Champions League final: Manchester City v Chelsea tactics talk

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Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel continue their new rivalry

https://www.sportinglife.com-By Alex Keble

English football already has a new blockbuster rivalry to replace the Klopp-Guardiola battle that has defined the last few years.

Thomas Tuchel has revolutionised Chelsea within a few short months and, with a Premier League title challenge on the horizon next season, faces his new nemesis Pep Guardiola in the Champions League final on Saturday looking for three wins in a row.

Manchester City are the slight favourites in Porto but nerves could take hold. Guardiola was brought to the Etihad in 2016 primarily to win Europe’s premier competition; the club’s first-ever Champions League final is without doubt the biggest match in their history.

By contrast this is Chelsea’s third appearance of the 21st century and their first since winning the trophy back in 2012, although that does not necessarily mean they will settle easily. Tuchel is the first manager ever to reach consecutive Champions League finals with different clubs. He will be desperate to avenge a narrow defeat in last year’s competition.

Cautious tactical chess awaits

Pep Guardiola was the first person in the Premier League to understand the unique demands of football in a pandemic, increasing his team’s share of possession while slowing the game down and putting the brakes on City’s pressing.

With players mentally and emotionally exhausted and with so little time on the training ground, moving to a more patient, tiki-taka style of football was the masterstroke that won Man City the title.

Thomas Tuchel was the first person to follow Guardiola on that journey. When the German arrived at Stamford Bridge we were told to expect frequent formation changes and incessant tweaking, as well as some blood-and-thunder football in the Jurgen Klopp mould.

Instead, we got a rigidly formed and never changing 3-4-2-1, with compression between the lines and controlling possession the primary features.

The similarities between the two managers over the last few months should ensure Saturday’s match will be risk-averse, tidy, and low on goalmouth action. That tends to be the way with finals anyway, but as in the FA Cup semi-final we can expect a game of tactical chess between the two managers.

How Tuchel beat Guardiola twice

That’s not to say it will be boring. Chess is fascinating – if you understand what you’re watching and are willing to appreciate the subtleties of the moves and counter-moves.

The most recent meeting between the sides, Chelsea’s 2-1 win in the Premier League, was defined by the tactical battle played out in the dugouts.

Guardiola dealt the first blow with an unusual formation selection, deploying a 3-1-4-2 in which Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres hovered between free eight and inverted winger positions, sitting in the half-spaces outside Chelsea’s initially confused central midfielders.

Sterling ran the game early on from this role, while Chelsea struggled to progress through the lines because, in another unexpected twist, Guardiola instructed Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and Torres to sit in a narrow line and block the middle of the pitch.

Chelsea responded to the problem thanks to Tuchel’s quick thinking: he told Timo Werner to drop onto Rodri when City’s defenders had the ball, thereby freeing Billy Gilmour and N’Golo Kante – who had initially been pulled all over the place by the weird City shape – to split wide and focus on Sterling and Torres.

Tuchel upped the tempo in the second half by instructing his full-backs to push on more aggressively in the second 45, providing a pathway around that line of three, and by pulling Christian Pulisic much deeper to get Chelsea’s playmaker on the ball.

It was Guardiola’s turn to react and he wrestled back control of the game with the introduction of Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan, only for Tuchel to spot a weakness down Man City’s left and bring on Callum Hudson-Odoi, going for the kill.

Suffice to say the intricacies of the tactical battle will be completely different on Saturday. Both managers are keen to keep their cards close to their chest and both will have set traps in their previous meetings.

But the final will be just as intriguing and, once again, will be won or lost by Tuchel’s and Guardiola’s reactions to each other’s in-game moves.

The battles that will define the game

In both of their wins Chelsea looked to exploit Man City’s high defensive line by quickly playing longer passes through to Timo Werner, whose intelligent movement exposed the biggest flaw in the Guardiola approach.

Man City will need to press consistently in the midfield area to ensure Mason Mount cannot get his head up to deliver those passes.

Guardiola may also be worried by the strength of the box shape in Chelsea’s midfield. It is possible that his 4-3-3, with Ilkay Gundogan expected to support Kevin de Bruyne in the final third, will be light on numbers in the transition. In theory, Chelsea’s inside forwards can combine with the central midfielders to outwit Rodri and company.

As for the City attack, a lot of their focus will be on Chelsea’s right-hand side.

Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta have swapped roles in recent weeks, a telling sign that Tuchel is yet to find the right combination on that flank, and there should be a chink in the armour here for Man City’s playmakers to focus on. Phil Foden’s brilliant form is a cause for concern in areas around James.

But truthfully the tactical battle cannot be explained in any great detail and not only because the Tuchel-Guardiola rivalry is so new.

Each coach will have new methods to reveal on Saturday. Each team’s performance will be defined by how quickly and accurately they can adapt – and adapt again – to the unfolding story of the game.

 

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