Kylian Mbappé dreamed of being ten, or nine and a half. But it’s a nine. The most perfect example of a center forward that football has produced in the past decade. And the fastest. The man who destroyed Barça and Bayern on the counterattack is the same man who haunts the memories of City fans beating Otamendi’s back and ending Guardiola’s first attempt to win the Champions League with the Manchester club with a goal. 2016-17 season.
The circle closes tonight in the Parc des Princes. Five years and four frustrated attempts later, Guardiola returns to the Champions League assault and meets Mbappé again (9pm CET). This time the striker wears the PSG jersey and his muscular power has developed much more since 2017. “It’s like Haaland,” Guardiola said on Tuesday. “You look at it and you say: my God, how fast it is!”
Now Guardiola and Mbappé know each other perfectly. A person from the forward’s environment says that since 2017 they have not stopped talking periodically on the phone. They have cultivated a good relationship. The player confirmed it to his representatives indicating that he would like Guardiola to train him one day. According to the same sources, City even sent intermediaries who designed a contract with the player’s lawyers. Negotiations were dissolved when UEFA sanctioned City in February 2020, banning it from making signings for failing to comply with the fair play financial. There is no shortage of European football leaders who interpret this measure – annulled by the CAS – as a consequence of the lobby of rivals from the Manchester club to prevent it from being reinforced with players like Mbappé.
The pandemic has draped a gloomy cloak over football. But there are old obsessions that remain intact. If the great tactical concern expressed by Guardiola since 2016 has been to deactivate the counterattacks, no one represents better than Mbappé – when enabled by Neymar or Verratti – the ravages of speed in large spaces that teams like City leave behind their defenses .
Guardiola’s City eliminations in the Champions League followed the same sequence. First, the technician’s precautions to reinforce security measures, either with three centrals, or with two pivots, or with both tools at the same time. Second, the inexorable counterattacks: Mbappé with Monaco; Salah with Liverpool; Heun-ming Son with Tottenham and Moussa Dembelé with Lyon, punctually destroyed all the tactical devices.
This version of the City is a new combination of two old ideas. On the one hand, the protection of Rodri with a side that acts as false pivot at the exits. On the other, the selection of footballers by virtue of a fundamental criterion: the quality of the pass under pressure, in order to avoid mistakes. As Guardiola said after eliminating Dortmund: “I chose the most skilled players to keep the ball.”
Zinchenko was recruited before Cancelo, Foden before Sterling, and Bernardo Silva before Gabriel Jesús. This principle also involved playing without a point and reaching the goal through the association of false nines. Gündogan, Silva, Foden or De Bruyne, they all are. With them Guardiola did nothing more than reaffirm a conviction. “I like when the passes are short,” he said in 2016, “because that way you miss less, and if you miss the defensive transition is shorter.” The technician pointed out that this plot prevented his system from exposing its weak point. “Because every counterattack is a goal for them,” he said.
This City has perfected defense to unknown limits. Not only because he concedes fewer goals than ever – just 24 in 33 Premier matches – but because he is hardly countered with success. According to Opta, since Guardiola led the team successively suffered five, four, two and two goals in “quick” counterattacks per season in all competitions between the 2016-17 academic year and 2019-20. According to this measurement, this season he has only conceded one goal against the Premier and none in the Champions League, although Chelsea only had one goal to eliminate him from the Cup a week ago. “Chelsea have only made counterattacks,” Guardiola lamented after 1-0 at Wembley.
None of the rivals that survive in the Champions League have better weapons to examine the defensive reliability of City than this PSG of Mbappé and Neymar who after four years seems enthusiastic. “This is the season in which I feel more comfortable since I arrived at PSG,” said the Brazilian.
Subjected to the conservative temptation that pushed him to transform the team to avoid the cons – unsuccessfully – between 2017 and 2020, Guardiola looks at what is coming and shrugs. “The players will decide!” He said, “neither Pochettino nor I!”