‘I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f***-up. A total mess. The biggest f***-up of my life as a coach.
‘I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4. The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year. A complete f***-up.’
These were the most noteworthy lines from one of the extracts published prior to the release of Marti Perarnau’s 2015 book on Pep Guardiola called Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich.
Pep Guardiola described his tactics when Bayern Munich faced Real Madrid in 2014 as the biggest f***-up’ of his career
Sergio Ramos scored twice as Real Madrid ran riot in the Champions League semi-final second leg
The quotes attributed to the Catalan boss refer to a night in April 2014 which no doubt still haunts him every time the Champions League anthem rings out across various European stadia every season.
Guardiola is among the best tacticians and thinkers in the modern game and will look to mastermind another flawless Manchester City display when they take on Real Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final at the Etihad Stadium.
But even he down the years has demonstrated the best can get it wrong, and horribly wrong at that.
Man City fans need no reminder of the strange decisions in recent seasons from him on the continent, most recently in last season’s defeat in the final against Chelsea when he chose to leave both Rodri and Fernandinho out of his starting XI.
But a game that took place nearly eight years ago to the day is when Guardiola’s recent peculiar tactical tweaks in the Champions League truly began, and against Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid no less.
Cristiano Ronaldo finished off a swift counter before scoring a late free-kick in a 4-0 win
The Catalan was in charge of Bayern Munich at the time and needed to think of an alternative plan after seeing his side fail to threaten an away goal in the semi-final first leg against Los Blancos.
His side were still very much in the tie though ahead of the return leg at home, with Ancelotti’s men taking a slender 1-0 lead to Munich following Karim Benzema’s strike.
But a manager who is now seen as one of the most self-assured managers in the game had no shortage of uncertainty and doubts going through his mind in the six days between the two legs of the 2014 semi-final.
Initially, he decided he would deploy a 3-4-3 formation at the Allianz Arena, which could be altered to a basic 3-5-2 with minimal fuss.
Guardiola’s justification for going away from his 4-2-3-1 formation was the threat of the counterattack which he felt would predominantly feature in Real Madrid’s game, particularly with the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo involved.
Guardiola attempted to deflect criticism away from his players by taking full responsibility
But Guardiola believed a 3-4-3 system would help Bayern overpower Real in midfield, and would therefore enable them to keep the ball and eventually wear Ancelotti’s men down.
Yet Guardiola would change his mind twice more, first reverting back to the 4-2-3-1 and then – following a chat with his players – opting for a bizarre 4-2-4 formation, which as mentioned he said he had never played as Bayern boss that season.
He had played it once before in the German Super Cup against Borussia Dortmund in July 2013, a game Bayern would lose 4-2. The Bundesliga giants would meet the same fate playing the system against Madrid, but this time failed to get on the scoresheet.
Ancelotti had warned before the second leg his team were not going to Munich to sit back, absorb pressure and hope to hang on to their narrow lead.
And his bold tactics would be vindicated by his side’s masterclass of football in the 90 minutes in south Germany, with Sergio Ramos netting headers from two set pieces to put the tie to bed.
Neither would represent his most famous goal in the Champions League that season, but the Spaniard had ensured the damage was done.
Ancelotti went on to lift the Champions League that season, something Guardiola wants to emulate this term
A stunning breakaway finished off by Ronaldo made it three before the break, and the Portuguese added a late free-kick late in the second half to seal a 4-0 win on the night and a 5-0 aggregate victory.
Real made just 209 passes at the Allianz Arena compared to Bayern’s 579. Guardiola’s side had dominated the ball as planned but at no point had they looked like breaking down Real’s resistance.
Guardiola reportedly kept the door to the home dressing room locked after the match, and when he finally did emerge he took full responsibility. ‘We played badly, that’s my responsibility. We are at the highest level in Europe and such errors are punished.’
To make matters worse, while Guardiola was left inconsolable for a while afterwards, Ancelotti would go on to win the Champions League for a third time as a manager.
Their paths have crossed both directly and indirectly since. Ancelotti was named as Guardiola’s successor at Bayern in 2016 following the latter’s move to Man City.
Ancelotti succeeded Guardiola as Bayern Munich boss but lasted fewer than 15 months
The Italian enjoyed a successful home debut at the Allianz Arena, beating – you guessed it – Guardiola’s Man City 1-0 in a pre-season friendly.
But fewer than 15 months later Ancelotti was out of a job again, and there are those who believe his failure to emerge from the shadow of Guardiola ultimately cost him his post at Bayern.
Their paths then crossed again when Ancelotti was named Everton boss in late 2019. ‘They have a new manager who has incredible experience,’ Guardiola said of Ancelotti’s appointment.
‘He is one of the smartest guys, always able to make good results. I think it is incredible for English football that he is back and I’m pretty sure he will be a success.’
Their paths then crossed when Ancelotti was appointed as Everton boss back in 2019
But Ancelotti would extract little joy as Toffees boss from Guardiola’s City, losing all three Premier League games played between the sides and an FA Cup tie before Ancelotti departed for Madrid last summer.
It helps Guardiola’s competitive record against Ancelotti to read four wins from six games. But there is no doubt at least one of the two defeats still preys on his mind to this day.
The former Barcelona boss – who won nine of his 15 matches against Madrid as boss of the Catalan giants – however will be hoping two does not become three or even four reverses when he faces Los Blancos for the 20th and 21st time in his career.
His last meeting against them was a happy one, winning 2-1 at the Bernabeu before completing the job in the second leg of the round of 16 in 2020.
But Madrid now possess a more refined counterattacking threat with pacey Brazilians Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo able to provide reliable service to Karim Benzema, even if they currently lack the elite ruthlessness of a 2014 Bale and Ronaldo.
Guardiola’s City beat Real Madrid last time out in the last 16 of the Champions League in 2020
But Guardiola may well see winning the midfield battle as crucial once again, especially with Casemiro a major doubt and the likes of Barcelona showing recently you can overrun ageing players like Toni Kroos with relentless pressure.
A 4-2-3-1 formation has served City well this season with the club still top of the Premier League and in contention for the Champions League crown, and therefore opting for a different system in a game of this magnitude could well prove to be another blunder.
So while the gameplan may be similar to the one in 2014 – minus hopefully the bizarre formation – the two managers’ styles could not be more different, according to Javi Martinez.
‘I had a close bond with him [Guardiola] because we speak the same language, but the rapport with Carlo was different,’ Martinez – who played under both coaches at Bayern – told La Gazzetta dello Sport this week.
‘He is like a father, he cares so much about his players. Pep is more rigid and more focused on video analysis, but a team needs discipline. Pep had more control than Carlo, nothing huge, but it was noticeable.
But he must not make any more errors if he wants to avoid further European heartbreak
‘Carlo knows what teams need. When I am asked who is the best coach in the world, I always say Guardiola, but for a player, it’s important to work with coaches who know how to get the best out of you and I’ve never felt as good as under Carlo.
‘Not only in footballing terms but also personally. I believe he is the best of all.’
Guardiola is already City’s best manager of all time, but if the club want to fulfil their dream of being one of football’s great powers, they cannot hope to do so without having won the Champions League.
This season represents an excellent opportunity, but Guardiola must ensure he is not outsmarted again by the Italian to keep that dream alive.