Chelsea – Manchester City: Why Pep’s Diamond Did Not Work (1-0)
Despite rolling out a ballsy 3-4-3 diamond formation without an actual defensive midfielder, Guardiola’s Manchester City creating next to nothing in the Champions League final. Chelsea defended like they always do under Tuchel: well-organized and disciplined, as direct balls into Werner were a good way to create chances on the counterattack. By virtue of a Kai Havertz goal and City’s offensive problems, Chelsea ran out deserved Champions League winners.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
A shape with three defenders and two midfielders in front has been at the core of Chelsea’s success under Thomas Tuchel. The only question going into this match was whether the triangle up top would make Chelsea appear in a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-2-1 shape. Because of Timo Werner’s importance in stretching the pitch and Mason Mount being Chelsea’s best player this season, this essentially boiled down to the question: Kai Havertz or Christian Pulisic as the third option up front?
The former was played, meaning Chelsea went into their second Champions League final with Édouard Mendy between the posts, protected by captain César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger. The incredibly complete midfield duo of Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté was flanked by nominal wing-backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James. And as mentioned earlier, Mount and Havertz played behind lone striker Werner.
Pep Guardiola’s tendency to do something unexpected in big games showed up again here. He decided to bench both his holding midfielders and went for one of the most attacking formations he has used all season.
It is best described as a 3-4-3 diamond in possession, with Ederson as the goalkeeper and a back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Rúben Dias. Playmaker İlkay Gündoğan was at the base of the midfield diamond, with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva as central midfielders and Phil Foden as ten. Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez played as wingers and Kevin de Bruyne acted as the striker.
Pep probably thought what would Johan have done and then decided it should be a 3-4-3 diamond with a playmaker at holding midfield.
— Erik Elias (@erikelias_) May 29, 2021
Guardiola’s diamond: why it didn’t work
Pep’s plan in possession revolved around pinning back Chelsea’s wing-backs with extremely wide wingers to create space in the middle. In theory, City could exploit an overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. in the middle of the pitch, with their four midfielders and a dropping De Bruyne against two central midfielders and Chelsea’s two number tens.
Fourth minute. City’s 3-4-3 diamond shape against Chelsea’s 5-2-3 / 5-4-1 defensive formation.
City’s ball-progression was mediocre at best, because of the good staggering and positioning of Chelsea’s front five. Whenever City did get the ball in the valuable zones next to or behind Jorginho and Kanté, there were two reasons they were not able to create danger.
Firstly, what was lacking all night long was exactly what gave Chesea an edge: runs in behind. De Bruyne didn’t play as an out-an-out false nine. A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. He dropped into the ten zone often, appearing on the same line as Foden, but rarely deeper. On the flipside, he also didn’t stretch the Chelsea center-backs vertically, as he never went in behind.
As mentioned earlier, the wingers were mostly there to stretch the pitch horizontally. They did not get put in one-versus-one situations with their fullbacks often, but also seldom made runs in behind. This made life rather easy for Chelsea.
Secondly, whenever City had the ball in the halfspaces, Rüdiger or Azpilicueta would step out aggressively and pressure the player on the ball. This could be extreme, with the defender showing up at the halfway line or further. Chelsea would then still have two central defenders against one striker. In these dynamic moments with space opening up between central defender and fullback, the lack of runs in behind and between the lines were hurting City again.
19th minute. Upon receiving with his back to goal, Azpilicueta immediately presses Zinchenko. The gap in his back is not exploited by City
Almost all of City’s chance creation in the match came from transition and not from breaking Chelsea’s defense down. They could not find a solution against Chelsea’s stubborn 5-2-3 defensive shape and surprisingly, Guardiola didn’t adjust that much. As a result, Stones, Dias and Zinchenko ended up being the players with the most passes.
City pressing gives Chelsea chances
Throughout the night, moments of a long Chelsea attack against a set City defense were rare. City were more aggressive with their pressing than they have been in big games so far this season. Most often when Chelsea started their buildup, the three attackers would attempt to prevent passes into Jorginho and Kanté. In their backs, Foden and Bernardo Silva would press the holding midfield duo.
