A defiant Pep Guardiola has joked about “overthinking” the Champions League knockout stage in the past with “stupid tactics”, but the Manchester City manager insisted he will not change his approach.
City host Atlético Madrid in Tuesday’s quarter-final first leg with Guardiola intent on leading them to a first triumph in the competition. They reached last season’s final but the manager was criticised for not choosing a recognised holding midfielder, dropping his regular left-back, João Cancelo, and selecting an out-of-favour Raheem Sterling, who had played only eight minutes of the semi-final victory over Paris Saint-Germain.
City lost 1-0 to Chelsea, with Cancelo’s replacement, Oleksandr Zinchenko, failing to mark Kai Havertz when the latter ran through to score the winner. Guardiola was also scrutinised for fielding Ilkay Gündogan on the left at Liverpool when City lost 3-0 in a last-eight first leg in 2018, playing a three-man defence before being eliminated two years ago by Lyon, and for dropping Kevin De Bruyne at Tottenham 12 months before, failing to score there and being subsequently knocked out on away goals.
Perhaps referencing these defeats, Guardiola offered a wry response to his critics. “In the Champions League I always overthink,” the Catalan said. “I always create new tactics and ideas, and tomorrow you will see a new one. I overthink a lot, that’s why I have very good results in the Champions League. I love it. It would be boring if I always played the same way. If people think I will play the same against Atlético and Liverpool [City’s next opponent], well, I don’t think like that because the movements from Liverpool are completely different than Atlético – especially because the players are all different.
“Every player has a mother and father and the mother and father give different personalities to the players. That’s why I love to overthink and create stupid tactics, and when we don’t win I am punished. Tonight I will take inspiration and I’m going to do incredible tactics tomorrow – we play with 12 tomorrow.”
Atlético’s penchant for using tactical fouls and pressurising the referee was apparent in the 1-0 victory at Manchester United that took them through in the last round. Yet Guardiola respects the Spanish champions and indicated he would have no concern using a similar approach.
“We’ll have to do the same to defend our position,” he said. “I’m not going to judge for one second what they do, just try and get a result on Tuesday then to go to Madrid [for the return leg].”
Guardiola pointed to November’s 2-0 Premier League win at United. “I don’t know what playing ugly is. Bernardo [Silva] spent four minutes in the corner at Old Trafford [at the end]. So, defend our position. That’s all I’m here to talk about: what we try to play. I never judge the opponent, what they do and try to do – they try to do it to win.”
Guardiola has faced Diego Simeone’s team three previous times – when in charge of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, losing with the latter side in the 2016 Champions League semi-finals on away goals.
“It has not been very often because we do not play in the same country. In the Champions League we’ve met just once,” the 51-year-old said. “I think after watching Atlético, there is a misconception about the way he plays. It’s more offensive than people could believe. He doesn’t want to take the risk in the build-up, but after they have quality and play really well in the final third.
“They don’t want to take risks, but when the ball is over our halfway, the quality of the players they have and how competitive they are … they know it depends on the position of the ball and the movement. They know how they have to play in these moments. It depends on where the ball is, the moment of the game: winning or losing, last minutes or early minutes, beginning of the second half. In these moments they are really good.”
Silva recognised that Atlético are a tough opponent but was confident City will progress. “They’re a very competitive side, very organise with a very specific style of play. I’m pretty sure it won’t be easy for us but if we follow Pep’s plan and do our jobs it is going to work out,” said the Portuguese forward.
Of Silva’s comments Guardiola said: “It surprised me that he said that as we haven’t spoken about it yet. But he knows me – of course I have a plan but in this competition, I learn that the plan is important … don’t give an inch, defend when you have to, attack.
“I take responsibility on my shoulders but to the players I say: ‘You are the guys who have to win out there.’ They’ve done it before and they have to do it again.”