Pep’s plans and Tuchel’s tactics: which side will reveal their hand more in UCL final preview? – tactical analysis
For the second time in two weeks, Man City and Chelsea will face up against each other, but this time in the Premier League. Their last Premier League outing ended in a 3-1 victory to the Sky Blues – only thanks to an injury-time goal from Callum Hudson-Odoi did Chelsea score. Chelsea did earn revenge in the FA Cup a few weeks back via a 1-0 win with credit to Hakim Ziyech for the only goal of the match.
This tactical analysis will aim to predict the tactics of both sides, as well as what each manager could introduce in this match to give them the edge in a crucial game from a Chelsea perspective for the top four.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1): Edouard Mendy; César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Antonio Rüdiger; Reece James, N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho, Ben Chilwell; Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount; Timo Werner.
As far as Tuchel has gone with squad rotation during his tenure at Chelsea till this point, we are now at a time where the bottom half of the pitch almost picks itself. There are calls for Kurt Zouma or Andreas Christensen to get more of a look-in, but the selected back three here are regular starters. Same with the bank of four in midfield. That double-pivot, when fit, is first-choice no questions asked. Azpilicueta could shift up to right-back, but James has his merits offensively. The front three is much more of a puzzle, and it all depends on who plays against Madrid during the midweek fixture.
Man City (4-2-3-1): Ederson; Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rúben Dias, João Cancelo; Fernandinho, İlkay Gündoğan; Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling; Gabriel Jesus.
Depending on the opposition, City have stuck with either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 in the bigger matches this season. Versus PSG they went with a 4-3-3, but against Chelsea in the FA Cup, they chose a 4-2-3-1. This was primarily to cover the wide areas with either of the pivots moving wide to cover for the full-backs against Chelsea. I anticipate we can expect more of the same in this game, despite the less-than-ideal outcome in their latest battle. We could also see Ferran Torres on the right-wing thanks to a good display against Crystal Place, but Mahrez should be the winger of choice here instead.
Pep’s positional play (+ what should be altered from last time)
In their last match against Chelsea, City struggled to press effectively. Chelsea’s double-pivot in midfield gave them plenty of issues as they shuttled across the width of the pitch to support build-up play in the wide areas. There were moments within that game where City pressed too high and left huge gaps in midfield and moments where they sat too deep to spark a counterattack quickly enough.
City occasionally left massive gaps in midfield for Chelsea to counterattack into.
Chelsea’s midfielders played City off the park. They manipulated the space like you would imagine a tip-top Guardiola side should. Pep will have noticed these errors and will look to fix them; he is that type of coach to make little tweaks on the training ground for massive gains on the pitch. Owing to this, it could be foreseen that Pep goes for Gündoğan ahead of Rodri for a bit more mobility in midfield.
City should play a bit more spaced out than they did against Chelsea in the FA Cup as well. They aimed to attack down the core of the pitch, and as such, their midfield was packed, allowing for Chelsea’s centre-backs to play line-breaking passes to the forwards in plentiful space. Under Tuchel, this has been Chelsea’s main source of ball progression and if they can cut this off, they can inhibit Chelsea’s build-up play as a whole.
Although not a centre-back, but defender Chilwell can find Werner (unfortunately offside) in a position where he could exploit City’s high line. Notice how tightly packed City are here.
We saw a change in City’s pressing during the first leg of their tie against PSG. Their defensive setup in the first half was sub-optimal, but they altered a few pressing triggers and traps to limit the Parisien’s ability to build out from the back. De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva began to occupy the two PSG centre-backs, while Mahrez and Foden stayed deep and wide to make sure Pochettino’s full-backs enjoyed little success either.
City’s pressing system in the second half versus PSG: notice De Bruyne and Silva as the two up top engaging the press and the wingers staying wide to prevent wide build-up play.
This does come with its own risks; however, since City laid less responsibility upon central areas, it did leave them open to PSG’s formidable pace and ability on the transition. Chelsea, however, are a side less burdened with pace in midfield areas – Kanté is a quick player over ten yards but will lose in a longer footrace typically. City could find genuine success by lining their front four with Chelsea’s back three and wing-backs. This does, however, leave one Chelsea defender unmarked.
In terms of positional play, City will be looking to make the most of Ederson’s quite frankly ridiculous distribution, and some excellent rotation of possession in the backline. In the process, shifting their opposition from one side to another, gently creeping their defensive line up the pitch before making the most of one of the winger’s runs in behind, just as we saw against PSG midweek.
After a bit of possession rotation at the back, Ederson receives the ball and spots Zinchenko’s run a literal mile off (not literally).
With De Bruyne reeling back for the shot, PSG defenders give the Belgian their full attention, allowing Mahrez to ghost into the right post for a tap-in after a deflection.
Chelsea’s front three / front two
Chelsea’s attacking unit is the hardest part of the side to predict. Against Real Madrid in the second leg, they switched up their formation to a 3-1-4-2, with Jorginho as the #6, Mount and Kanté in the double-pivot, leaving Havertz and Werner up top together. Even in a formation with a front three, Chelsea do utilise a striking partnership as the game evolves, with one of the forward’s dropping into the hole.
We can see here that Chelsea did line up with a front three, but Mount’s positioning was slightly subdued, meaning he could come inside at any moment to become a #10.
