Chelsea face a proverbial six-pointer like no other when they travel to Premier League champions Manchester City in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off.
What looked like a three-horse race for the 2021/22 title during the autumn months has seemingly descended into an individual sprint, with City currently boasting a 10-point cushion at the top of the table (though that could become an eight-point lead if Liverpool win their game in hand).
Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut appears unstoppable at the minute and, well, that’s because it has been. City are on an 11-game winning run stretching back to their 2-0 win over rivals Man Utd right at the start of November. To say they coped with the festive calendar would be a gross understatement.
Chelsea meanwhile have been a bit Jekyll and Hyde, winning just four of their previous 11 Premier League games. But, they are through to the League Cup final after beating Tottenham 3-0 on aggregate in the semi-final.
Man City vs Chelsea odds with William Hill
- To win (90 minutes): Man City – 4/6 | Draw – 11/4 | Chelsea – 4/1
- Top price guarantee enhanced odds: Kevin De Bruyne to score first – 15/2 (was 11/2)
- Top price guarantee enhanced odds: Romelu Lukaku to score anytime – 10/3 (was 11/4)
All odds accurate at the time of writing. You must be 18 or over to gamble. For more information, visit begambleaware.org
Of course, Thomas Tuchel would love to add another medal to his mantlepiece, particularly at a club where silverware is par for the course and failure to deliver often results in dismissal. But having already clinched the Champions League, he will be craving another title of esteemed stature: the Premier League.
Should the Blues go against the form book and beat City, the gap between the two clubs will reduce to just seven points with 16 games to go. It’s still a wide chasm, such is the level of consistency Pep Guardiola has brought to the Premier League, but one that doesn’t seem so unassailable with Liverpool and Man City still to play each other again.
Tuchel will be earmarking this game as a must-win and arguably Chelsea’s biggest of the season so far, so he will have to come up with a winning formula, something he has failed to do in four of his last five league games, which brings us back to the triumph in the League Cup.
In the first leg at Stamford Bridge when the spotlight was very much on Romelu Lukaku following his bombshell interview, Tuchel did something he has not done all season. He went with a back four. Chelsea were simply brilliant, controlling the game as they brushed past Spurs 2-0 in the first leg.
He returned to a more conventional back-three against Chesterfield in the FA Cup at the weekend and before the second leg against Antonio Conte’s men on Wednesday, Tuchel hinted at reverting back to the 4-4-2 (with two deep-lying playmakers) that worked so well at the Bridge.
“We are Chelsea,” Tuchel said before the match. “We have our style, we have our positions, and we have enough possibilities. We can play with two strikers, we can play 5-3-2, we’ve played this many times with the ball and off the ball.
“We have the same possibility to play with a formation with three strikers.
“Maybe even a 4-4-2, like in the match against Tottenham in the first leg, so we have some options.”
Tuchel opted to stick rather than twist, going with a 4-4-2 in a more back-to-basics approach that paid dividends as Chelsea comfortably saw off Spurs 1-0 (3-0 on aggregate) and booked their ticket to the Wembley showpiece, where one of Arsenal or Liverpool await them in the final.
So, could Tuchel once again opt for a back-four in what is an absolutely crucial game this weekend? He may be wise to do so based on Chelsea’s performance in both semi-final legs, and to potentially get Lukaku back into his goalscoring groove.
Of course, a 4-4-2 facilitates greater support for Lukaku, allowing Timo Werner to push up and function in a partnership that could prove reminiscent of the Belgian’s with Lautaro Martinez at Inter, one that fired the Italian club to Serie A title glory.
In tandem, the duo formed a near-telepathic understanding, steamrollering their way through defences and scoring goals at an absurd rate. And this may be the key to unlocking Lukaku’s full potential, particularly against Guardiola’s City.
When the Catalan coach first joined the Premier League, Lukaku — then at Everton — scored in his opening two games against him. His first came in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad, with Ronald Koeman’s men breaking the deadlock before Nolito restored parity late on. His second came in that historic 4-0 mauling at Goodison Park.
The key on both occasions was that Lukaku had a strike partner, and both assisted him. In the 1-1 draw, Lukaku was partnered with Yannick Bolasie in a similar 4-4-2 to Tuchel’s system against Spurs, with Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye occupying comparable deep-lying roles to Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic (essentially two No. 6s). And it was Bolasie’s ball forward that set Lukaku up for the goal.
In the 4-0 win, this time Lukaku was partnered up front with Kevin Mirallas in a 3-5-2, and his compatriot delivered an inch-perfect cross into his path for the opener. Since that game, though, Lukaku has gone five without scoring against City, firing a blank in the four Manchester derbies he featured in for United.
Much has changed and Guardiola has not only adapted but dominated English football since those results. But if Tuchel looks to throw a spanner in the works of this season’s title race, he may take inspiration from a blueprint that has worked for Lukaku in past and present. While Lukaku didn’t score, Chelsea looked a more fluid, cohesive unit to their recent Premier League outings.
A ‘Spurs special’ 4-4-2 may be just what the doctor ordered.