, the reality is – and it’s not a criticism – the opposite. Manchester City’s great strength is not its pioneering spirit. It is because he has the most detailed map.
Or rather, Guardiola does it. Much of what makes City so brilliant isn’t spontaneous, improvised virtuosity. Everything has been trained, refined and perfected. Those fluid passing exchanges, all players rushing into precise pockets of space to undo the fabric of a massive defense? It is not improvisation. It’s programming.
And so when things go wrong, when the plan doesn’t seem to be working, Guardiola’s players’ instinct is to ask for other directions. It’s hard to stare at City for a while and not notice. It’s a reflex now: when a problem arises, the first reflex is always to turn to the bench, to be informed. There isn’t much room for personal interpretation. Under Guardiola, the system is king, and Guardiola is the system.
He is not unique in this. Football in the 21st century is a cult of the supermanager: not only Guardiola but José Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, Julian Nagelsmann and Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, the brand new European champion.
They have different approaches and different philosophies, but they are united by a fundamental conviction: that at bottom, football is a game of competing systems. What defines the identity of winner and loser are the choreographed movements and detailed passing patterns and tactics of each team. They all believe that the coach has the power, that the one with the best system will win.
And yet, that doesn’t quite paint the picture. It would be perfectly valid to analyze Chelsea’s slender and yet convincing victory at Porto on Saturday as the story of two systems: the one instilled by Tuchel, brilliantly designed and deftly executed, overcoming the one unexpectedly – and to some extent inexplicable – adopted by Guardiola. .
Rather than stick to the approach that had made City almost untouchable in England since January, Guardiola chose to do without the services of a starting midfielder. Instead, he played Ilkay Gundogan in that role, with an array of creative playmakers and ball players around him.
The temptation is to assess this call in psychological terms. It was Guardiola questioning himself, as he tends to do in this competition, because he’s so obsessed with winning. Or, conversely, it was Guardiola distilling his beliefs down to their purest essence, trying to use the grandest stage of all to present his latest idea, the level supercoach’s four-dimensional chess movement. boss.
In all likelihood, the rationale was probably more technical. Guardiola expected Tuchel to sit still and defend, which would have made a starting midfielder an unnecessary clutter. Instead, he would need more players who could work their way through Chelsea’s backline. It was, if we see the game as a struggle between systems, the logical movement.
The problem is, the game is not a struggle between systems. Or, at least, that’s not all. On a more fundamental level, a game is also a struggle between humans: a physiological, psychological, intensely and intimately personal struggle. It’s a review of your fitness and talent, your reactions and your determination. Chelsea’s system could have been better. But it was also the case, crucially, of its individuals.
Not just because, where City players seemed diminished by the opportunity, driven to frenzy by their desperation to deliver the club to their self-proclaimed fate, Chelsea seemed to be inspired by it.
Fresh and locally raised Reece James and Mason Mount got better with every passing minute. Scorer Kai Havertz made a performance statement, which justified captain César Azpilicueta’s claim that he will become a “superstar”. Jorginho looked unfazed. Antonio Rüdiger was nothing more than a steering wheel.
But more importantly was the fact that while the City players had to look to the bench to solve their problems, Chelsea had someone on the pitch to do it for them. Arsène Wenger probably underestimated him when he called N’Golo Kanté’s performance “incredible”.
With almost disturbing metronomic regularity, City built attacks only to find that at the key moment Kanté was there, just in the right place to win a tackle, just in the right angle to block a pass, just at the right time to interrupt the game. plan. At one point, it was as if someone had passed a script to Kanté. He did not wait for instructions from the side. He just went where the danger was and eliminated it.
Kanté was, in his own way, no less decisive here than Lionel Messi in the 2009 and 2011 finals, or Cristiano Ronaldo was in 2014. The fact that he is still cataloged as a midfielder means that it does not. will not be remembered as “the final Kanté”, but it would hardly be unjustified.
But to focus exclusively on his destructive capacities, as formidable as they are, is to do Kanté a disservice. He was also, often, the one who led Chelsea’s counterattacks. He determined the form of the midfielder. His death helped destabilize City’s defense. For a few minutes in the first half, he made a passable Frank Lampard impression, turning his hand to enter City’s penalty area, timing his run late.
He did what great midfielders do and changed shape as the flow of the game demanded. No wonder, as it tends to happen with Kanté, that a meme has popped up at some point detailing the great midfield trios of the recent past: Barcelona’s Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets; Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric of Real Madrid; and Kanté, all alone.
It was finally the difference on Saturday night. One team had Kanté on it, and the other didn’t. Perhaps there is a system that Guardiola could have conjured up to deny or circumvent it, but it’s not immediately clear what form that would take.
Even in the age of the supercoach, it’s not always the finest tactical details that alone explain a result. The system is not always king. A game can be defined by ideas, but it can also be defined by people. And when it does, visionaries on the sidelines don’t – can’t – have all the answers, because there are things that don’t show up on the cards, no matter how fine they are.