The Week So Far: Manchester 0-2 Europe
Welcome to The Analysis, our rolling football blog where we try and make sense of everything that just happened.
Expect The Unexpected
For Pep Guardiola it must have been the ultimate introspective Sunday morning, aka The One After The Decision Not To Play Rodri And/Or Fernandinho In The Champions League Final. In a night of turmoil in Portugal, Manchester City became the third debutant finalist in a row, after Tottenham in 2019 and PSG in 2020, to lose and fail to score in the process. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. City’s true feelings in late January when they heard that their former midfielder Frank Lampard had been dismissed as Chelsea manager are unrecorded but the London club’s decision to appoint Thomas Tuchel as Lampard’s replacement in some ways denied Guardiola’s team an unprecedented quadruple, given Tuchel masterminded their demise in the FA Cup semi-final and now, most painfully of all, in the Champions League final.
The “Guardiola overthinks big games” meme is a bit overplayed because all managers have to make big decisions before important games. Think of Alex Ferguson fielding David Beckham in central midfield and Ryan Giggs on the right wing in the 1999 Champions League final, for instance, although you’d be entirely correct in pointing out that this was because he was operating without the suspended pair of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Guardiola effectively had his whole squad to pick from and chose… to go without both Fernandinho and Rodri. This meant more attacking players, yes, but with the risk of less attacking, because every building needs a foundation, every cake needs flour. And so it proved.
City had the first shot of the game, in the eighth minute, but Raheem Sterling’s effort would end up being their only on target strike of the entire game. The sight of N’Golo Kante, essentially an elite defensive midfielder and an elite attacking midfielder in one trophy-winning package, gliding to another man of the match award only served to highlight how risky City’s decision to cede control was. Chelsea created three high xG chances in the game. Timo Werner spurned a 0.37 opportunity in the 14th minute, Kai Havertz tucked away a 0.38 chance for the only goal of the game and Christian Pulisic wasted the best of them all (0.44) with 17 minutes remaining. 2-0 would have been a fair reflection of the game but Chelsea won’t care.
But Pep Guardiola will care about the nil. There are times in football to phone in a bad performance and then there are European Cup finals. City’s xG of 0.45 against Chelsea is the second lowest ever recorded by the club under Guardiola, with only a 1-0 defeat at Anfield in his difficult first season in charge of the club seeing a lower figure. Interestingly, the game in third place on this list is a Premier League game from earlier this year, where City edged past West Ham 2-1, with the goals coming from central defenders Ruben Dias and John Stones. Maybe that was the way City could have broken down Chelsea on the night, except they mustered only three corners all game. Any way you slice it, progressive or traditional, City didn’t have what they needed to win the Champions League. Their average xG in games under Guardiola? 2.16.
Of course, there’s another alternative timeline where City played like their usual selves but still couldn’t find their way past goalkeeping sensation Édouard Mendy, one of the signings of the season in a Chelsea squad who started the campaign looking like a collection of expensive players but ended it as a team far greater than the sum of its parts.
Spot the Difference
It’s not that often you need to think about the minor regulations of football in a major final, but Manchester United’s use of them in Wednesday’s Europa League final is a small but significant reason why it was Villarreal who won their first major honour. In the pandemic era some competitions have expanded the number of substitutions, and in the Europa League that meant five in normal time with an additional slot if the game went to extra-time. Unai Emery had made the five he was permitted by the 88th minute and had turned a brief United wave of pressure at the start of the second half into a trickle as the game reached the statutory extra 30 minutes. In stark contrast, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer didn’t make a personnel change until the 100th minute.
But even though Emery’s tinkering regained some control for his side, they hadn’t really threatened United since opening the scoring in the first half. That was their only shot on target of the game, while United only had two themselves. Some finals are instant classics, some are slow burners, some just aren’t very good. This was the sort of occasion where a ‘skip penalty kicks’ button really would have been useful. Both for us the viewers, and the players too. Except maybe David de Gea.
Because if this final is remembered for one thing it will be the non-intervention of the Manchester United goalkeeper during that potentially endless shootout. The longest yet seen in a major European final saw all 22 players step up to the spot, with Villarreal scoring all 11 of theirs and United failing only when De Gea himself stepped up to take his team’s 11th kick. Again, the minor regulations of the game seemed to pass United by, as Bruno Fernandes, dealing with the coin toss ahead of the shootout, seems to have let Villarreal go first. He can be forgiven for not knowing there is a statistical advantage in taking the first penalty in a shootout, but surely a deeply-staffed Premier League club should have had someone to tell him that was the case?
As shown on the image here, De Gea has now saved none of his last 40 penalties since stopping Romelu Lukaku’s spot-kick in the 2016 FA Cup semi-final. Some keepers are penalty experts, some stop a few here and there, and some endure runs like De Gea’s, the sort of spell which really should trigger some thinking from the coaching staff. United had six substitutions to play with in this game and one of their former managers, Louis van Gaal, brought Tim Krul on for the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup specifically because of his penalty saving record. United had Lee Grant and Dean Henderson on the bench against Villarreal. Bringing on either would probably have won them the Europa League.
Henderson in particular has a decent record at saving penalties, and even when he doesn’t save them, he has a special power at forcing a miss. Since 2016-17, Henderson has faced 19 penalties at club level since 2016-17, saving five (26%) and conceding just 10 (53%). Gareth Southgate, take note.