Manchester City came away from the Santiago Bernabeu with a hard-earned and well-respected 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final first leg on Wednesday. Kevin De Bruyne’s stunning strike in the second half cancelled out an equally brilliant goal by Vinicius Jr earlier in the game.
Pep Guardiola and his players stood up to the test after having suffered heartbreak at the historic ground in last year’s semi-final as they conceded three late goals and were left watching their Champions League dream go up in flames once again.
One thing a lot of City fans were quick to question of Guardiola after the full-time whistle was his decision not to make a single substitution in the Spanish capital. There were clearly some tired legs in his team late in the game, with Bernardo Silva in particular looking burnt out. Supporters said the game was crying out for Phil Foden in the second half to try to give Erling Haaland better service against Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba.
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Perhaps the Spanish tactician was being mindful of the events that transpired in the Bernabeu on their last visit. De Bruyne and Kyle Walker were taken off just before Riyad Mahrez scored the goal which put them 5-3 up on aggregate with 17 minutes left, with Ilkay Gundogan and Oleksandr Zinchenko coming on in their places. He later replaced Gabriel Jesus with Jack Grealish and Mahrez with Fernandinho in a bid to shut up shop and see out the result.
This invited overwhelming pressure from Los Blancos and two goals in a matter of moments from Rodrygo took the tie to extra time, with City suddenly looking pretty light in midfield. Ruben Dias conceded a penalty which allowed Karim Benzema to put Madrid ahead for the first time in the tie. Guardiola boldly replaced Rodri with Raheem Sterling in the chase of a goal but Madrid were able to see out the game and reach their 17th Champions League final.
Tuesday night’s contest couldn’t have gone any better for the former Barcelona boss and his players, and coming from behind to get a draw was their way of climbing a psychological mountain. Who are these fans and pundits to question a man who is regarded as one of football’s greatest ever coaches thanks to what he has achieved across his illustrious career?
It is also worth noting that Guardiola doesn’t make considerable changes to his teams during matches if he doesn’t have to. In the Premier League this term, he has made a total of five subs combined in the four matches City have lost, which highlights that he tends to put a lot of faith in the players he selects for his starting lineup in moments when his side are up against it.
Coaches spend a lot of time on the training ground and in their offices preparing heavily for the fixture at the end of the week, and Guardiola, being the perfectionist that he is, will select the 11 players most suited for the opponents they face as each game approaches.
People were quick to make a huge fuss in the summer when it was announced that five substitutions would be permanently permitted in football following updated regulations from the International Football Association Board. Premier League fans were quick to deem the decision unfair, stating that the likes of Manchester City would have an unfair advantage given the quality of their bench and the amount of money spent on their extra resources.
Since this was added to the Premier League permanently this season, Guardiola has been showing that it is not the case at all, as he carefully deliberates when making changes in-game. Of the 34 matches that City have played in the top flight this year, Guardiola has only opted to use all five substitutions in 11 of them. Interestingly, he tended to use all five changes in matches in which his side are comfortably ahead, with the one exception being when they defeated Chelsea 1-0 away from home.
With most of these games won long before the final whistle, Guardiola treated these games as a good exercise to give minutes to his fringe players and the promising youngsters in the squad, including the likes of Rico Lewis, Cole Palmer and Sergio Gomez. And across these 34 matches, the Man City boss has been permitted to make a total of 170 changes but used only 111 in total, which equates to 65.29%.
This data shows that it is not uncommon for Guardiola to refrain from making substitutions in matches if he doesn’t feel the need to. Yes, some of his players were tired in the latter stages against Madrid, but the data from this year’s Premier League points towards Guardiola having faith in his players on the pitch from the first whistle. Given his tactical intelligence, it was perhaps a decision made with the vital second leg at the Etihad Stadium in mind. Regardless, the fans should be giving him credit for guiding them through the first leg in Madrid which has given them a huge boost in this semi-final contest.