Manchester City’s gripping system failure offers glimmer of hope to others | Manchester City

It turns out Pep Guardiola was right after all. Manchester City’s pursuit of the double-treble will now remain “a hypothetical dream”.

This was Pep’s own excellent phrase before Wednesday’s second leg against Real Madrid, a formulation that suggests even Guardiola’s dreams are full of theory, algebra, hypotheticals, like a footballing version of Evelyn Waugh’s professor Silenus, the modernist architect who doesn’t sleep but instead lies in the dark for eight hours with his eyes shut doing high-speed calculations, before rising at dawn to design another machine-age masterpiece.

And City versus Real Madrid (1-1 aet, 4-4 on aggregate, pens 3-4) was a masterpiece in many ways. This was a game that felt for long periods like two teams falling asleep with their hands around each other’s throats. But it was also utterly gripping, all subtext, all narrative, a game that seemed, even in its more painful repetitions, to be telling us something important.

First of all, for the neutral it is surely a good thing that City will not win a second successive treble. It would be easy to gloss this by pointing out that watching anyone win an unprecedented double-treble would be a tedious and stratifying spectacle. But it is doubly true in this case.

It is a mark of where we are that victory for Real Madrid, in a competition created by money, out of money, for the future benefit of money, could ever be styled as a win for the little man. There are plenty of City fans who would see their team as self-evidently the underdogs in this company, although it takes a degree of cognitive dissonance to genuinely believe it.

Real Madrid celebrate a victory that was almost seen as a win for the little man against the Abu Dhabi-backed might of City. Photograph: Dave Shopland/AP

It is worth remembering what the City project is for. This remains at bottom a public relations exercise staged by a sovereign state with a questionable human rights record, but intent on building a post-carbon economy.

City are by their own accounts the most financially powerful club in world football. Vast dumps of cash have been thrown at this thing, billionaire will-to-power applied to football’s laughably inadequate governance. This is sport as foreign policy, backed by the laughable fiction that in doing so the ruling monarchy of Abu Dhabi is breaking open a cartel, sticking up for the little guy, outsiders against the overclass and all the rest of it.

It is a grotesque spectacle on many levels, albeit by no means the only one out there, with all due respect to the exciting new breed of hyper-incompetent hedge-bro owners. But it turns out this is what it takes to make Real Madrid look like underdogs; to make another semi-final for a squad valued at $1bn feel like a victory for sport against the machine. Congratulations to everyone involved. It’s quite the people’s game we’ve carved out here.

But there is also a tactical and textural side to this. Why should Real Madrid chasing to the point of exhaustion before winning with the final kick feel like a strange kind of sporting beauty? What is it in the spectacle of City’s brilliantly grooved machine running up against its own limits that feels so moreish?

There is a quietly insistent tactical debate going on right now, inspired in part by the total triumph of the Pep template. The coach and tactical theorist Jamie Hamilton has called this Positionism (ie rigid zonal systems play) versus Relationism (managed spontaneity, non-zonal attack). City are the ultimate Positionist team, with a style based above all on control, on players as pegs for the system.

Relationism refers to an alternative where players are given structured freedom, attacks that run on improvised combinations, which are thereby harder to read, less preformulated, based more on decision-making in the moment. Madrid have always played like this. It is the star-style. They are inadvertent Relationists.

It is easy to dismiss the dualism in this model. Every system will be mixed to some degree. Think too hard about it and these concepts seem to evaporate a little. But there was no doubt City versus Madrid presented a powerful and absorbing contrast. Even in defence the Madrid players organise themselves on the hoof to some degree. In attack they trust their own style, which is more inventive, spontaneous and personality-based.

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Jude Bellingham has described it as playing off the cuff. In the buildup to the game Carlo Ancelotti even announced that games like these “belong to the players”, which really isn’t the kind of thing Pep – who can be heard in City’s Netflix documentary shouting things like “Sport is body language! Life is body language!” after a Carabao Cup defeat at Southampton – is likely to come out with.

The first half at the Etihad was more obviously a meeting of these systems, with Madrid’s rapid, unpredictable breaks and Bellingham’s roving alpha cool- guy attacking role asking questions of City’s defence.

The second half was like watching Positionism hurl itself into the meat grinder, City attempting to overwhelm this most stubborn and skilful of opponents by sheer weight of repetitions, the conviction that the system must eventually triumph if it simply keeps on being the system. City had 47 shots across the whole tie, but still seemed for much of it to be probing vaguely. Kevin De Bruyne crossed the ball into the Madrid box 21 times on Wednesday night. Why? None of these resulted in any notable openings. Why keep doing it?

Jude Bellingham’s roving alpha cool-guy role asked plenty of questions of City. Photograph: Conor Molloy/ProSports/Shutterstock

By the end the game had dissolved into a wrestle, City’s players running themselves to a state of exhaustion in pursuit of the sun. Perhaps what was missing ultimately was something non-systemic, the more off-the-cuff creativity of, say, Cole Palmer, who has flourished in a broken Chelsea team, freed up by the absence of system to explore the far reaches of his talent. By contrast City started their own version, Jack Grealish, whose previously inventive and risky game has been pared back to the role of winger who keeps the ball while his team organise themselves, out there playing Coldplay football: high-spec, unsurprising, relentlessly successful.

All of which brings us back to substance as well as style. The Guardiola template is ideally suited to wealthier teams. Combine that level of discipline with a squad of supremely technical players and this is as close to unbeatable as any team is likely to get.

Billionaire football is posited on this kind of certainty, an absence of variables, victory as a product to be bought. But why shouldn’t there be another version of this? The elite charisma-football of Real Madrid has been the closest thing over the past decade. This is why Wednesday night was so gripping, why it felt like a collision of something larger, why it drove both teams to the end of their own capacities; and why it may also contain a kernel of something else, a way for City to move on from here, and for others also to get closer.

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