Here we go again -- another s-crappy final

Pep Guardiola-- the world’s greatest soccer coach, it seems -- had assured us: this Champions League final, his very own Manchester City against Chelsea, this would be a great “advert for football.”

That was a pretty silly thing to say for one as steeped in soccer knowledge as Pep. The record of soccer’s climactic games in recent years speaks loudly, starkly -- and surely unmistakably: such games are usually letdowns, and stand a pretty good chance of being downright awful.

Sure, Chelsea can feel pretty good about its win, silencing all the talk (and how increasingly boring that has become) of Pep’s brilliance. But just how good did Chelsea need to be to see off this pathetically incoherent Man City?

Actually, one goal was enough -- one very good goal from Kai Havertz, following a glorious assist from Mason Mount. Man City’s futile attempts to reply added up to just one shot on goal. Just one.

What a farce. What a fraud, come to that. Two of soccer’s super whizz-bang coaches, a host of the world’s best -- and highest-paid -- players, a gala occasion ... and we get crap.

A huge part of the blame for this debacle lies with Pep Guardiola. His genius led him to field a lineup and a formation that defied explanation. You’ll have read plenty about that, so I’ll not bore you (and myself) with the details.

Well, just one detail. Among his glittering roster, Guardiola had Sergio Aguero, one of the greatest and most reliable goalscorers in the history of the sport. Aguero sat on the bench for most of the game before getting on the field at the 77th minute.

The few minutes he played -- the few minutes he was grudgingly allowed to play by Guardiola -- were Aguero’s farewell to Man City after a dazzling 10-year career with the club. He is now joining Barcelona, where -- whatever the treatment he gets -- it cannot possibly be worse than the neglect showered on him this past season by Guardiola.

I’ve followed that neglect closely -- as I’ve followed Aguero’s entire career, since his 2003 debut as a 15-year-old with Argentina’s Independiente club. Guardiola’s behavior has been, to my mind, unforgivable. Aguero became a regular figure on the bench, a lonely figure, social distancing ensured that. But the bigger distancing came from Guardiola who found it difficult to even discuss the player. Questions from journalists wanting to know when Aguero was going to return to the team were met with cold, curt, impatient answers -- it was as though Guardiola already considered him an ex-player.

I found Guardiola’s stance inhumane. It could -- possibly -- be explained (but never excused) as a brutal necessity for the team’s success. The team was winning -- was running away with the Premier League --without Aguero and his goals.

Guardiola had his new system in place, and there was simply no place in it for Aguero. Guardiola, it appears, has discovered a way to win that must not be modified. The system is all. So Aguero must be sacrificed.

A theory that makes a certain sense, and that satisfies my dim view of Guardiola’s conduct. There’s only one problem with it. It doesn’t stand up. Because Guardiola, for this crucial game, did modify his system. Big time. He was accused of “tinkering” with it, but his changes went much deeper than trivial adjustments. To leave out captain Fernandinho and Rodri was a seismic change. Both players can be classified as holding midfielders; their absence meant City were playing without any midfield defense.

How brilliant did Chelsea have to be to exploit that? And of course such a fundamental upheaval had other effects. Midfield was now the province of three attacking players. Ahead of them were three ... er, well, what can one call them? Among them was Raheem Sterling, the only genuine forward to be seen.

As to who was playing where and doing what, I’m not up to that sort of tactical cleverness. Does it matter, anyway? City looked awful and lost the game 0-1, registering only one shot on goal in 97 minutes.

In fact, Man City and Chelsea combined for a massive total of three shots on goal in the entire game -- one shot on target every half hour. Some advert, Pep.

I’ll take a closer look at one incident. One that must surely have greatly peeved Man City fans: Antonio Rudiger’s 56th minute clash with Man City captain Kevin De Bruyne. Viewed live, this came over to me as a sure-fire red card. But Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz decided a yellow-card caution was enough. So, even more viewing of the clash. It didn’t get any better.

(A curious aside: for this enormously important moment of the game, we were given just three replays: one apparently from a high-flying helicopter which was of little help, another from an angle so low that the crucial head area was almost out of the picture, and finally one that did allow us to take measure of Rudiger’s action. We saw those replays just once. They were not repeated. Why not, you may wonder.)

It was Rudiger’s shoulder that did the damage. His action looked cruder and cruder as I replayed the heck out of the incident, until I began to be certain it was deliberate.

