Chelsea ’s rapid reassertion of power this year blindsided Manchester City – and the rest of the Premier League. While Pep Guardiola’s attention was elsewhere, the west London club re-emerged as the main contenders to stop the champions defending their title.
The two teams meet at Stamford Bridge tomorrow and Guardiola has no illusions about the importance of beating Thomas Tuchel’s side. Memories of City’s 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League final in May are still raw. Even though it is early in the campaign, all indications suggest that the German has a squad capable of winning the league for the first time in five years.
The growing rivalry with Liverpool was the focus of the Etihad’s attention in that period and Chelsea appeared to be on the wane.
“It looked like they’d given up,” one source close to City said. Roman Abramovich became embroiled in political issues when relations between the UK and Russia deteriorated in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning incident three years ago. The Chelsea owner withdrew his application for a visa amid suggestions that the UK government would not grant him entry into Britain.
There was some speculation that the 54-year-old had lost interest in football and the club was way down his list of priorities. That, coupled with a transfer ban and the appointment of Frank Lampard as manager, gave the impression that the days of big ambitions and even bigger investments at the Bridge were, at least temporarily, over
Chelsea spent more than £220 million (€257m) last year, showing that their oligarch owner was still engaged, but the team remained directionless. The appointment of Tuchel to replace Lampard in January changed everything.
The 48-year-old has the tactical nous to deploy his expensive squad in a more efficient manner than his predecessor. The £100 million (€115m) addition of Romelu Lukaku in the close season underlined Abramovich’s commitment to winning. Arguably, Chelsea have more strength in depth than City, a situation that few predicted in the waning days of the Lampard era.
Guardiola was undone as much by his own tactics as Tuchel’s in Porto. The Catalan cannot afford to make a similar mistake tomorrow. Some of the 50-year-old’s biggest admirers are frequently baffled by the City manager’s strategy. Guardiola’s decision to cede the midfield in the biggest game in the club’s history gave Chelsea the ideal opportunity to win the Champions League for the second time.
Tuchel won all three meetings with City last season, emerging victorious in the league and FA Cup as well as Europe.
Tuchel’s approach is different. Chelsea like to control the central areas. N’Golo Kante is one of the best midfielders in the game, Jorginho is hugely influential and Mateo Kovacic can switch from an aggressive box-to-box role to a defensive fulcrum when necessary. The question tomorrow is whether Guardiola will attempt to compete in the middle of the park and try to match Chelsea’s shape or take a more aggressive stance. It is likely his selection will be dictated by injuries.
With John Stones and Aymeric Laporte doubtful, the potential for Lukaku targeting Nathan Ake is a huge concern. Fernandinho has been City’s most effective midfielder in screening the defence but the 36-year-old’s form has dipped this season and his mobility is not what it was.
If Guardiola opts to effectively play a front five by going with Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden as he did against Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday night, the Brazilian could be left looking like the boy with his finger in the dyke.
City have a plethora of forwards but not enough genuine midfielders in the traditional sense. That can be their strength when they overwhelm opponents but it can also be their weakness against top-class sides.
Chelsea have their flaws. The wing-backs push up, especially Marcos Alonso, and the centre-backs can become twitchy. Tuchel’s central players offer reassurance, though, and bring balance. They are good at punishing errors.
Guardiola now knows exactly what he is up against. It has been a remarkable year for Chelsea and they have progressed with breathtaking speed. City need to slow them down tomorrow.