Flowers from concrete beds: Pep’s Champions League masterclass

In today’s increasingly materialistic and consumerist society, cars serve as vital mobile status symbols. They proudly answer the world’s unasked question and announce how much we earn, what we value, where our loyalties lie, which concerns we prioritise and an alarming amount of further personal information.

Perhaps that is why Zlatan Ibrahimovic reached for an automobile analogy when describing his relationship to Pep Guardiola. Zlatan declared ‘when you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari’ but that Pep’s style-of-play meant ‘if that’s what he wanted, he should have bought himself a Fiat from the start’. A clash between two footballing titans whose significance is verified by their first-name monikers.

Following Man City’s 1-0 win in the Champions League final against Inter Milan, perhaps it is time to finally accept it is the Fiats who reign supreme on the pitch. On a pitch of footballing Ferraris – Erling Haaland, Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Lautaro Martinez perhaps the flashiest of them – it was the player who famously drove an Opel Corsa while playing for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid who scored the decisive goal.

Indeed, for all his talk of being a Ferrari, Zlatan has never won a Champions League

As arguably – or inarguably, depending on how you perceive Man City’s Champions League triumph enhancing his legacy – the greatest football manager of all time, Pep cannot be simplified or reduced into one simple category. And yet, when you think of what he represents, it generally does come down to three strands: metronomic and indefatigable tika-taka passing (Xavi and Iniesta in their relentless prime), tactical innovation (John Stones operating in an indefinable, permeable defence-cum-midfield position) or attacking wizardry (Lionel Messi – enough said).

Strangely though, each of those aspects only really exist as either evolutionary stages in or accidental by-products of Pep’s philosophy. The one constant of his, to my mind at least, is disappointingly dull: the defensive midfield. There was Sergio Busquets at Barcelona then Philipp Lahm followed by Joshua Kimmich at Bayern Munich and now Rodri replacing Fernandinho at Man City.

Indeed, for all his talk of being a Ferrari, Zlatan has never won a Champions League. Busquets on the other hand has won three and just left Barcelona as the final survivor from Pep’s 2008-09 treble-winning vintage.

In a way, it seems like a shame. For all its artistry, all its creativity, all its fluidity, the foundation of Pep’s philosophy is the holding midfielder, that old-fashioned pillar of defensive solidity and reliable backwards passing. Surely, if anyone could think of an alternative to this unexciting insurance plan, it would be Pep.

But this acceptance of the inevitability of the incessant bargaining between risk and reward, offence and defence, is also a reminder of the ultimate beauty of football: the danger that is inherent in every move, the potential catastrophe lurking in every step, the hypothetical disaster present in every pass.

The magic of football does not come from ignorance or rejection of the possibility of failure, but rather as a direct product of it. At their finest, watching Pep’s teams play is exhilarating and captivating for the very reason that there is always the possibility that they will make that mistake and they will lose that match. And yet, they still play in that style, tempting fate with every touch and daring destiny with every pass.

The holding midfield – Busquets first and now Rodri – is thus not a surrender to cowardly safety-first football but rather an affirmation of the front-footed football Pep has always advocated. And so perhaps it was fitting that it was Rodri who scored that goal, the final goal to push Man City and Guardiola past what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle at times.

Image description: Pep Guardiola watching from the sidelines

Image credit: Oemar via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)