But intent is not mentioned in the rules. The main concern here is whether Rudiger’s action endangered De Bruyne’s safety. We know now that it clearly did -- De Bruyne’s injuries included a broken nose and an “orbital fracture of the left eye socket.”

Referee Mateu Lahoz would not have known the medical details. But he must surely have been aware of the ferocity of Rudiger’s crunching body block.

So how come he didn’t show the red? Because this was the UCL Final. No referee will feel inclined to “ruin” a grand final by reducing it to an 11 vs. 10 game. This is a problem that the sport of soccer has, one that has never been faced up to: of finding a way to punish a bad foul while allowing the offending team to continue with 11 men. It is a problem that will inevitably influence a referee’s call -- particularly in showcase games.

Maybe, then, a referee’s decision ensured Chelsea’s win? I don’t really think so. The way Man City was playing, they’d have found it difficult to beat an 8-man Chelsea.

For me, the biggest question has to be leveled at Guardiola: why no Aguero? To claim an attacking approach is fine, but to then leave one of the sport’s greatest goalscorers on the bench is a glaring contradiction ... made much, much more nonsensical by Guardiola’s refusal to use Aguero as a sub until the 77th minute.

Before the game, Guardiola had said “If Aguero is going to help us score goals he is going to play,” then adding what almost sounded like a threat, “But it's the final of the Champions League.”

Man City labored on for 77 sterile minutes (1 shot on goal!) before Guardiola -- “the defining tactical brain of his age” as The Observer called him -- would admit that a goal from Aguero would be a good idea. It didn’t happen.

The game was a sorry occasion for all the Man City players, but an intensely sad one for Aguero: the end of his 10 years with the club. His chance to show what he can do, what he is supremely good at, was squelched by Guardiola’s faith in a system that so obviously wasn’t working.

I’ll confess, I have no interest whatever in Guardiola’s systems -- or any other coach’s for that matter. A pox on all of them. When a system is held in such esteem that it can banish a great player like Aguero, I have no hesitation in damning that system and the coach who persists with it.

The final word on this woeful occasion goes to England’s Michael Owen, a pretty good goalscorer in his playing days. This was Owen’s tribute to Aguero: “One of the Premier League's all-time greats, Sergio Aguero is set to leave Man City at the end of the season. What a player. He's been an absolute joy to watch.”

A joy to watch. Exactly what this UCL final was not. System-dominated soccer -- which ultimately means coach-dominated soccer -- will never be a joy to watch. The real beauty and delight, the pulsating thrills of the game, come from, always have come from, the players.

I did believe, once, in Guardiola as a great coach -- not a genius, but a man who revered the game and made the right decisions. I don’t believe that any more. At the moment I am appalled at his treatment of Aguero -- as a world-class player, but more so as a human being who deserved something better than a measly 20 minutes at the end of a tawdry game, to mark his departure from Man City.

Aguero moves on to Barcelona and, presumably, to Lionel Messi. There is promise there. Buena suerte! Sergio.

16 comments about "Here we go again -- another s-crappy final".
  1. cony konstin, June 1, 2021 at 6:08 p.m.

    There was no salsa.. it was like watching grass grow. The Cruz Azul vs Santos Laguna game was more exciting to watch and it wasn't spectacular football. I think besides the boring and predictable coaching styles the players were just tired out from playing so many games. 

  2. Andrew Sanford replied, June 1, 2021 at 6:14 p.m.

    Yes Cruz Azul game could be more exciting at times, but the quality of football isn't the same. Both teams launch the ball forward for every chance they can. That is a specific regional style of play. That is not UCL style 

  3. Andrew Sanford, June 1, 2021 at 6:12 p.m.


    are you upset at Pep or the DeBruyne injury?

    From what I watched, the match was open all game long. Both teams were compelled to attack throughout the match. I was fortunate to watch it at a sports bar; and I must note that the crowd seemed to enjoy the game (much more so than the last few UCL finals). 

    This seems to be an indictment of Pep for losing, not for his prediction. How would you respond had City blown them out? 

  4. beautiful game replied, June 1, 2021 at 10:58 p.m.

    De Bruyne as a false #9 made no sense. His last two performances against Chelsea were utterly consistent in its inconsistencies.

  5. Richard Scully, June 1, 2021 at 6:22 p.m.

    The inherent problem is in the antiquated rules of soccer.  See the most recent college lacrosse finals or any NFL game as a guide to governing bodies committed to adjusting rules with the goal of enhancing the enjoyment of fans. This stands in stark contrast to the negative rules in soccer, designed to put the offense at a disadvantage compared to the defense. See the proposed Wegner rule on offsides as a potential step in the right direction. 

