In Germany, Pep Guardiola had Thomas Tuchel’s number. Indeed, his Bayern Munich side never lost to any of Tuchel’s Mainz or Borussia Dortmund teams, but the dynamic has been rather different since his move to the Premier League. The 48-year-old has more than proved himself as Guardiola's equal as Chelsea manager.
Tuchel’s team inflicted three defeats on Manchester City in the space of a month-and-a-half last season - in the Premier League, the FA Cup semi-final and, of course, the final of the Champions League. This record was partly why so many have tipped Chelsea as Premier League frontrunners this season.
Guardiola and City responded on Saturday, though, as the defending champions left Stamford Bridge with all three points. It wasn’t just the result that will have some reassessing their 2021/22 predictions, but the manner of the Manchester City performance too.
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Last season, Guardiola was guilty of over-thinking his approach in games against Chelsea. On Saturday, though, the City boss finally figured out Tuchel’s team by beating them at their own game. The defending Premier League champions can play better, but there was no denying the effectiveness of their game plan.
Chelsea’s success against Manchester City last season was in the way they managed to restrict Guardiola’s team from playing their own game. At Stamford Bridge on Saturday, though, it was City who stifled their opposition with Tuchel’s Blues unable to play their way through.
City pressed high on Chelsea from the start with Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus deployed as a front three with the purpose of having the energy to deny the hosts time on the ball, particularly in the wing back positions where Chelsea tend to have verticality. Guardiola wasn’t so concerned about the final product, although Jesus scored the winner. His primary focus was on stopping Chelsea.
With Manchester City essentially packing the middle of the pitch with six players - three central midfielders and the three forwards who frequently dropped deep to help the away side stay compact - Chelsea failed to provide Romelu Lukaku with any kind of service. “The attacks were already half-over when the ball reached him,” Tuchel explained afterwards.
“We played with the mentality that we had something to lose but there was nothing to lose here,” the German, clearly frustrated by what unfolded during Saturday’s match, added. “We needed the mentality from the start to take risks, they made us underperform and deserved to win.”
The toothlessness of the home team was illustrated by how they failed to register a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Chelsea’s Expected Goals was capped at 0.2 while City registered an xG of 1.7. Even when Kai Havertz replaced N’Golo Kante in an attempt to give Chelsea a platform closer to the opposition goal, they were unable to trouble Manchester City who maintained their shape and structure throughout.
“We can debate this endlessly and never have the answers,” Tuchel replied when asked whether his Chelsea team had paid for being too defensive in their approach. “We decided for 3-5-2 but I don't think it is a matter of structure. It is about adapting to the opponent to find the spaces.”
Numerous times over the course of his Chelsea tenure, Tuchel has been able to correct course by making tactical tweaks and changes in personnel mid-match. He did this only last week to propel Chelsea to a 3-0 away win over Tottenham Hotspur despite the Blues being second best in the first half.
This time, though, the German found himself up against one of the few coaches in the Premier League at his level. Guardiola and Manchester City didn’t just need this result to pull themselves level with Chelsea in the table, but to make the point they won’t let their supremacy slip easily.
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