Rather than blaming his defense for conceding soft goals, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola pointed to a lack of aggression and personality as decisive factors in his side’s 3-1 defeat to Monaco in the Champions League on Wednesday. Turning around a 5-3 deficit from the first leg appeared to be a tall order for Monaco, but instead looked rather too easy as the home side cruised into a 2-0 lead within 30 minutes and then quickly responded to City’s brief second-half fightback to reach the quarterfinals on away goals.
Monaco was given far too much space throughout and attacked in red and white waves, which Guardiola attributed to a lack of intensity from his forward trio of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.
“It’s not about the defense. Our strikers have to be aggressive and pick the ball up, but we didn’t. That’s why we are out,” Guardiola said. “Our strength is to be aggressive without the ball. We were a little bit slow in everything, which is why we have conceded a lot of goals in Europe.”
Guardiola has criticized Aguero at times this season, mainly for his lack of work rate and tendency not to track back. City’s top scorer had a poor night, missing two good chances and failing to close down enough when Monaco launched quick attacks from the back.
The difference in tempo between City’s sluggish performance in the first half and noticeable improvement after the break highlights the inconsistency that marks out City as a side with perhaps too many weaknesses to challenge at the very highest level.
“We wanted to show personality, not to let them think (that) they could pass and pass the ball,” Guardiola said. “We forgot to do that in the first half. My mistake was being not able to convince them.”
On the eve of the game, Guardiola had also warned his players to concentrate hard on set-pieces. As a Premier League side far more used to rugged physical challenges and aerial combat than Monaco’s slick passers, City should have been able to cope better on free kicks.
But Monaco’s third and decisive goal came from a very British-looking set piece, as midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko rose to head home Thomas Lemar’s curling cross in the 77th minute.
“The set-piece broke our tempo and rhythm at the right moment (for them),” Guardiola said.
Center half John Stones called his team’s performance “very sloppy” and accepted that the players had let Guardiola down.
“The manager was saying before that the more and more he plays the Champions League, it is about the set-pieces,” Stones said. “Real Madrid scored from two last week and went through. We weren’t solid enough.”
For Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim, it seemed obvious how to exploit City’s shortcomings.
“We know that City likes to play with a high defensive line. Sterling and Sane are good going forward but not good defensively,” he said. “We knew we could hurt them with our wide players. We tried to exploit this weak point.”
Guardiola has won the Champions League twice as a manager, but his 100th game in charge of a European match is one he will want to quickly forget.