Manchester City have the footballing gods smiling down on them but Pep Guardiola will know more than anyone that they can not afford to think too far ahead. In 56 away games in the Champions League, Guardiola’s record of only 25 wins, while still better than most, is maybe something to look forward to for opponents Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta B.C.
Every season in the Champions League has a supposed “Group of Death” and with that comes what could only be described as the “Group of Life”. The former is typically comprised of teams that are known for being incredibly difficult opponents, regular champions who missed out on the Pot 1 position for one reason or another and otherwise giant killers in some capacity. The latter is exactly what we see with Group C. One team that is stacked to the rafters with talent amongst three teams that are rarely seen outside of the group stage.
For some, this season is less about Manchester City and more about their manager. Pep Guardiola began his management career at Barcelona. It started with a 4:0 win against Wisla Kraków follow by back-to-back 1:0 defeats to Kraków and CD Numancia. Since then, he has firmly established himself as one of the greatest managers of all time, winning every trophy available to him at least once, often twice. In his first year managing Barcelona, he lead them to a European treble. If this was not enough to cement his status, two seasons later, his Barcelona team won La Liga and a second Champions League trophy.
There are frequent arguments that Guardiola simply “got lucky” with his squad; after all, any team that has Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol in it will always do quite well in Europe. What Guardiola achieved after leaving Barcelona is where this argument potentially gains some legitimacy.
Hot off the heels of their own treble win, Guardiola moved to Bayern Munich and, in all three seasons, fell short at the semi-final of the Champions League to three separate Spanish opponents. Now in his fourth year at Manchester City, this struggle has continued. After 56 away games in Europe, Guardiola has failed to win 56% of them. This away form has sometimes been overcome without issue (a 3–1 defeat to Porto in 2015 was met with a 6–1 home victory the following week) but it remains cause for concern. More accurately, it is a cause for excitement for the managers of his opponents. A common belief is that Guardiola has a tendency to overthink his opponent; there is evidently such a thing as being too prepared. Despite this, the squad that he has been afforded is a force to be reckoned with. No one will be surprised if/when Manchester City progress to the next stage of the Champions League but it should come as no surprise if they don’t progress with maximum points.
In Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb, Group C have two teams who regularly see their brightest sparks leave base-camp before making their name somewhere else. Dinamo Zagreb for example were at one point home to 14 of the 23 players in Croatia’s World Cup squad. Donetsk have long been a feeder-club to other European squads. Notable alumni include Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Douglas Costa, Willian and Manchester City’s Fernandinho. It seems unfair to discuss this group as if the matches are already over but, with that, there is little chance that either Donetsk or Zagreb will finish first. Their prize money will most likely not be coming from deep runs in the tournament but rather the transfer fees of players such as Dani Olmo of Zagreb and Fernando of Donetsk later on. Telling them to give it their best seems redundant. If anything, they should use the screen time as an audition.
Last season, Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta performed at a standard that maybe warranted being in a pot higher than 4. They started the 18/19 Serie A campaign by essentially free-falling to 17th place before turning out four big wins in a row, capped off by a resounding 4–1 victory against Inter Milan. The remainder of their season was hard-fought but in the penultimate match day, a draw against Juventus saw them rise into third place, a position they would hold until the season ended. They were one of only two teams to not be beaten by Juventus last season and watching them play, it is clear to see why. This is Gasperini’s team; 16 of his 20 most used players last season were bought in on his watch in the previous two years. As close to Auteur theory in football as you can get. Combining a relentless attack and a quintessentially Italian 3-man defence, Atalanta made waves with their intensity last season… but this may be their undoing. Minor adjustments to a team every week is fine and can be an effective way to maintain consistency and morale. Expecting the same level of intensity week in week out while only making way for one or two name changes, however, is the first step in crashing out of a competition. This season, Atalanta and Gasperini may want to look at their campaign in a more atomistic manner rather than the holistic way that could be their downfall. Both Leicester City and Chelsea are prime examples of this after their Premier League victories. With a one-track mind, managers can afford to find a winning formula and stick with it. With multiple trophies at stake, Gasperini will have to find different solutions to bring out the best of his players while avoiding the burn-out. The best advice, though: don’t overthink it.