In any formation, many of Tuchel’s attacking principles remain the same. When Werner has been the man of choice upfront, his pace and movement is consistently a danger, regardless of his ill-fated finishing this term. Clear training routines are demonstrated on the pitch, with one forward drifting deeper, taking a defender with them, while another attacker runs in behind. This could work against City’s high line but manipulating Gündoğan and Fernandinho will be a more difficult task, potentially requiring the assistance of either wing-backs shifting centrally.
Werner here steps back and left, moving Varane slightly to create half a yard for Pulisic to run through.
In the second leg, Chelsea were consistently in transition. Part of this involved Werner making runs such as this, although in this example he was ruled offside.
Chelsea have been building up via their wing-backs, with their final-third influence diminishing compared to Frank Lampard’s setup at Stamford Bridge. We have seen this in recent weeks in the form of Azpilicueta replacing James at right wing-back in some of the bigger games to maintain the defensive shape. Therefore, much of the ball progression has been fed through English international Chilwell.
The 24-year-old has had bright moments under Tuchel nonetheless in an attacking sense. Not to mention his Torres-esque goal versus Porto, but he has been a fairly consistent crossing threat from that left flank, most frequently spinning it across the face of goal towards the far post. The idea behind this being to find either the striker or the right-sided forward. This against City in the FA Cup did create a couple of good quality chances in the first half.
After recovering possession in a wide zone, James combines with Kanté and Ziyech to go beyond Mendy and receive the ball in the attacking third.
In acres of space, Chilwell arrives in the box at the right moment to have a decent goalscoring opportunity, which he scuffs in the end.
We imagine Ziyech will be rewarded for a good performance against City in that FA Cup display, where he scored the winning goal, but beyond that, had a good overall game with a few goalscoring opportunities. City struggled to contend with his movement and deliveries, he certainly brings amuck an unorthodox attacking style of play.
The best of Ziyech: against Sheffield United (his best Chelsea display to date), Ziyech chipped the early ball over the top for Kovačić to chase, causing the first Chelsea goal of the game.
Right place right time – Ziyech here ultimately scores the winner the last time the two sides met.
Pace on the counter will be vital to Chelsea’s success in this fixture. In the bigger games, Tuchel has been happy to cede possession, 45% against City in the FA Cup, 45% against Liverpool in their 1-0 Premier League victory, and 34% versus Madrid midweek, which shows that they are flexible in this regard. Especially against City, let them play the sideway passes in their half, allow them to enter your half, and utilise Kanté and Jorginho to recover possession and hit them on the break.
City will attack down the centre, how will Chelsea cope?
In the recent FA Cup fixture, Chelsea maintained City’s attacking threat excellently, forcing them into wide areas in the final third. This all began at the top of the pitch, where Werner and Ziyech pressed the two centre-backs, with Mount and Kanté pressing the double pivot, and Jorginho marking the sole #10 in the form of De Bruyne. This made it supremely difficult for City to attack down the middle of the pitch.
Forcing City into wide areas in the final third was a smart move; they do not particularly excel in aerial battles, especially not against the likes of Silva or Rüdiger. That is if they were even able to enter the attacking third if they could get past Chilwell or James, who were supported by their fellow central-midfielders.
Chelsea under Tuchel do not exactly employ a high press, but the higher they win the ball back the more effective their transitions can be. We saw against Madrid that Kanté was absolutely vital in engaging these turnovers and creating high-value goalscoring opportunities. Man of the match midweek, he was constantly nipping in between passing lanes and carrying the ball into the final third.
Kanté nips in here to recover the ball massively in Chelsea’s favour.
The Frenchman essentially creates a 3v2 scenario in Chelsea’s favour, where Pulisic can hit the byline and pullback for a Mount tap-in.
Exploiting City on the counter will surely be the attacking method of choice here. Only a few days after their Madrid victory do they face City, so this will be a difficult task to fulfil, and this is where City could potentially have the one-up over the Blues. They have one day extra in terms of rest from the last match, plus greater squad depth in many areas of the pitch.
In this sense, the game is perfectly poised for City to dominate possession and achieve the positional play they did not get to in their FA Cup semi-final. Fernandinho can fill the ‘Kanté’ role in City’s squad too, mopping up in midfield and engaging City attacks from deep. Gündoğan can position himself higher, providing a platform for progression that Fernandinho could find.
From here, City will need to find their inside-forwards on better form than the recent FA Cup fixture against Chelsea. Sterling in particular should have been City’s most threatening attacker but instead conceded possession on a much too regular basis. Feeding Mahrez in the final third could be devastating for Chelsea, with the Algerian in a rich vein of form at the moment.
In transition, De Bruyne finds inside-forward Phil Foden, with Mahrez on the other wing anticipating the cutback move.
PSG left helpless: Mahrez finishes off the Foden cutback for a tap-in.
Dress rehearsal for the European cup final this weekend. Who will come out on top? It will ultimately come down to the individual tactical decisions of the two world-class coaches. They both head into this fixture in phenomenal form, and one might believe it will be a game of mind-tricks between the two magical coaches.
From my point of view, I could be boring and predict a draw, but that would be just that, boring. It will be 1-0 to Man City, setting up the final in Istanbul perfectly.