Football Features

Why Pep Guardiola will be desperate to beat Chelsea

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:07, 24 September 2021

Premier League leaders Chelsea welcome Manchester City to Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon looking to extend their unbeaten start to 2021/22.

Thomas Tuchel’s side may only lead Liverpool atop the table by alphabetical order, but they have impressed in the Premier League’s early stages and are being tipped by some to go all the way.

They face their biggest task of the season so far in reigning champions (and title favourites at 7/4 with William Hill) Manchester City in Saturday’s early kick-off. The Citizens are currently fifth with 10 points from five games but will leapfrog Chelsea with a win this weekend. The problem is, they haven’t had the best of times against the Blues since Tuchel took charge.

Chelsea have won the past three games against Man City across all competitions, with Tuchel only the second manager to do a three-peat over Guardiola after Jurgen Klopp (no one has managed four consecutive wins against Guardiola). The Blues could also become the first club to beat Guardiola 10 times in his managerial career, an unwanted record for the Catalan coach.

So, how can Guardiola draw on previous experience to prevent that from happening on Saturday?

1. Don’t play a high line

In Man City’s three games against Tuchel’s Chelsea since the German took charge in January, the Blues have scored four goals. There were two 1-0 defeats in the FA Cup and Champions League along with a 2-1 loss at home in the Premier League, delaying their coronation slightly.

The 2-1 defeat in the Premier League was a strange one for a variety of reasons. Both Chelsea’s goals came through them exploiting their right flank, an issue Man City can only really fix in the transfer window. But the other two goals, in the 1-0 wins, highlights a problem the champions can address now.

Both goals came because Man City played too high a defensive line, allowing Chelsea to beat them with a simple ball from Mason Mount. In the FA Cup semi-final, the ball came down Chelsea’s left flank, with Mount playing in Timo Werner, who has pace to burn. The German, running through the middle of the two centre-backs, was then given the easy option of passing to Hakim Ziyech in the box because goalkeeper Zack Steffen had run out to try and close him down.

In the Champions League final, Mount was afforded space inside his own half and played an excellent ball through the centre-back and left-back (Ruben Dias and Oleksandr Zinchenko) for Kai Havertz to run onto. Out came Ederson, but Havertz took the ball around him and finished into the empty net, winning the Champions League for Chelsea.

Now, Werner may not play and Havertz isn’t in the best of form at the start of the season, but Chelsea will still look to exploit any space they are given behind the defenders, especially with Romelu Lukaku more than capable of punishing a high line.

Chelsea vs Manchester City: Romelu Lukaku odds from William Hill

  • Romelu Lukaku to score first (9/2)
  • Romelu Lukaku to score anytime (5/4)
  • Romelu Lukaku to score 2+ goals (15/2)

Odds correct at time of publication (10:45, 14/09/21). You have to be 18+ to gamble. Be Gamble Aware.

2. Go with the 4-2-3-1

If Guardiola would shun calls to abandon a high line (as many an idealist coach would), the other solution is to stop the defence-splitting passes from being played at all.

Much of the argument supporting this alternative is based on the Champions League final, not only because it is the most recent meeting, but also because it also displayed Guardiola’s biggest mistakes.

Clearly frustrated by results against Tuchel’s Chelsea in their three meetings so far, Guardiola has tested three different formations. He played a 4-2-3-1 in the FA Cup semi-final, a 3-1-4-2 in the the Premier League and a 4-3-3 in the Champions League final.

Understandably, the different formations utilised varying tactics and personnel and may have been selected for certain reasons. But there is one clear winner that almost worked in stopping Chelsea. Arguably Man City’s best game against the Blues came in the FA Cup semi-final, as they restricted Chelsea to just five shots to their 11. The 4-2-3-1 allowed Man City to control the game, having 55.4% possession and actually doing something with it.

In the Champions League final, Man City had 60.4% possession. Much of that is to do with the fact Chelsea scored relatively early, but ultimately City had fewer shots than an opponent happy to sit back and defend their first-half lead.

With two holding midfielders, Man City can push four players forward to be fluid in attack without exposing their own defence. One of the two deeper players could even push forward to press Chelsea when they have the ball close to their own area and try to force the Blues’ backline into an error (the best way to score against them).

3. Start Fernandinho

So, with the 4-2-3-1 you need the right personnel and unfortunately Rodri is unavailable for the trip to Stamford Bridge due to injury, which makes starting Fernandinho even more of a necessity.

The biggest criticism of the Champions League final came before a ball was kicked when the two starting XIs were confirmed. Playing a 4-3-3, Guardiola had decided against starting Rodri or Fernandinho, instead having Ilkay Gundogan as the central man in their midfield trio alongside Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva. And they were torn apart.

The decision allowed Chelsea’s midfield of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante to absolutely dominate and the latter was named Man of the Match for his excellent performance. Jorginho-Kovacic has been Chelsea’s go-to midfield duo this season with Kante nursing an injury, but that tandem is just as capable of dominating. All it misses is the defensive quality of the Frenchman.

If it is Jorginho-Kovacic, Fernandinho might have an even better chance of influencing the midfield battle.

4. Be clinical

This is easier said than done and something that ought to be stressed to his players rather than Guardiola himself. But while Chelsea have scored four goals in three games against Man City under Tuchel, they have conceded just one, and that was in a 2-1 Premier League win.

Contrary to what you might expect, the only game in which they scored actually provides Man City with the best example of how their lack of clinical finishing works against them. There was a crazy few minutes just before half-time at the Etihad as the two sides looked to be going in at the break level when Raheem Sterling put the home side ahead from close range.

Just a few minutes later, Gabriel Jesus was fouled inside the area by Billy Gilmour and Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. Sergio Aguero had the chance to essentially put the game past Chelsea but fluffed a Panenka, which Edouard Mendy caught with ease.

That proved to be a game-changer as Ziyech and Marcos Alonso would ultimately win the game for Chelsea with two of their five shots on target. And that was the difference. Man City had 16 shots in that game, but hit the target just four times (including Aguero’s penalty). In the FA Cup semi-final, they had 11 shots with three on target and the Champions League final brought seven shots with just the one on target.

Failing to sign a striker in the summer will have hurt Man City and may have dented their chances of scoring against a stingy Chelsea defence that has only conceded three goals in eight games across all competitions. But if they can get it right, Guardiola could be saying goodbye to his current Chelsea hoodoo.