Pep Guardiola addressed the elephant in the room, patted him on the trunk and fed him some peanuts ahead of Manchester City’s Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid.
A well-known tale of his record-breaking coaching career is his ability to raise tactical eyebrows ahead of major European matches – an oft-cited reason for the Catalan’s failure to win the Champions League after a second success in three seasons with Barcelona back in 2011.
“In the Champions League I always think too much. I always create new tactics and new ideas and tomorrow we will see a new one,” he told reporters, brimming with sarcasm and mischief.
“You have to adapt and adapt. That’s why I like to think and come up with stupid tactics. Tonight I’m going to be inspired and tomorrow I’m going to do incredible tactics. We play with 12!”
Unfortunately for Phil Foden, City had to abide by the match rules and pick 11 which meant the England international was on the bench.
MORE: Man City vs. Atletico as it happened: De Bruyne finally breaks through Simeone’s wall
However, that got him into the game and immediately made a sensational impression – with a great assist for Kevin De Bruyne to score the only goal of the game.
This felt like a justification for Guardiola’s “inspiration” and “incredible tactics” in his highly anticipated fourth joust with Diego Simeone, although the “overthink” critics might suggest it would have all been a lot easier if the City boss had just chosen one of the most exceptional young talents in world football from kick-off.
What were Pep Guardiola’s tactics against Atletico Madrid?
Aside from thinking about how City’s shape-shifting attack might go, pre-match consideration was also given to exactly what defensive roles were assigned when the team sheets fell into the media room of the Etihad Stadium.
Coincidentally, none of the back four played in the position they took in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Burnley.
Aymeric Laporte returned to his favorite spot on the left centre-back, while his weekend partner Nathan Ake shifted to left-back.
This meant that Joao Cancelo was replaced as right-back in place of the suspended Kyle Walker. John Stones, who filled in for Walker in the previous round at Sporting CP, joined Laporte in the middle.
If that sounds like unnecessary tinkering, it actually gave the City defense a much better balance, with players working on their natural side in a game where they would always see a lot of the ball and be asked to build up attacks.
MORE: Guardiola vs. Simeone is the missing rivalry of this era
Ake, an unannounced 2020 purchase from Bournemouth, has been outstanding. His four clearances and three interceptions were more than any other City player, as he consistently smeared away any hint of danger.
Cancelo, as left-back, was City’s most versatile and unpredictable attacking weapon, while Laporte and Stones each smoothly tapped past 100 passes. Stones made 83 of his 110 in the Atletico half.
Guardiola recognized that patience would be the key and if that left any spoilsports on the bench then so be it.
Why didn’t Phil Foden start?
If it became clear soon enough that four ticks could be placed next to Guardiola’s defensive calls, the same could not be said for City’s attack.
The hosts did not get a shot on goal before half-time. Nor did they create a clear opportunity while dining on a diet of long-term speculative efforts and snapshot blocking.
It screamed for Foden’s creativity, but that will also be the case in the matches of the next week and a half. And they promise to be very important.
Liverpool travel to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday and the top two of the Premier League meet in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on April 16 – three days after City’s return leg at Wanda Metropolitano.
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) Apr 5, 2022
Guardiola has named Cancelo and Raheem Sterling as belonging to a group of first-teamers who don’t need much recovery time and can play virtually any game if needed.
Foden is one of the majority who has to manage his minutes wisely. He has started 19 of City’s 31 Premier League appearances this season and five of nine in the Champions League.
It’s impossible to imagine that he wouldn’t start against Liverpool as he has three goals and two assists in three unbeaten league games against Jurgen Klopp’s side. His first appearance against Atletico was not bad either.
MORE: Explaining the new rules around Champions League away goals
What happened when Foden replaced Man City?
Just over a minute into the field, Foden received a pass from Rodri in the half-turn, firing away from Geoffrey Kondogbia and targeting the goal to open an elusive pouch.
Reinildo decided to kneel bizarrely before this brilliance and got a pass through his legs, in the path of the onrushing De Bruyne, who did the rest.
7 – Phil Foden has assisted 7 goals in the @ChampionsLeaguewith only Cesc Fàbregas scoring more goals in the league for English clubs when he was 21 and under:
10 – Cesc Fabregas
7 – Phil Foden
6 – Theo Walcott
5 – Raheem Sterling
5 – Trent Alexander-Arnold
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) Apr 5, 2022
“He has a special quality. His reception is always progressive,” said Guardiola, reflecting on how Foden was immediately aware of the speed of the game.
“His pace in the first steps is tremendous. He had the composure to give Kevin an incredible assist. Phil was brilliant.”
He wasn’t ready there. In the 80th minute, Foden ghosted past Kondogbia on the right and again Reinildo couldn’t control him. That attack ended when Stefan Savic brilliantly blocked a goal-bound shot from De Bruyne. It could have been the band.
Three minutes before the end, Foden rolled out a wonderful pass with the outside of his left foot, which blocked another shot by De Bruyne. Every time he got the ball, he seemed to carve pieces out of Atlético’s previously impenetrable defensive wall.
Why Guardiola’s switches were part of the master plan
Of all the ways Guardiola could have beaten Simeone in this first installment of a quarter-final at stake, few would have made smart substitutions.
Being smart with the bank is not something the City boss is known for. In fact, much to the chagrin of some fans, he occasionally doesn’t use it at all.
The recent 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace was a prime example of this, with an increasingly frustrated starting boss staying on the pitch as Guardiola didn’t want to disrupt their rhythm.
He knew, however, that something different was needed for Simeone’s Atleti’s unique challenge, with Foden emerging alongside Gabriel Jesus and Jack Grealish to give City an all-new front three in the final 20 minutes.
“We knew, with [Foden] and Gabriel especially, when the game was a little flat, [the substitutions] could it change if they [Atletico] were a bit tired,” Guardiola explained.
😆 The player with the most fouls on the field during #MCIATL only came on with 22 minutes to play.
— 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐞𝐰𝐬 VK 🇬🇧 (@sportingnewsuk) Apr 5, 2022
“And Jack for controlling the game and giving continuity to the game. We have spoken many times, this competition is not about 11 with five substitutions. You can use it and they were good.”
Here we can see that Guardiola’s decisions against Atletico were justified on their own terms. He selected a starting squad designed to maintain possession, stay calm and gradually wear down a formidably perforated defense.
Once cracks started to show, a player of Foden’s majestic gifts was able to break them wide open. About analyzing? Perhaps. Smart thinking? Absolutely, and that’s exactly what it takes over the course of 12 days that will define City’s season.