Liverpool exploit Man City's tactics as Pep Guardiola's vanity costs him again
LIVERPOOL, England -- Pep Guardiola should know by now that you cannot take liberties against good teams in the Champions League.
Perhaps Manchester City's benign route to the last eight this season has lulled the Catalan into a false sense of security with his team, but the traps always lie in wait at the business end of this competition, and Guardiola fell into one yet again as Liverpool inflicted a morale-sapping 3-0 defeat on the Premier League leaders that leaves them with a mountain to climb in Tuesday's second leg.
This tie is not over by any means, but that is in spite of, rather than because of, Guardiola's game plan at Anfield.
The former Barcelona coach has insisted time and again that he will not compromise his principles, but is it a coincidence that he has not taken a team to the Champions League final since 2011? Or is it merely down to better teams and better coaches exploiting the weaknesses in his armoury?
Was his approach only a success with Barcelona because Lionel Messi was part of his team? At Bayern Munich, with all the resources and strength that comes with managing the German giants, Guardiola could not get beyond the semifinal stage during his three years at the Allianz Arena. And now at City, where he has spent almost £450 million on players since arriving in the summer of 2016, Guardiola has a round-of-16 elimination against Monaco on his CV and now a 3-0 quarterfinal first-leg defeat at Anfield.
As soon as Guardiola's post-Barcelona teams have met a team of equal standing in the Champions League, they have faltered.
It is evident that Guardiola will not send any of his teams out to stifle a game, play percentages and happily emerge with a goalless draw. He is not Jose Mourinho, and he has been celebrated for that on many occasions this season, but Guardiola needs a touch of Mourinho in his tactics at this stage of the Champions League.
He also needs to cut out the tinkering and inexplicable selections that compromised his City team before a ball had even been kicked at Anfield. There were so many head-scratching selections in Guardiola's lineup.
Did City need both Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho in defensive midfield -- the two players looked like old men as they were repeatedly forced onto the back foot by Liverpool -- and why was Kevin De Bruyne left looking confused by his role?
It was at the back that City were most exposed by Guardiola's game plan, however. Laporte looked clueless at left-back against the pace and trickery of Mohamed Salah, and Walker did not know whether to stick or twist against Mane and the overlapping Andy Robertson.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pressed and harassed Gundogan and Fernandinho, while Silva, lauded for his star show at Stoke recently, was less able to make a difference when it mattered on a big Champions League night at Anfield.
But back to Guardiola. His record against Jurgen Klopp now reads six defeats in 13 games, so the German clearly knows how to beat the City manager. It was the same high-intensity pressing game that triumphed in the league in January that accounted for City in this game. Klopp did not need a Plan B because he knew that Guardiola does not have one.
In 2013-14, Guardiola's Bayern suffered a 5-0 aggregate defeat against Real Madrid in the semifinals after being outfoxed by Carlo Ancelotti and Cristiano Ronaldo. A year later, a 3-0 semifinal first-leg defeat in Barcelona was followed by a 3-2 home win in Bavaria, but it was a still a 5-3 aggregate defeat, with an inability to keep it tight, or score, away from home proving Bayern's undoing. His final crack with Bayern resulted in a semifinal exit on away goals to Atletico Madrid, but the 1-0 defeat away from home in the first leg proved crucial.
No away goal, no clean sheet. That was a common theme long before he came to City, who crashed out in the round of 16 after a 6-6 aggregate draw with Monaco -- the three goals conceded in a 5-3 first-leg win at the Etihad doing the damage.
So Klopp and Liverpool knew what to expect: Guardiola's City would give them the chances, and they gleefully took them.
Had Guardiola taken fewer risks, not gambled on Laporte or the Gundogan-Fernandinho axis in midfield, his team would have had a greater chance of emerging from Anfield with a positive result. But his vanity led to another case of liberties being taken against a dangerous opponent, and he now has a huge battle on his hands to prevent his seven-year wait for a Champions League final to stretch to eight.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_