Kevin de Bruyne can be as eloquent in front of a microphone as he is with the ball at his feet.
“Different year, same stuff,” said Manchester City’s goalscorer after they departed the Champions League.
There was the usual cocktail of misfortune allied with controversy – it was hard to see how Lyon’s second goal was not disallowed for a foul on Aymeric Laporte – but also the familiar sense that City had contributed to their own downfall.
Raheem Sterling’s hideous miss, less than a minute before the third goal, felt part of a grander narrative, just as defensive shortcomings did.
It represented a third successive quarter-final exit for City. It left Pep Guardiola lamenting an inability to “break the gap” to the last four. For him, it has been a decade of diminishing returns on the continental stage. The glass ceiling was higher for his Bayern Munich teams, who had a hat-trick of semi-final defeats.
This time, Guardiola was phlegmatic about the officiating, though Laporte, criticising VAR, said: “This decision is hard to accept.”
But there are other recurring themes in City’s annual disappointments. “In this competition tactics are not the most important thing,” Guardiola said but a manager with a hyperactive mind is accused of overthinking things whenever his choices backfire.
Some of his left field tactical choices have come in quarter-finals and have not paid off: Ilkay Gundogan in a hybrid role off the right at Anfield in 2018, De Bruyne on the bench away at Tottenham last year and now use of a back three against Lyon.
“We tried to cover our weak points in comparison with their strong points,” Guardiola rationalised.
If it reflected the season-long issues with City’s defence, it also suggested the more talented team had an inferiority complex. A by-product was that four of City’s slickest technicians, in Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, David and Bernardo Silva, all began on the bench. City stripped themselves of one of their strengths without compensating for their weaknesses.
Fernandinho endured an awkward evening on the right of the back three and was substituted before he could be sent off, but if this was a microcosm of a campaign with defensive difficulties, the paradox was that it was the two most reliable members of the City rearguard who erred.
Laporte coughed up possession for Moussa Dembele’s first goal and Ederson spilt a tame shot for his second. For Laporte, fielded at left-back at Liverpool two years ago, floundering in the second leg against Spurs 12 months earlier, the Champions League quarter-finals have had a particular cruelty.
If he has been part of the problem, it is also undeniable he is part of the solution. But Guardiola’s selections of Eric Garcia, who may now leave after rejecting a new contract, and Fernandinho, a 35-year-old converted midfielder, were votes of no confidence in John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. An upgrade will be sought.
Guardiola has just signed Nathan Ake but perhaps if he already had a high-class right-sided centre-back, a Kalidou Koulibaly or a Dayot Upamecano, he would have been happier playing a version of his preferred 4-3-3.
Whatever the system, City have to concede fewer goals from quick counter-attacks if they are to conquer Europe. Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon have all picked them off on the break. They have to be better in both boxes.
Because it is a chapter in a bigger story, a broader quest to take City to “the next pedestal,” as Kyle Walker put it.
There are times when the Premier League has appeared a greater priority and a competition that rewards consistency can lack the dramatic brutality of knockout football.
Now, however, the Champions League’s importance is evident, and not just for the manager’s legacy. “If we don't win it in my final period here, that I will be [judged] a failure here,” Guardiola said in February. “I know that.”
This was the gravest disappointment of his four exits. A last-eight date with Ligue Un’s seventh-placed side represented a missed opportunity, even if the evidence of 2020 is that Lyon’s semi-final opponents Bayern are substantially better than anyone else.
And yet the frustration is in part because City’s best, as Real Madrid can testify, is very good. Their finest individual is extraordinary.
De Bruyne was named the Premier League player of the season on Sunday, but risks becoming one of the best footballers of his generation never to win the Champions League.
And as he admitted on Saturday: “This team is great but we made too many mistakes.”
City need to cut out the errors to stop themselves being eliminated again.