Pep Guardiola and his players, out of time and answers. Credit ... Pool photo by David Ramos
Walker frowned and looked, ha rd, at his home.coach, in a futile attempt to make sense of it all. Whether what Guardiola said passed, whether put 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.
Manchester City, this word for sophistication and planning and command under Guardiola, the exceptional strategist of his generation, the great modern brain of sport, had resorted to the final of football r ull of the dice, his last resort for the damned:the long throw-in.
In the biggest game in club history, in his own much-anticipated return to the Champions League final , the system that Guardiola so obsessively, so painstakingly coded into his players' double helixes for half a decade hadn't simply failed. He had completely broken down.
There's a reason Manchester City players in times of turmoil seek advice from the bench. For all that Guardiola's teams are often referred to as 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 's the most detailed map.
Or, rather, Guardiola has it. Much of what makes City so brilliant isn't spontaneous, improvised virtuosity. Everything hasbeen trained, perfected and perfected. Those smooth exchanges of passes, all the players rushing into precise pockets of space to undo the fabric of a massive defense? This is not improvisation. It's programming.
And so when things go wrong, when the plan doesn't seem to be working, Guardiola's players reflex is to ask other directions. It's hard to stare at City for a while and not notice. It is a reflex now: when a problem arises, the first reflex is always to turn to the bench, to be updated. There is no real room for personal interpretation. Under Guardiola, the system is king, and Guardiola is the system.
He is not unique in this area. Football in the 21st century is a cult of the supermanager: not only Guardiola but Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and AntonioConte, Julian Nagelsmann and Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, the freshly mint ed champion of Europe. Image Chelsea 's Thomas Tuchel brought his family to the pitch to celebrate after the final, a year later consoling him after his defeat. Credit ... Photo of the swimming pool by Pierre-Philippe Marcou Image Tuchel with Roman Abramovich. Tuchel told reporters after the match that it was the first time he had met the owner who hired him in January. Credit ... Pool photo by Michael Steele
They have distinct Persian approaches and philosophies, but they are united by a fundamental belief: that at heart, football is a game of competing systems. This defines the identity of winner defeated choreographed movements patterns detailed tactical passing each team. all believe that this is the power trainer, 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, surpassing the one adopted unexpectedly - and to a certain extent. inexplicably measure - by Guardiola.
Rather than sticking to itAn approach that had made City almost uchable 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 who was questioning himself, as he tends to do in this competition, because he is so obsessed with winning . Or, conversely, it was Guardiola distilling his beliefs down to their purest essence, trying to use the biggest stage of all to present his latest idea, the chess movement in four dimensions of the boss level super coach.
According to allIn all likelihood, the reasoning was probably more technical. Guardiola expected Tuchel to sit down and defend, which would have made a midfielder an unnecessary mbre encu. 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. Image Reece James, one of Chelsea's local champions. Credit ... Pool photo by Manu Fernandez
The problem is that 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.: physiological, psychological, intensely and intimately personal. It is an examination of your physical form and your talent, your reactions and your determination. Chelsea's system could have been better. But also, above all, its individuals.
Not just because, where City players seemed to be diminished on occasion, driven to a frenzy by their desperation to deliver the club her self-proclaimed fate , Chelsea seemed to take inspiration from it.
Reece James and Mason Mount, fresh-fa locally sourced and raised, improved with every passing minute. Scorer Kai Havertz made a performance statement, which justified his captain Cesar Azpilicueta's claim that he will become a "superstar ". Jorginho looked unfazed. Antonio Rudiger was notnothing but a shuttlecock.
But more importantly, the fact that City players had to look to the bench to solve their problems , Chelsea had someone on the pitch to do it for them. Arsene Wenger probably underestimated him when he called N 'Golo Kante ' s performance "incredible ". that at the key moment, Kante 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 shot. At one point, it was as if someone had passed one to Kante. He didn 't wait for instructions from the side. He just went to where the danger was and took it out.
Kante was, in his own way, no less decisive here than Lionel Messi was in 2009 and Finals 2011, where Cristiano Ronaldo was in 2014. The fact that it is always pigeonhole as starting midfielder means this will not stay in memoirs like "Kante's finale ", but that would hardly be unjustified. Image Kante seemed to understand City's plan as well, if not better, than his players. Credit. .. Pool photo by Michael Steele
But to focus exclusively on his destructive abilities, formidable though they were, did Kante a disservice. He was also, often, the one leading Chelsea's counterattacks. He determined the form of the midfield.rain. His death helped destabilize City's defense. For a few minutes in the first half, he made a passable impression of Frank Lampard, turning his hand to enter City's penalty area, timing his run late.
He did what great midfielders do and changed shape as the course of the game demanded. No wonder, as it tends to happen with Kante, that a meme 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 Kante, all alone.
It was finally the difference on Saturday night. One team had Kante on it, and the other didn't. Perhaps there is a system that Guardiola could have conjured up to deny it or bypass it, but it is not immediately clear whatWhat form it would take.
Even in the age of the supercoach, it's not always the finest tactical details alone that 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 maps, no matter how fine they are. .