Guardiola must rectify errors to avenge Champions League final defeat

Man City boss Pep Guardiola suffered heartbreak against Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel last season and has to rectify mistakes to avenge Champions League final defeat – he MUST play a holding midfielder and use Grealish to suck defenders out of position

  • Manchester City suffered three heart-breaking defeats by Chelsea in 2020-21 
  • Losses in FA Cup and Champions League robbed them of potential quadruple 
  • Pep Guardiola switched up formations but failed to find solutions for his side
  • Sportsmail assesses possible changes ahead of facing Thomas Tuchel again 

For a team that boasts one of the most developed squads in European football, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were rather disjointed in all of their meetings against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea last season.

It contributed to all three games against the German’s side ending in defeat, starting with the FA Cup semi-final defeat at Wembley, followed by the home loss which delayed them being crowned Premier League champions, and finally the heartbreak suffered in Porto in the Champions League final.

The Catalan boss tried a number of different formations and tactics to try and outfox his German counterpart, but none of his ideas provided solutions and most backfired to devastating effect.

Pep Guardiola and Man City lost all three matches against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea last term

The most heart-breaking reverse came in the Champions League final defeat in Porto

Very few managers have caused the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss so many headaches with such frequency, with Guardiola admitting before the Champions League final he had been forced into bold changes by Tuchel’s Chelsea system. 

Defeats to the Blues were even more painful as they robbed City of completing a historic quadruple, although the top-flight champions would still have had to have overcome eventual winners Leicester in the FA Cup final.

The latest meeting between City and Chelsea has been billed as an early clash between the two favourites for this season’s Premier League crown.

That however will have only added to the pressure and sleepless nights Guardiola has faced trying to solve the Tuchel problem.

So what can the City boss do differently to try and trump the seemingly new brightest young manager in town? Sportsmail has a look at what options he has at his disposal ahead of their trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime.

What can the Catalan look to change against his German counterpart ahead of this weekend? 

Play one of Fernandinho or Rodri 

‘I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental f*** up. A total mess. The biggest f*** up of my life as a coach.’

These were the words of Guardiola as Bayern boss –  published in a book called Pep Confidential – after he chose to play four attackers in a Champions League semi-final showdown with Real Madrid in 2013-14.

One wonders however if he would utter similar sentiments if he was given the opportunity regarding his decision to not play a natural holding midfielder in starting XI of the 2021 Champions League final.

Heading into the final, at least one of Fernandinho or Rodri had started in 59 of City’s 60 games last season. The only other occasion on which he had not used either the Brazilian or the Spaniard was against Olympiacos in the group stages.

Guardiola started without Fernandinho (left) or Rodri (right) in the Champions League final

His decision to play without at least one of the holding midfielders in Porto was therefore astonishing, and while Ilkay Gundogan had played in a similar position at Borussia Dortmund, it was one that worked against City rather than in their favour.

City failed to exert the sort of control that they had in domestic matches which had seen them collect a third Premier League title in four years, and they largely struggled to wrestle any sort of momentum due to their inferiority in the midfield battle. 

‘I decided the decision, to have quality players,’ Guardiola said. ‘Gundogan played many years in this position. To have speed, to find the small players, the quality, the brilliant players, inside, in the middle and between the lines. This was the decision.’

But Gundogan had not excelled in that position over the course of the season, preferring to win the ball higher up the field than having the responsibility of doing so deep in his half, as Jamie O’Hara said on talkSPORT shortly afterwards.

O’Hara said. ‘You could see straight away that Chelsea were getting in the pockets. Gundogan wants to press, he’s not a holding midfielder.

Ilkay Gundogan was tasked with the holding role, a decision which backfired in their defeat

‘The most important player in your team is the anchorman – the player that brings everyone together, the dictator, that’s why they signed Rodri. Fernandinho has been one of Man City’s best players of all time because he is the rock in that team.’

Unsurprisingly, at least one of Rodri and Fernandinho has played in all of City’s game so far this term apart from the Carabao Cup third-round win against Wycombe in midweek.  

Guardiola did not diverge from using a holding midfielder against Tottenham or Arsenal so far this season, and while they may not possess the same quality as their London rival, City always remain a stronger outfit with one of the pair playing.

They provide protection to the solid centre-back partnership of Ruben Dias and John Stones – who O’Hara claimed had their ‘worst game of the season’ in Porto without them due to being horribly exposed – while allowing Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne to make an impact in more devastating areas.

Ruben Dias (R) and John Stones (L) were exposed at the back due to a lack of protection

Guardiola has rarely thrown such a curveball early on in a league season however, yet he must ensure one of their two holding midfielders plays from the start at Stamford Bridge. 

