Manchester City’s Premier League champagne remains on ice after a 2-1 defeat against Chelsea but what, if anything, did the phoney war tell us?
Raheem Sterling’s first club goal since February put City ahead during a magnificently silly ending to the first half, which wrapped up with Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy being able to go to ground, get back up and still have time to catch Sergio Aguero’s gentle interpretation of a Panenka.
Hakim Ziyech, as he did in the Blues’ 1-0 win over City in last month’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, found the net and Chelsea looked the most likely winners from that point.
Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi each had the ball in the net from offside positions before Marcos Alonso did so legally with a scuffed effort in stoppage time.
Three weeks from now, these squads – although almost certainly not these line-ups – will reconvene in the Champions League final. Maybe in Istanbul, but who knows?
What to think?
Doing precisely the thing he hasn’t in City’s run to their maiden final in Europe’s top competition, Pep Guardiola dropped a team sheet that prompt plenty of reaction, all roughly along the lines of “What on earth is that?”
Having made hay with a team packed full of playmakers since the turn of the year, the man who once joked he would like to pick a side of 11 midfielders selected precisely one such specialist.
Were City playing 3-1-4-2? 5-1-4, if that is even a thing? Holding midfielder Rodri was definitely in a category of one
The easy conclusion to draw was one of Guardiola doing something so ludicrous, performing such a wanton act of deception that Chelsea or Tuchel would be completely unable to draw any conclusions for the final.
Watching a City team displaying nine changes from their midweek victory over PSG clank their way through proceedings, showing virtually none of their usual slick interplay, added some weight to that viewpoint.
However, that would mean Guardiola took a football match something less than completely seriously, which is something he had never really done.
After enjoying all the pre-match Beautiful Mind gifs, there was some precedent to be found.
When Guardiola’s Bayern Munich took on Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund in 2015, his biographer Marti Perarnau recorded an unusual tactical approach in the book “Pep Guardiola: The Evolution”.
Faced with a Dortmund team keen on packing central midfield, Guardiola opted to use wide areas and long passes to unpick Tuchel’s setup. Bayern deployed a 3-3-4 with the ball at times and ran out 5-1 winners.
While City lacked their usual fluency and assurance in possession – their 533 passes were their fourth-lowest number attempted in the league game this season – there was a definite plan to use the pace of Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus to occupy Chelsea’s back five
Andreas Christensen injured himself trying to deal with a long punt in the 44th minute, with Jesus capitalising and squaring to an unusually hesitant Aguero before Sterling picked up the pieces.
Aguero then became the fourth City player after Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Sterling to miss a Premier League penalty this season.
“I’m completely in love with him. He is an absolute top legend, an extraordinary player,” Guardiola said of Aguero after he scored against Crystal Palace last weekend. It is fair to say his assessment of the Argentina striker’s brainwave contrasted somewhat.
But Guardiola could reflect on the plan at least partially working. And if the first-choice attack of De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva had taken up the high and harrying positions City’s forwards did here, it is safe to presume their sharper creative skills would have mustered more than the five key passes Aguero, Jesus, Sterling and Torres managed between them.
Three not easy
One club that keen golfer Guardiola will surely put back in his tactical bag is the back three – certainly in this form, with three specialist centre-backs as opposed to a full-back tucking in to occasionally make a two a three.
Reece James in particular made merry for Chelsea after half-time, to the extent Benjamin Mendy had to be removed. It was no surprise that the visitors’ winner came down City’s left flank.
Tuchel also rested key performers, but his 3-4-3 appears to be set in stone. For all his struggles in front of goal and with offside flags, Werner’s speed has now run City’s defence ragged in two consecutive games.
Both times these were City backlines without Kyle Walker’s recovery pace, something that should significantly offset the Germany international’s threat.
But, once again, we’re into guesswork. Afterwards, Tuchel was only too happy to deal in cold, hard facts.
“We arrive [at the final] with the knowledge that we are capable of beating them,” he told Sky Sports after Chelsea overcame Guardiola’s City for the fifth time in the Premier League.
Irrespective of formations, personnel and any other smoke and mirrors, perhaps that counts more than anything.
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