Pep Versus Tuchel Part Three: Warming Up
Teams of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel have met seven times before, split into three episodes of club football. In this mini-series, building up to the Champions League final, we dial back the tape and go over the main tactical themes of those seven meetings, divided into three acts. In the third and last part: Manchester City versus Chelsea in the 2020/21 season.
Written by Erik Elias.
Theme: warming up for the final.
After Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich won the German Cup in 2016 at the expense of Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund, the football gods decided they would have to wait five years before their next official meeting would take place. In the meantime, a lot of things changed, and some things didn’t.
Guardiola, of course, would go on to dominate the league at his new club, though picking up three league titles in five seasons is actually below his own standards. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola picked up a knack for clumsy Champions League exits with failed tactics and key moments going against his team. This continued at Manchester City and even got worse over time, the game against Lyon last season being the prime example.
In the 2019/20 season, for the first time in his coaching career, Guardiola was not competing for the championship with a top level squad. He corrected this by going back to the basics: more passing, less running. As a result, his team walked the league this season after a seriously awkward start.
A lot has been said in these pieces about Tuchel’s tactical brain. Lots of players and club officials are on record stating he’s not very easy to work with. Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke famously stated Tuchel to be ‘a difficult person, but a fantastic coach.’ He was sacked at PSG five months after reaching the Champions League final because of a long-lasting conflict with technical director Leonardo.
Chelsea made the gamble to hire him in January and boy, did it pay off. The overnight difference was spectacular, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. Chelsea achieved greater defensive stability through defensive possession, always well-protected against the counterattack with three defenders and two holding midfielders behind the ball. Tuchel took them from ninth to fourth in the league and reached the Champions League final.
— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) March 16, 2021
This last part of this mini-series recaps the games Chelsea and Manchester City played so far this season of and ends with some predictions.
City’s cup exit
Chelsea and Manchester City played each other three times this season. In the first game, Lampard was still coaching Chelsea. In the second and third game, both managers rested their key players. On the one hand, this makes predicting this final a bit tricky, because we don’t know how these teams look under these managers when they meet at full force. On the other hand, both matches have fallen into the same game state: lots of passes from both teams, little pressing, little ball-progressing, few chances.
There was the FA Cup semi-final, won by Chelsea. Guardiola made a total of eight changes to his nominal starting team. Unsurprisingly, a slightly less rotated Chelsea won the match.
Wholesale player changes, but no real changes to style and game plan, meaning we saw a game with little excitement. As our writer Joel Parker put it: a slow and methodical FA Cup semi-final.
A key tactical feature (and worth observing tonight as well) was how well Chelsea used their wing-backs to draw out City’s fullbacks and create space in behind to run into for the forwards. The screenshot below captures the scene leading to the opening goal by Hakim Ziyech, which would turn out to be the only goal of the match.
54th minute in April 2021: Chilwell drags Cancelo out of position and passes back to Jorginho (Grey ball: First pass.) Mount moved into the vacant space to open a passing lane for Jorginho (Black ball: Second pass.)
The situation above happened a lot throughout the match, yet Guardiola was lax in addressing this. On our podcast we even wondered whether Pep and City cared that much about this game? Something you normally don’t have to wonder ponder with Guardiola, because he is famously competitive and wants to win everything. On the flipside: this is the most demanding season ever for players and coaches in terms of workload, maybe City just didn’t have their day.
B-team versus B-team as Pep rolls out a 5-1-4 formation
Whatever the cup match lacked in tactical surprise, the league match a couple of weeks later made up for. Guardiola has played midfielders as forwards and defenders for his entire career. This time, he flipped the switch and played fived defenders, one midfielder (Rodri) and four attackers in a 3-1-4-2 shape.
Because of the lack of midfielders, City were heavily flank-oriented in this one. This approach lead to a few big chances, which might be relevant for tonight’s game. It’s notable their counterpressing in this game was quite good, which was especially important because of the five attackers on the pitch and little midfield cover. Worth remembering also: Kun Agüero missed a penalty in panenka style just before half-time.
Notable on Chelsea’s side was Tuchel’s use of a striker duo, instead of two attacking midfielders behind one striker. Heaving expected (?) the City back three, this gave them more zonal cover for passes into midfield.
In possession, Chelsea were mostly focused on getting the ball in behind for Werner, which was the main way they could hurt City in the match. But most of all, they acted as the conservative possession-oriented side we have gotten to know since January. This meant that even though City had five attackers on the field, this game turned into the aforementioned game state of pass, pass, pass, without much shooting. A half-volley Ziyech strike and late winner from Alonso meant Chelsea ran out winners, though City created a lot more from open play.
As we all know, winning finals (and knockout football in general) is about taking your chances. Chelsea certainly did that in this match, and if they do that tonight, they will walk off the pitch Champions League winners. Or, as Guardiola once put it bluntly himself in the dressing room: ‘you have to score the fucking goals’.
If you have time on Sunday, read some tactical previews about this match and compare the preview with the actual match. It’s highly unlikely a preview predicts the game in a correct manner. Even with these two managers who try to control everything, matches have their own dynamic and in the end, players come up with solutions more often than coaches. For that reason, Tuchel calls football ‘a players game’ and not a ‘coaches game’.
That being said, here are some predictions and some overall ramblings.
In the best scenario, with all of the best players now actually on the pitch, we’ll see a game like Barcelona against Bayern Munich in 2015: two teams that want the ball and fight over every yard. The most likely scenario is what we saw in the two earlier matches: a lot of passing between defenders and midfielders, unable to get past the press, unwilling to take a lot of risks with their positioning.
My boring take on tonight's game: it's going to be boring.— Erik Elias (@erikelias_) May 29, 2021
Like, not Benitez - Mourinho boring, but 87% pass completion and six shots at half-time boring.
A less likely scenario is only one of these teams dialing up the pressing a notch, the most likely of those two being City. Though that would indeed be fun and more open, it is not what we can expect based on the earlier games and Guardiola’s tendencies in top games this season.
In terms of formations. It’s probably going to be City’s 4-2-4-0 shape (which was used in a lot of big games this season) against Chelsea’s 3-2-4-1 shape. Tuchel might ponder returning to the striker duo, though it leaves the halfspaces more open in the first phase of City’s buildup. Watch out for City’s pressing against Chelsea’s three plus two buildup shape; if it’s the 4-2-4-0, they need to be top drawer to close off passes into the holding midfielders and the attacking trio.
Opening stage is part Chelsea, part Manchester City, both teams do not really press and share possession fifty-fifty. Chelsea then score 0-1 before half-time on the counter. City gain more and more control over the match, but fail to make any actual inroads. Agüero misses their only big chance and Chelsea carry the win over the line.
Grab a beer and some snacks, try not to think too much about how these impressive squads and coaching staffs were funded and enjoy the game!