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Pep Guardiola given painful lesson in limits of Manchester City rotation policy

Jim White
·4-min read
Ferran Torres - AFP
Ferran Torres - AFP

Pep Guardiola’s post-match analysis of why his Manchester City side lost their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea included an intriguing observation.

“With Phil [Foden] and [Ilkay] Gundogan we improved,” he said.

He could say that again. The arrival of the two midfielders from the bench added a zest and sparkle to his team’s play that had been absent from a first half that largely consisted of sauntering up blind alleys. True, even with the pair’s arrival City didn’t manage to break through Chelsea’s magnificently obdurate defence. But their quick-witted drive and application suggested had they played for the whole game the dynamic would surely have been very different.

These, after all, are two of the most in-form players in the country, a pair certain to be in the mix when the individual awards are under consideration.

Guardiola, however, has a plan. Throughout a truncated, concentrated season, he has studiously husbanded his resources. He has a squad, rather than a team and rotation is a vital part of his approach. And in truth, faced with challenge on four fronts, it is a policy which results suggest has worked well.

Or at least it has up to now. But as every competition reaches its business end, and the opposition becomes inevitably more significant, a system which presupposes that all 25 members of the first team squad are of equal merit is tested to its limit. And, maybe, beyond it.

Guardiola made eight changes from the side which, by beating Borussia Dortmund three days earlier, had taken City to the Champions League semi-final for the first time under his stewardship.

Kevin De Bruyne in race to make Carabao Cup final after scans show ankle swelling
Kevin De Bruyne in race to make Carabao Cup final after scans show ankle swelling

Here he was, as his side faced another crucial step in their four-pronged campaign, boldly challenging the oldest of managerial maxims: never change a winning team. Yet when he was asked whether the tinkering signified that he did not address the FA Cup with appropriate attention, he bristled, accusing the reporter who questioned him of being wise after the event.

“Say before the game, say Pep doesn't pay attention," he said. "Say before but don't say after because we lose a game. These guys for 10 months, 11 months fight every game, like never before I've seen. [Then] we lose a game against a top side and now we don't pay attention or don't care for this competition? We're respectful of the FA Cup, we came here to win.”

But it was not mere post-rationalisation to suggest the risk of playing Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling rather than Foden and Gundogan was sizeable. It seemed from the moment the teams were announced to be a decision open to the charge of hubris.

Few studying the team sheets could understand why players so on form they appear to be jet-propelled had been left out. Together with Riyad Mahrez, who watched the entire game from the bench, Foden and Gundogan have been magnificent this season, their vibrancy helping City progress on every front. To replace them with players, like Torres and Sterling, whose contribution latterly has been significantly less elevated seemed contrary to say the least.

Especially since Guardiola’s stated reason for changing his side — he had to take into consideration the fact that they are playing Aston Villa in a re-arranged midweek league fixture — seemed bizarre. The Premier League title is effectively won, so if his leading lights need careful management through the intense accumulation of fixtures, give them a rest in that one. Not in a game of such importance against opponents of such wily intent.

And the FA Cup semi final was important. Because it was not just The Quadruple that slipped through City’s hands on Saturday. It was The Treble too. And The Double.

English football history insists that for serial trophy accumulation to be granted the definite article the FA Cup has to be won alongside the league title. Liverpool won a treble in 2001, not The Treble. Equally Manchester United, by picking up the Champions League and Premier League in 2008, won a double not The Double.

For a man as attuned to the importance of detail as Pep Guardiola, it can now only be a matter of regret that, even if he wins the three other trophies available to him, he cannot now add a historic multiple to his CV.