Champions League

OPINION | Surprising tactical switch pays off in Pep Guardiola masterclass

Pep Guardiola (Getty Images)
Pep Guardiola (Getty Images)

Cape Town - "A leopard never changes its spots" is about as accurate of a description of Pep Guardiola's tactical approach to management as one can find.

The phrase explains the idea that one cannot change one's innate nature - and in Guardiola's case his philosophy on how his teams should play.

The 49-year-old is unrivalled as the most decorated manager in modern times with the only chink in his armour being his record in the Champions League.

Since winning two Champions League trophies within his first four years as a manager, Guardiola last lifted Europe's elite club trophy in 2011.

"He's always a little torn between paying extreme attention and respect to the strengths of the opposition - more so than against smaller teams - and sticking to his convictions and to a system he believes in," Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller said.

Tactical systems and principles are often more complex than a coach saying: "We're going with a 4-3-3 against their 4-2-3-1 formation". Players are given detailed instructions including where to exploit an opponent's weaknesses; how to nullify their strengths; patterns of play and how to create space.

So it's hardly the case that Guardiola never thinks about his opponents, it's just his preference to focus on his side and how they can dominate games.

Pep Guardiola record since leaving Barcelona:

Bayern Munich

2013/2014 Semi-final

Bayern lost 5-0 to Real Madrid on aggregate conceding four goals in the second leg at home despite having 69% possession. Guardiola used mostly an attacking 4-3-3 system.

2014/2015 Semi-final

Bayern lost 5-3 on aggregate to former side Barcelona despite having more possession in both legs. Guardiola used an attacking 4-3-3 system again.

2015/2016 Semi-final

Bayern lost to Atletico Madrid 2-2 (on away goals) despite having a massive average of 69% possession over both legs. Guardiola again used an attacking 4-3-3 system.

Man City

2016/2017 Round of 16

City lost to Monaco 6-6 (on away goals) with Guardiola naming an attacking 4-3-3 system in the second leg despite holding a 5-3 advantage. City also crashed out despite enjoying 60% possession

2017/2018 Quarter-final

City lost 5-1 to Liverpool with Guardiola's side having no answer for the Reds' counter-attacking tactics. City had an average of 62% possession playing a cautious 4-3-3 system.

2018/2019 Quarter-final

City lost 4-4 to Tottenham (on away goals) and named an unchanged 4-3-3 system when trying to overturn a 1-0 deficit. City had an average of 61% possession.

All of these results show that Guardiola-led teams - no matter the opposition - always try to outplay their opponents by dominating possession and pressing high in defence.

With a highly-talented team this works against the majority of teams but crucially, doesn't when up against players who firstly are at an elite level, clinical and can play their way out of a high press.

Guardiola now seems to have finally had a light-bulb moment against Real Madrid after their 2-1 away win where he played a 4-4-2 system with two wide attackers and without a conventional striker.

He admitted in a post-match interview that he decided to defend deep and attack in an unconventional way down the flanks to nullify Madrid's attacking play and strength in central defensive areas.

This is unheard of for the Catalan coach to alter his philosophy for any particular team.

After admitting he spent a full 10 days analysing Madrid... other teams should now be wary.

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