FA Cup, Premier League, Champions League.
Last season Thomas Tuchel completed the hat-trick over his Manchester City counterpart, and friend, Pep Guardiola. In a season where City were pretty much dominant it was surprising to see a manager who had never beaten Guardiola (excluding shoot-outs) and had only joined his team in January get the better of the Catalan tactician.
On Saturday lunchtime they meet for the fourth time in England and the first time this season. Chelsea are the table-toppers whilst City, three points worse off, sit in fifth. Both teams have conceded just once and the Blues have scored one more goal than the Sky Blues.
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It should be a fascinating match but how should Guardiola approach it? Below are a few tactical ideas after we did the reverse for the Champions League final last season.

RESIST THE URGE TO TINKER

We all know Guardiola LOVES a tinker. It’s what he’s thinking about as he drifts off to sleep or takes a shower. Guardiola is obsessive and he loves to try and find a tiny tweak that he believes will give him the edge against an opponent.
This season he’s been pretty controlled, for the most part sticking with a 4-3-3 formation and only occasionally making changes once in-game. Guardiola will almost certainly toy with the idea of moving back to a three-man defence to match Chelsea.
Yet doing that will force a sacrifice in the midfield area, even if he drops Rodri deeper, and that might play right into Chelsea’s hands as it will become a game they’re comfortable with, rather than trying to exploit the weaknesses of the formation. Which leads us onto…

Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Manchester, England

Image credit: Getty Images

DON’T GIVE MIDFIELD TIME (AND STAY AWAY FROM KANTE)

How Chelsea line-up will be fascinating. They were overwhelmed last weekend against Tottenham Hotspur until N’Golo Kante came on in a more advanced position. It’s a new idea and it paid dividends, and it’s not unreasonable to imagine Tuchel might do the same again.
Regardless, City can’t afford to sit off the midfield duo, which we assume will be Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic if Kante is further forward. Tottenham’s relentless pressing hurt Chelsea in the first-half, they weren’t able to play around it because it was only a two rather than a three. Introducing Kante in the place of Mason Mount gave them a better link between the central duo and the two behind Romelu Lukaku.

N'Golo Kanté (FC Chelsea)

Image credit: Getty Images

So if all three start in this game how do you combat it? The answer, as we’ll discuss in the next segment, is to use the wings. Spurs couldn’t get much from Sergio Reguilon and Emerson Royal in the second-half when they tried to get away from Kante. With Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker, City should have better luck. Bringing his full-backs inside is a dream for Guardiola but it actually makes tactical sense for City. If they can shut down the middle two Chelsea tend to struggle.

GET WIDE, THEN DON’T, BUT BE SMART

Following on from that point. One of the things Chelsea have struggled with is wide players drifting inside. Their defence is excellent but there can occasionally be a lack of communication when the wider players come in.
In City’s 4-3-3 formation that is going to happen a lot. Be it Jack Grealish, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling or Gabriel Jesus, they will all come in. When that happens the full-backs have to go back out wide to occupy the wing-backs. By doing that, in conjunction with a runner from midfield, you can cause a temporary overload on the back three. In those moments you can strike.

Jack Grealish of Manchester City celebrates after scoring their fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Manchester City and RB Leipzig at Etihad Stadium on September 15, 2021 in Manchester, England

Image credit: Getty Images

Now you may be thinking back to the Champions League final when Chelsea shut down Sterling and Mahrez with brutal efficiency. So how do you prevent that from happening again? Well to start with you 100% play Grealish from the start (not that doing that was a debate) because he will go inside and out more than the others. Secondly you try and catch them on the counter.
City can move quickly through the gears but it’s very rarely a long ball (either on the ground of aerially). It involves risking possession more but getting the ball up to the forward players quickly is not the worst thing, particularly if it’s on the counter as Chelsea can be caught out.

EMBRACE THE PACE

Without wanting to sound like a FIFA 15 fanboy it is an open secret that Chelsea, for some years now, have struggled to cope with pace. It’s strange because pretty much every defender they have is quick enough not to be caught out. And in one-on-one situations they can hold their own.
But as a unit, something weird happens when they get attacked with pace. Gaps start to open up and space between the back line and the keeper can be found alarmingly easily. City aren’t really blessed with pace and it could be where Ferran Torres plays an important part. With or without the ball City need him running in behind to try and cause problems.
This is also where the full-backs can come in. If you assume Guardiola plays the 4-3-3 system then if they want to try and create a wide overload they can drop the deepest midfielder into the backline and shuffle a centre-back out to the wings. Then you can get one of Walker or Cancelo to absolutely bomb on and try and get either the full-back or wide forward into the space between the sideline and edge of the area in the final third. That’s where you can get your advantage.

Ferran Torres (Manchester City)

Image credit: Getty Images

ISOLATE LUKAKU

Easier said than done. Lukaku is one of the best strikers in the world right now and there are few, if any, central defenders who can live with him. However Lukaku can’t do much if he doesn’t get the ball, but to do that is really hard.
The way Tuchel has built his side pretty much every single one of the other 10 players have a license to try and get the ball into Lukaku’s feet, over the top or whipped in as a cross. It’s a brilliant strategy and is the perfect example of why signing Lukaku was a “money is no object” process. Lukaku’s all-round game allows them to attack from everywhere on the pitch, something that Timo Werner didn’t give them.

Romelu Lukaku celebrates

Image credit: Getty Images

So where are the danger areas? Central midfield and right wing-back are the big two. Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta seem to have a better understanding with Lukaku than Marcos Alonso at this moment in time and they’ve also shown a willingness to unleash the early cross, something Alonso does less often. Likewise the long balls through or over from Jorginho and Kovacic have proven to be really effective. The real struggles have actually come with Kai Havertz and Mount, with breakdowns in communication already a factor, albeit only after a handful of games.
That’s another case for squeezing up and pressuring the midfielders and wing-backs. Trust your defenders and sweeper-keeper to deal with the long balls over the top, it’s a risk but it’s better than being sliced apart by players with time.
Chelsea are an excellent team and Tuchel has proven himself to be one of the best tacticians in the world. But they are not unbeatable. Their recent matches have given a rough blueprint and if any team can execute that it should be City. Whichever way it goes it will certainly be must-watch viewing.
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