Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone could be the two biggest control freaks in all of football. The pair of managers combine an obsession and unwavering commitment to their demanding gaming philosophy, both of which impose strict roles on each player in an effort to comprehensively, systematically and consistently dominate the game. Their corresponding vision of dominance is diametrically opposed. Although both seek to control the space and pace of the game, Guardiola tries to achieve this through attacking positions and steady possession, while Simeone does so through a defensive position and short, quick vertical counterattacks. Both have been incredibly successful. The central role of their respective game philosophy in this success has made them both the protagonists of their cinematic clubs authors to which everything that happens on the screen is attributed.
The meeting of the quarterfinals of the Champions League between “Manchester City” from Guardiola and “Athletics Madrid” from Simeone led to an intriguing clash not only between teams and players, but also ideas and visions. Much more than it was Kevin De Braine vs. Antoine Griezmann, the major tie conflicts were felt as Pep vs. Chola, attack vs. defense, initiative vs. reactivity, idealism vs. pragmatism, unbridled force against a stationary object. Tuesday’s first phase was instructive, supporting some of these biased perceptions while undermining others. Basically, the game reminded us that no matter how great the managers are and how decisive the tactical structure imposed by the side may be, football remains a game primarily for the players, and the better for it.
I’ll just go out and say: Tuesday’s match was, for the most part, boring. Certainly, from an intellectual point of view, the clash of the styles of Guardiola and Simeone, who in confrontation with each other reached the corresponding radical extremes, had something to deepen. These included the 5–0 Athletic hyper-defensive formation, City’s hyper-offensive reaction in the second half 3–6–6, the attempts of both managers to either restrain or release orchestrater Joao Cancel, and the critical substitutions that changed the nature of the game. As advertised, the game was indeed a chess match between two grandmasters who played a dead end. Like a real chess match, you had to be a complete freak to be interesting to watch.
Luckily, the second half was a little busier than the first. This was largely due to the fact that the replacement of both teams in the attack, the introduction of which in the match weakened the grip of the two managers in the match and allowed to start a real game. No one deserves more credit for this than Phil Foden.
In the 60th minute, no doubt delighted with his team’s success in stifling any City attack before it managed to catch its breath during the deplorable first hour of the game, Simeone made a trio of substitutions tuned further forward, aiming to snatch goal in the last half hour. Eight minutes later Guardiola led to three new strikers, including Foden. In just two minutes, Foden gave the match what he desperately expected: a touch of individual inspiration, talent, anarchy and excitement. All of this is what he brought to his killer pass for De Braine’s winning goal:
Foden’s willingness and ability to deviate from the script written by Guardiola and Simeone, gave the second half, and hence the game, all the best moments. No coaching scheme can force a player to attract four defenders with their sense of positioning and then resist the onslaught of those defenders when they are inflicted on him and then release a skillfully weighted ball between the legs of one defender, which eventually creates a goal. Players score goals and goals make the game. Guardiola may have provided Foden with a platform, but all good things were done by the player himself.
Along with the game, the goals change the game much deeper than some guy shouting from the side. That’s why after “City” came forward, the match lost most of the structure in which it had passed the previous hour. The game became open as both groups of players moved forward in the attack, trying to recreate the brilliance and effect of Foden’s goal-scoring game. For a good 10 or 15 minutes the shackles were removed, and the chess pieces regained their autonomy and did what they wanted. And again Foden came to the fore, creating a couple more moments with his ingenious dribbles and passes that could easily have increased City’s advantage.
But before the end both managers regained control and the match returned to the pre-title tender. Before the final whistle, the score of 1: 0 probably encouraged and disappointed both coaches, each of whom more or less got from the game what he wanted, but not as fully as he would like.
A match like Tuesday could be a good adjustment for some of the more restrictive and dogmatic interpretations of football. Was Simeon really more “pragmatic” or “reactive” than Guardiola, if for a whole hour the game was played according to the exact conditions offered to Simeon? Does it make sense to consider Simeon more “conservative” or even “defensive” than Guardiola, if the latter hit the ball with a clear goal safely, not allowing “Athletics” to be released for a dangerous counter? Coaches select lineups, define strategy, and give instructions, but can they ever control what happens, especially what’s most important?
If anyone took the answers to these questions for granted before the match, Tuesday’s show would have to complicate them all – except, hopefully, the last one. Hopefully everyone already knew that the best in football happens because of the players, and so the City Athletic confrontation was another proof once Foden came out and did what needed to be done.