Guardiola and Conte are two new acquisitions in the Premier League, with each of them boasting impressive tactical pedigrees. On one hand, Guardiola has been struggling with a hit-and-miss Manchester City side. His players are still adjusting to their new tactical workload, and while they started out the season in a promising fashion, Pep has found himself struggling off late, suffering from a leaky defence, and, at times, misfiring forwards. City, who, at first, dominated the Premier League, have now slipped to fourth, and have opened the title race back up for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs.
On the other hand, Antonio Conte went through a rough phase at the start of the season while he experimented with the formations and tactics that he needed to use to make the most out of his Chelsea side. However, a string of brilliant results followed when he fixed his formation and playing style. The new 3-4-3 that he uses allows him to give freedom to his attacking playmakers (Hazard, Pedro), while ensuring that his teams are defensively solid through the introduction of versatile wing-backs in the form of summer signing Marcos Alonso and breakthrough first team player Victor Moses. Furthermore, the metamorphosis of Azpilicueta and the maturity of David Luiz has allowed Chelsea to concede only 11 goals throughout the course of this season.
The matchup between the new boys was highly built up, especially if one considered the outcome that this match could have on the respective title challenges of the teams. Chelsea did come out with a win, and find themselves three points ahead of the pack, while City are now in fourth, having to fight off competition from the likes of Spurs and United. So, how was the tactical jousting between the two managers like?
Each formation allowed City and Chelsea to make the most out of their tactical strategy. They were, in my opinion, foreshadowing to the playing styles of the team.
Manchester City went through yet another tactical reshuffling under Pep Guardiola, with John Stones being recalled back into the first eleven, Kolarov being played as a centre back and Sane and Navas on the wings. They played with a back five while defending, with Sane and Navas playing as wing backs. While attacking, the back five transitioned into a back three to aid City’s attacking exploits.
On the other hand, it was more of the same from Chelsea, who lined up with their trademark three at the back formation, with only one exception – Fabregas, who made his first top flight appearance since the 24th of September, replaced an injured Matic, pairing up with N’Golo Kante to make the heart of the Chelsea midfield. However, compared to the City formation, Alonso and Moses didn’t contribute much to the attacking exploits of the team, due to the overwhelming force of the City attack.
- The Tactical Chameleon, Exploiting and the Double-Edged Sword
Guardiola brought out another one of his tactical tricks, pulling out another trick from his magical hat. City’s team were lined up with one purpose – to exploit the weaknesses of the Chelsea team. On that day, his side were focused on maintaining possession while overloading flanks to create chances.
John Stones, brought back specifically for this fixture, was tasked with bringing the ball out from the back with his brilliant retaining skills. He stayed deep for much of the game, combining his passing intellect with his defending skills to play as a last man. His comrades, Otamendi and Kolarov, were assigned the same instructions – maintaining possession. Otamendi is a good ball-playing centre back, and his passing skills, which mirror that of Stones, were used by Pep to ensure that his midfield and attack didn’t suffer from the loss of his passing centre back. During the build-up, Fernandinho dropped deep, giving security to the likes of Gundogan and Silva, who spent most of the game occupying attacking positions, which, in turn, allowed City to make the most out of their game plan – abuse the right wing.
The left side of Chelsea is comparatively weak if one studies the partnership of Alonso, Cahill, and the lack of Fabregas’s defensive mindset. Therefore, Guardiola decided to bombard that flank with his players. De Bruyne stuck to the right flank, supported with bombarding runs down the line due and through the half-spaces the attacking prowess of Navas, Gundogan and Silva. The half spaces allowed Aguero and Co to make runs through the lines, giving De Bruyne and Navas chances to pick them out with low crosses. If those runs didn’t work out, the likes of Gundogan and Sane were present in the space created by the runs, poised to pounce on the second ball and to provide other passing opportunities.
Figure 1 – City’s game plan was effectively carried out
While defending, City ensured that Chelsea’s defenders and midfielders didn’t have enough time on the ball, preventing them from switching the play, playing out from the back and counterattacking. This was achieved through a strict man-marking, with each City player assigned a Chelsea player to mark during their build-up phase. For example, Aguero pressed Luiz to ensure that Chelsea couldn’t rely on him to bring the ball out from the back. The lack of forward movement forced the likes of Hazard and Pedro to drop back to ensure that the ball moved forward, invariably disrupting Chelsea’s attacking shape.
Figure 2- Chelsea were forced to play defensively, with City exploiting the spaces in their formation.
Once City lost the ball, they also engaged in counter-pressing to prevent Chelsea from advancing quickly. The lack of passing options forced some Chelsea players to play to their weaknesses (for example – Kante as a playmaker, Cahill as a ball-playing centreback), which allowed them to regain possession easily.
City were dominating the first half. The intelligent runs of Guardiola’s attackers put Chelsea’s defence were on strings. After the first goal, it looked like City were set for a walkover victory, however, luck wasn’t on their side.
“Football is a combination of four things – the ball, space, time and luck.”
The intensity and complexity of Guardiola’s tactics had its toll on his side, physically and mentally. Pep’s tactics are often double edged swords – the strain that they place on his team often harm them.
During the second half, City began to slack off, and became less intense in their counterpressing, making them more vulnerable to counter-attacks, which allowed Chelsea to become more efficient in possession. Hazard and Pedro effectively used Pep’s marking system against him, dragging Kolarov and Otamendi out wide, making space for Costa to run into. The introduction of Willian was also vital. The pacy Brazilian and his direct style of play added another dimension of deadliness to Chelsea’s counter attacks. Things went from bad to worse from the Citizens after the substitution of Stones, allowing Chelsea to get their vital goal and kill off the game.
In conclusion, City had a brilliant game plan which was executed perfectly in the first half, however, Chelsea made the most of their chances, and used their luck to come away with the victory.
Written by Chaitanya Jadhav (@)