JUST shy of four months separated Chelsea’s Champions League final victory over Manchester City and their 0-1 reverse to the same opponents at Stamford Bridge earlier this season.
In the first game, Thomas Tuchel’s side controlled the narrative, creating nearly all the chances, and successfully nullifying the recently crowned league champions. Last September however the opposite applied, with City very much taking the initiative, while Chelsea looked a pale imitation of their usual selves throughout.
It is relevant therefore to determine what prompted this dramatic inversion, ahead of both teams meeting at the Etihad this Saturday lunchtime, in an encounter that Chelsea realistically must win to ensure their fading title hopes retains a pulse.
The most obvious place to start is with City’s line-up in Porto, that saw Pep Guardiola commit to a costly over-think in omitting both Rodri and Fernandinho for only the second time all season. With Kante and Jorginho both superb on the night, centrally shackling any creativity, it allowed Mount and Havertz rare space to wreak havoc in. It’s not coincidental that one passed to the other leading to Chelsea’s decisive goal.
It simply cannot be over-stated how fundamental Guardiola’s flawed set-up was that evening. The BBC described it as leaving City with ‘a muddled game-plan that reduced their effectiveness’.
Four months on however it was Tuchel who blinked, deploying an extra holder in midfield, thus restricting their options in the final third. With Rodri reinstated and City well-balanced they dominated proceedings and the most damning detail on the final whistle was that the home side failed to post a single shot on target.
???? RECORD BREAKER ????
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 25, 2021
It wasn’t simply this tactical switch of course that led to such a reversal of fortunes. In the Champions League final, City looked trepidatious, as if hoping the system would get them through despite the system having been changed. At the Bridge they played on the front foot from the off, enacting a relentless high press that suffocated Chelsea’s aspirations at source. Indeed, it was one of the finest, most perfectly executed examples of this bold approach ever witnessed in the Premier League.
Between them, these sides have been awarded 11 spot-kicks in the league this season. 9/5 says a penalty is given for either team at the weekend
An easy takeaway from all this is that both managers will have learned from their respective missteps meaning that Chelsea will go with principally two in midfield and seek to offensively hurt their opponents in the right moments. City meanwhile will look to replicate the adventurous strategy that paid off so handsomely in London, an intention that hardly bodes well for the visitors given that only Crystal Palace have been dispossessed more often this term.
All of which suggests goals, in a fixture that hasn’t been overly lavished with them of late, with three of the last four meetings ending 1-0.
Attempting to predict when these goals may occur immediately offers up a fascinating proposition. Because City’s mandate this season, and a significant reason why they are presently ten points clear at the top, is to start sharply and as they mean to go on, whereas in the past they have perhaps been guilty too often of feeling their way into games. It was exactly this early announcement of their attacking intent that we saw play out to good effect at Stamford Bridge and has resulted in Guardiola’s men scoring 15 times already this term inside the opening 25 minutes. Chelsea however, for all that they have uncharacteristically leaked goals of late, have only conceded once in 2021/22 in the first third of games.
Whether the hosts manage to double that number at the weekend remains to be seen, but we can certainly anticipate an initial onslaught against a Chelsea rearguard deprived of Chilwell, James, Chalobah and Mendy in the sticks. The likely return of Thiago Silva though is a huge plus for Tuchel.
Gabriel Jesus might be one of the most underrated players in the world right now:
• 13 starts in all competitions
• 5 goals 9 assists pic.twitter.com/BtknxHjVLL
— Craque (@CraqueHD) December 21, 2021
As for City, Foden and Mahrez are out, both big losses although it does increase the possibility of a start for Gabriel Jesus on the right, the Brazilian having created seven assists in the league to date. There is a good chance too of seeing Guardiola reinstalled on the touchline after testing positive for Covid, no doubt animated in whatever latest hideous jacket the club are trying to flog.
Foden and Mahrez have between them notched 20 in all competitions but if starting brightly has heavily contributed to 11 straight league wins on the bounce, so too has their ability to share around the glory with 14 different names on the score-sheet in the past month alone. And this startling stat echoes back to the opening paragraphs and our dissection of two very contrasting recent encounters. Because with City it is the system that brings them success as much as via individuals.
If Guardiola retains faith in it – and there is no reason why he won’t – then the home side should be backed to prevail, leaving the title race all but over bar the shouting on Twitter.
Tuchel’s men have been haemorrhaging goals – especially by their usually exceptional standards – for several weeks now. A 3-1 correct score is a tempting 11/1