  6. John Daly, June 1, 2021 at 7:24 p.m.

    I have avoided columns by Mr Gardiner because of his anti coaches stance but chose to read this one to hear what this "expert" had to say. "A pox on them" he says when referring to coaches. As someone who has devoted forty years to coaching I am offended that someone with such a high platform as Soccer America chooses to disparriage coaches so frequently. His comments appal me. The easiest position to be a loudmouth is from off the field with no actual responsibility to make decisions and face the music when those decisions are wrong.

    Back to reading almost all that SA presents with the exception of Mr Gardiner!

  7. Ginger Peeler replied, June 2, 2021 at 1:53 p.m.

    Mr Daly,  you need to do your homework. Mr Gardiner has been an active proponent of the beautiful game for probably longer than you've been alive.

    He "calls them as he sees them". Lots of us may disagree, over the years, with some of the things he says, but we realize he's approaching the subject with years and years of experience. No doubt you could learn a lot from him. Sadly, it's your loss. However, I do suggest you learn about those you are thinking about attacking before jumping in with both feet!  You won't end up looking quite so  foolish that way. 

  8. R2 Dad replied, June 4, 2021 at 12:19 p.m.

    If there weren't so many bad coaches out there, you might have a leg to stand on, JD. Maybe in your little neck of the woods you don't see it. But club, highschool and college soccer coaches are mostly overlearned, overducated and underexperienced people from what I can tell in my metro area. Wish it wasn't so. 
    I addition, the absolute worst coaches I have seen have often had the best players but they are poisoning them with their anti-soccer attitude to the game and life.

  9. Ben Myers, June 1, 2021 at 9:29 p.m.

    My takeaways from watching Chelsea v Man City.
    1. Guardiola's lineup was absolutely baffling.  Sterling did not deserve the start based on recent performance.  Rodri and Fernandinho were left out.  Gündoğan, as good as he is, is simply not a holding midfielder.  Guardiola wasted Auguero's talents all year long.
    2. Guardiola, despite his numerous achievements, has feet of clay.
    3. Lampard developed all his midfielders to be as good as they are.  Kante is the prime example.  Once "merely" a holding midfielder, he now makes dangerous delayed runs and his passing, though not perfect, is very very good. 
    4. Tuchel rejiggered the defense, something Lampard did not know how to do, and turned on the jets for all his midfielders and front runners.  With Kante in the mix, the Chelsea defense was lights out. 
    5. The Chelsea players simply outran the slower Man City team.  All Chelsea needs to do next is improve composure on the ball in front of the goal and finish more goals.  The talent is there, but for some reason the deadly finishing is not. Not yet.

  10. Peter Bechtold replied, June 1, 2021 at 9:53 p.m.

    Well said,Ben M., except for Lampard's role re midfielders. Konte came from Leicester and the French NT. M.Mount is the only midfielder brought along by Lampard. But he, and other Chelsea players, were "rebuilt" by Tuchel and given very specific instructions to maximize their(limited) talents. I am curious as to what will happen when Tuchel gets to Add/Drop players in the next transfer window.

  11. humble 1, June 2, 2021 at 12:52 a.m.

    I wouldn't be so harsh on Guardiola.  His track record as a coach, well, you cannot take away the trophys. Winning leagues as he has in Spain, Germany, England, already two UCLs. albiet with Messi doing magic to turn posession into attack. Messi only wins one other UCL trophy without him, and does not get to any other UCL finals beside that one win.  Guardiola got them to the final, a one-off, they do not take home the silverware, they do take home probably more than $100M, only a bit less than Chelsea.  Klopp lost the final before his first win, Guardiola is still within striking distance, with a relatively young team.  There is a new kid in town that has come up with a good foil for his posession tactics, it is the German coaches, something of a challenge for him. He, and a lot of other coaches need to come up with an adjustment, doable it is.  Not time to panic.  All good!  Carry on!     

  12. Mike Lynch, June 2, 2021 at 1 a.m.

    Another example why tactical fouls need a rule change ... something more deterring, something for the punishment to fit the crime such as sin bin or automatic free kick from anywhere on the penalty arc. Enact either of these two and the behavior will change immediately ... and the offended teams ( and their fans) get to see the goalscoring opportunities they earned!