30th minute. City’s pressing against Chelsea’s buildup. Foden on top here, De Bruyne in the midfield role, shutting down Kanté. This is an example of extremely high pressing, most often, this was done with the strikers ten yards over the halfway line.
Both these managers crave control over the match, especially in moments of transition. It is therefore ironic that (unintentionally?) this match turned into a game of basketball because of City’s turnovers and high pressing. Both teams got half-chances and chances (Sterling and Werner) that could have changed the game, but did not result in a goal.
Chelsea are extremely hard to press because they have seven players (eight if you count Mendy too) relatively deep in their own half, all playing at the correct passing angles to provide a solution for the player on the ball. You will need to commit a lot of players forward to disrupt that (which is what City did here!) but it will leave you exposed at the back against Werner, Havertz and Mount.
Most often, when pressed in this way, Chelsea would look for Havertz to play an aerial duel or seek out their fullback who would bomb the ball down the sidelines for an onrushing Werner. After an incredibly fun forty minutes with countless transitions, Chelsea would get their goal this way, with Chilwell and Mount exploiting a two-versus-one overload. One ridiculous pass by Mount later, Havertz was one-one-one with Ederson and didn’t miss.
Werner has been getting a lot of slack for missing chances, and rightly so, but he was instrumental with his run here to open the space for Havertz. Chelsea went into half-time on a high, even though they had just lost Thiago Silva through injury; he was replaced by Andreas Christensen.
Why didn’t Pep change anything?
Guardiola is not afraid to change his tactics when they are not working. It is therefore questionable in-game management that after that first half he didn’t change anything at half-time, besides from giving Mahrez more freedom to come inside on the right.
This only clogged the field more in the axis and as a consequence, it put Bernardo Silva on the outside more, meaning the Portuguese playmaker was even less able to impact the game.
It would take until the 60th minute for Guardiola to make his first sub, and it wasn’t even by choice, as he brought on Gabriel Jesus for De Bruyne, who had to come off because of a nasty eye injury. By bringing on Fernandinho for Bernardo Silva in the 63rd minute, Guardiola revealed his not-so-revolutionary plan B: play a striker and a holding midfielder.
Kanté: man of the match
Of course, as the game went on, Chelsea did less and less pressing from a medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. and fell back into an out-and-out 5-4-1 formation. City, now with a striker, had over 70% possession in the last half hour, but produced only three shots.
The last phase of the game was basically the ideal tactical context for Kanté to thrive in, which is exactly what he did. He broke up a number of City attacks because of his positional intelligence and physical dominance and was incredibly useful in running the odd counterattack for Chelsea.
Kante cleanly won 3/3 of of his tackles, wasn’t dribbled past once and picked up 10 ball recoveries, more than anyone else on the pitch
— Tom Worville (@Worville) May 29, 2021
He would go on to do exactly that in the 71st minute, when he was at the base of Chelsea’s biggest chance of the second half. Kanté stole the ball from Gündoğan, drove the ball up and made a pass forward. One quick Mount layoff later, Havertz and substitute Christian Pulisic broke through the City defense together. Some Havertz trickery followed, putting Pulisic in a pretty decent spot to score, but his chip went wide.
Tuchel then made a relatively risky move in the 79th minute, when he brought on Mateo Kovačić for Mount. If the game would go on to extra time, Chelsea would go into it without one of their best players. Tuchel decided to bring freshness on the flank for the last ten minutes of the game, and Kovačić added some much-needed ball-retention and physical dominance on the left side of midfield.
City, now reinforced with club legend Kun Agüero playing his last game for the club, kept on trying but only got one half-chance, through Mahrez in the last official minute of the game. Seven (!) minutes of injury time made no difference as Chelsea ran out Champions League winners.
Guardiola’s plan was complicated to say the least, most notably on the left side. We’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether it was classic Guardiola overthinking – what is sure is that his tactical plan did not result in a lot of created chances while it left City vulnerable on the break.
The job Tuchel has done at Chelsea is unbelievable, but we should also comment on the individual performances of the players here. All four central defenders that got on the pitch, both wing-backs, Kanté and Havertz were fantastic in their own individual task within the tactical framework. If this is the level Tuchel’s Chelsea can perform at in the first six months of his tenure, it truly makes you wonder how they will look after two seasons.
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