The joke had become the only hold for any non-Manchester City fan out there. The joke was that Pep Guardiola would always out-Pep himself in the Champions League, and find a new, and creative way to blow it for a team that probably should have won the trophy a while ago. The joke was certainly based off of fact, whether it was his no-holding midfielder ploy in the final in 2021 or Ilkay Gundogan as a winger in the quarterfinal in 2018, or removing all his attacking players last season with 10 minutes to ago against Madrid, Pep’s mind did seem to go rainbow spinning wheel at the worst, and biggest, times.
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But as City morphed into a fully-formed Death Star this season, showing all the things they could that they couldn’t before, and all the things they could do better than everyone else, rivals merely wished for Guardiola to come up with something, anything, that would short it out somehow. Play Erling Haaland in goal or see how many defenders he could turn into midfielders at once or try to make seven subs in the first half. And it felt like a complete loss of sense like that would be the scale needed to undo this City juggernaut.
More worryingly for anyone not clad in blue, was how easy Pep had seemed with City’s run in Europe. He barely changed a thing, or even make a substitution, as City dismantled Munich, and Madrid on the way to the Final. Sure, they sometimes flexed to a more defend-and-counter approach at times, but rarely did they ever get out of the 3-2-4-1 formation with John Stones moving from right back into midfield with the ball. It felt as if Pep finally realized he had the most talented players, the best team, and all he had to do was send them out there to do what he had drilled them to do over his entire tenure. They did, and no one got close to them.
Well, we almost had it.
It wasn’t a huge tweak, and it’s still unclear what Pep was so afraid of. This was Inter Milan after all, the third-best team in Italy, facing his side that had run over the best league in the world. This was not a team that Pep should have had to particularly plan for. Doing what City do had already turned Bayern and Real Madrid into ash, after all.
And yet maybe it was Inter’s five defenders, or their tenacious midfield, that caused Pep to push Stones even farther forward, and set up in possession in a 3-1-5-1 formation that choked off their own space. Stones can be a lot of things, he’s not a #8. With Gundogan mostly playing as a #10, Haaland had no real space to drop into off the front line. Kevin De Bruyne’s magic partially stems from the way he ghosts into space out wide when defenders can’t find him, not being stationed there. With Rodri being left alone right ahead of the defense, and Inter dropping off one of their two forwards to form a line of three in front of him, their only passing options were pretty harmless ones out wide. They couldn’t change the angles or interchange to get through Inter’s lines, but only around them.
In the first half, City generated only 0.47 xG, and 0.99 overall, which is microscopic compared to what they usually do. Yes, Inter can be a tenacious defensive team, but they weren’t faced with an array of problems to solve as was expected. It was pretty blunt, with only Haaland’s shot giving Inter keeper Andre Onana anything to do.
But this is still City, and they still contain an obscene amount of talent everywhere on the field. So even though the system and instructions given to them were a little weird, and not exactly what had gotten them there, Manuel Akanji can still step up, and hit an inch-perfect through-ball to Bernardo Silva. And even if the latter’s cross was cut out, it will still fall to Rodri, who has had a habit of crashing in a thunderbastard every so often, especially when City need it.
And they have Ederson in goal, one of the best in the world, to save them when Inter came looking for an equalizer. Even if the overall structure wasn’t set up to maximize what City are, they still have more than enough to provide more than enough moments to win:
It’s as if when Darth went on his own trip to protect the Death Star he also shot down Han and Luke, because y’know, he’s also the best pilot.
And City have the Treble. Whatever observers and history deems this era, and whatever the Premier League decides about their 115 counts of accused financial malpractice to assemble this team, they still assembled this team. Perhaps only through malfeasance can such a team be constructed, but it is a team to behold, even if it all ends up being deemed a fraud at some point. The trophies can be stripped in name, but not in feel. They were a team that could do anything it wanted whenever it wanted, even when the driver froze up. They played brilliant soccer at times, maybe the most stunning we’d seen. They could be simply functional when they had to as well. They could be ruthless and miserly and artful from one moment to the next.
If it does become a symbol of what’s wrong with the sport, and many will say it already has, it’ll still remain the ideal of what the game on the field could be. If sanctions one day mar or muddy the accomplishments on paper, we’ll all still know what they created in our minds.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.