It was May 27, 2009. Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Barcelona had reached the Champions League final, losing only their final group stage match against Shakhtar Donetsk. That year, the football world was always jaw-dropping at how Barcelona won. Teams were not only losing against them, but losing heavily. Aggregate scores like 6-3 and 5-1 against Lyon and Bayern Munich respectively at the knockout stages, meant Barca were favorites against Chelsea. Chelsea though, had a renowned defensive setup; Cole, Terry, Alex, Essien (as a CDM), proved impregnable at the Camp Nuo. The aftermath of the return fixture was dominated by Tom Henning Ovrebo and Iniesta’s equalizer (fair enough). But Pep had a problem to address before the final.
Barca played that game with only 3 real defenders and 2 of them were not going to be available for the final. Abidal was sent off and Alves took a third yellow in the competition. Marquez was out for the rest of the season. Barca was left with Puyol, Pique, Sylvinho (aged 35 then) and Martin Caceres (who was having a terrible season) for the final. Going against a Manchester United side with a prolific attack in Ronaldo, Rooney and Giggs, the pundits had Barca’s defense all figured out. But Pep Guardiola, the greatest Manager of his generation, had other ideas.
Pep decided the game on paper, by conjuring a tactic that will send home Manchester United disunited. It looked frail on paper though I must admit; two veterans, Puyol and Sylvinho, on the flanks against Ronaldo and Giggs … ridiculous! Yaya Toure then had to replace Puyol in the heart of defense and his position was to be held by Busquets who had only been promoted to first team that season. The rest was a Pep tactical masterclass and a champions league title.
Fast forward to 2017 and many pundits still think to find a weakness in Pep’s team is to look at his back four and his goalkeeper; the high line they keep … a goalkeeper who plays out from the back. In his first season, the problem his team had was more of not being able to finish chances in my opinion. Yes, City had fullbacks who were aged, but most of the games City lost or drew, they lost or drew because they failed to take their chances. Pep said this many times in his press conferences. When he went on a 10-games winning streak (in all competitions) in his first season, he got carried away (he confirmed this in his interview with Gary Lineker) and underrated the intensity & the physicality of the EPL. He could get away with a game or two with those aged fullbacks, but missed chances always made his defensive setup look bad. Believers in the good old theory about the EPL, that “to win the EPL, you need world class defenders and a “De Gea” goalkeeper” went like … “didn’t I tell you?!” Well, you did, but you didn’t think City’s defense can’t go on a 16-games winning streak.
We can all agree Ederson and Walker have made this City team better, but it’s the same slow paced, hot headed Otamendi in the back four, and a Delph, who is not a traditional left back. Give this back four to any other Manager and the story will certainly not be 16 straight wins in the most competitive league in the world. When the season started, the pundits kept saying “if Kompany can stay fit” and they’ve swallowed their words because Kompany hasn’t been fit and this team keeps going. When Stones got injured, they said that this City team is now going to struggle at the back because Mangala, Otamendi’s clone (just a bit faster), was no good, but the team keeps going.
Well, let’s keep questioning Pep’s defense.