  13. frank schoon, June 2, 2021 at 12:10 p.m.

    It was a disappointing final, but I wasn't surprised especially when you have a coach Thomas Tuchel whose lives by defense and counter-attacking soccer involved. Coaches that rely upon that kind of soccer don't have the brains nor deeper insight, instead they keep it simple... wait for a mistake and head for the endline and you can be succesful ,sometimes...That's soccer!

    The goal scored was due to a bad marking mistake- Havertz was inside the defender....This SIMPLE defensive mistake can be seen every week at youth soccer games. That's about all Chelsea had to show for....On the other hand Guardiola, way of coaching takes more into account, more thinking, more details, more elements of the game, but he lost, so what?  

    I'm not going to question, Guardiola, about why he didn't play this or that particular player. What I do know, is that regardless of who he played, the bottomline, is that City had CREATED CHANCHES to score and that is what soccer is all about. They didn't go in, so what, that's soccer....

    What I noticed from City's attack is the lack of penetration down the flanks. I never saw a diagonal pass from the centerlane going behind the back into the corner, or a wing penetrating with the ball down the flank. All the passes to the wing went to the feet resulting with his back facing downfield. 

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  14. frank schoon, June 2, 2021 at 12:32 p.m.

    I was never impressed by Sterling and I always wonder why City ever obtained him...he's lacks imagination and nice one on one technical skills on the wing, but he has turbo. In this game, his offensive weaknesses showed and I'm not surprised Guardiola wants to trade him in a deal to get Kane from Hotspurs. Likewise DeBruyn didn't get a shot off, because of the lack of penetration from the wings..The options for shots on goal were cut down.

    My worry about this game, what the college coaches take away from this game.....defense and counter-attacking soccer and for the matter pro-coaches as well.  I hope Tuchel will coach a MLS team for we have enough Turbo in our ranks. I much prefer a coach like Guardiola to come to the MLS who actually deals more with the many real elements of the game to make our players better....

    Sorry to say, Pulisic has won a cup which looks nice onb his resume, but having started at Dortmunt under Tuchel, then moving on to play in England under Tuchell, leaves me not very happy for his further development.

    Having watched this game, makes a little sad for I see soccer has gone down a bit in quality again, for it seems like we're back to run rabbit run, turbo and counterattacking soccer. The way it was before Guardiola set the world on fire with Barcelona, employing smart ,technical midfielders , ball control and good soccer which influenced the game for a decade.....This is why I can do with No Tuchels and no Klop and No Bielsa creating foam on the mouth soccer......

  15. humble 1 replied, June 2, 2021 at 6:51 p.m.

    Agree with your Guardiola words, only I like diversity in soccer and to see the outcomes and the game evolve.  Guardiola needs to evolve a bit, maybe.  Maybe the tactical fouls are a bit of a cop-out and they should plug those holes earlier.  I do however think that when it comes to big games you put the boys in that paved the road and let the chips fall where they may, otherwise you risk becoming the new tinkerman.  Seeing camera pans of Fernandinho and Aguero watching from the bench, and watching one of the best if not the best AM in the game, de Bruyne, play F  was nothing less than surreal.  On Sterling, thanks to his departure, Liverpool returned to their heights, those that Man City still seek, he is not a player than comes up big in big games, need I say more? 

  16. Kent James, June 3, 2021 at 12:54 p.m.

    PG's criticism of Pep is harsh, but fair.  If you field a team filled with attacking midfielders but no finishers, you get a lot of possession without a lot of goals.  I appreciate Pep's risk-taking (fielding a completely new formation for the final) but once they went behind, the game changed and Pep did not adjust.  Given that MC lost 2x to Chelsea in the last 6 week prior to the game, trying something different wasn't crazy. And until the goal, I thought MC was more likely to score.  But you also have to give credit to Chelsea's defense; they were able to snuff out most MC attacks without conceding a shot, and that wasn't for MC's lack of trying.

    As for the DeBruyne injury, in real time, I thought a yellow card was appropriate (it seemed like a tactical obstruction, not an attempt at serious foul play), though as PG says, we did not see it very well; if he was trying to take out DeBruyne, a red card would have been in order.  But PG is exactly right that giving a red card (especially in the final) has too many game chaning (and not for the better) implications.  I think the red card should eject the player, but if a team has subs left, they should be allowed do substitute them (meaning that most teams would not have to play a man down for very long, if at all; offending players would be harshly punished, but the team (and the game) would not be as affected. 

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