Use Jack Grealish to create space in pockets

Guardiola’s assessment of his tactics after the Champions League final also highlighted his plan to try and break Chelsea down in central areas. 

And it was not the first time the Catalan had used the tactic of trying to play through the middle against the Blues and be left frustrated by the results. 

‘We didn’t find the key players in the pockets,’ the Catalan said during his post-match press conference after watching his side lose 1-0 at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final.

‘We didn’t create much, in the last minutes it was much better. They [Chelsea] are strong, well organised, seven players in the middle, experienced.’

Only two players have won more fouls in the Premier League this season than Jack Grealish

City have an abundance of creativity in central areas, with De Bruyne and Gundogan just two of the options available to Guardiola.

The solution however may come from the wider areas. City signed Jack Grealish in a £100million deal from Aston Villa in the summer, following a season in which he was the most fouled player in the Premier League.


1) Wilfried Zaha – 20 

2) Ismaila Sarr – 16 

3) Jack Grealish – 13

Guardiola hinted in both of the aforementioned interviews that his players struggled to find space in key areas due to the three centre-backs and two wing-back system Tuchel deploys at Chelsea.

That is in addition to the brilliant central midfield partnership available to the German, with N’Golo Kante often working tirelessly alongside Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho to shield an already formidable defence.  

But England international Grealish is a player who can pull even the best defenders into positions they would rather not be occupying and draw fouls as players double up on him, as he has shown already on the left of City’s attacking three.

Guardiola will hope his direct style and ability to commit players and open up other spaces which City can then exploit. 

Grealish won 167 free-kicks at a rate of nearly five per game in 2020-21, and only Ismaila Sarr and Wilfried Zaha have won more fouls this term.

If he can go anywhere near to replicating that average at the Bridge, it may just allow team-mates more centrally to be freed up, and potentially create dangerous situations from set pieces.

Provide balance by attacking down both sides

‘We have the chance to win the game, we have to attack, we have to defend, but also attack,’ Guardiola told BT Sport ahead of the Champions League final in May. 

‘We need everyone, in the second-half, I’m pretty sure it will be different than the beginning. They [Chelsea] play one system, five at the back, we need specific players in that area and we decided for him.’

The ‘him’ Guardiola referred to was Raheem Sterling, who started on the left-hand side of the attack in the Champions League final, despite not playing regularly for City in the build-up to the showdown in Porto.

Reece James (left) managed to nullify Raheem Sterling’s threat in the European final

Sterling did not manage to put in a single cross or create a single chance from open play

‘Reece James had Sterling in his pocket. I cannot believe Sterling even started the game with the form he’s been in,’ O’Hara said after the game.

The England star managed just 14 goals in all competitions last season – a sub-par tally considering the career-best 31 goals he had netted in 2019-20.

But as per O’Hara’s assessment, Sterling’s threat was completely nullified by James in Porto. Sterling only attempted three dribbles in the Champions League final, none of which were completed.

He did not manage to put in a single cross or create a single chance from open play, and played just one pass into the Chelsea box in the whole game. 

The former Liverpool winger did manage to get three shots off, two of which were blocked before he went agonisingly close to scoring an equaliser late on. 

Man City’s attacking locations in Champions League final

City’s attacking locations in Premier League match in May

Guardiola obviously picked him because he wanted Sterling to have an enormous impact on the game. But the extent of that can be shown by City’s proclivity to attack down the left, through an out-of-form player, in both their Premier League and Champions League encounters against the Blues last season.

In Porto, nearly 45 per cent of their attacks went down the left-hand side, while less than 28 per cent of them were aimed down the opposite flank. 

In the league match at the Etihad Stadium, that attacking locations figure increased to more than 48 per cent down the left, and below 24 per cent on the right. 

Guardiola evidently saw a chink in the armour in the combination of James and Cesar Azpilicueta, but on neither occasion was Sterling able to exploit it. 

The England star was on the left on both occasions, and while his form may not have been at its peak, it suggests that City did not utilise the right-hand side more often, particularly given that Marcos Alonso started as Chelsea’s left wing-back.

However, Sterling’s position on Saturday may be different given Grealish’s arrival and the lack of central striking options available to Guardiola. 

Moreover, the former Aston Villa man is in better form currently than Sterling was at the end of last season, and perhaps as a result he can help attacks flow as much down the other side as his. 

Yet Chelsea have not wavered in their defensive consistency since becoming European champions, and following their shutout at Tottenham have now kept more clean sheets than they have conceded goals in the Premier League under Tuchel. 

Therefore, perhaps City’s best hope of finding a crack in the Blues defence through the middle – as Guardiola has wished for – is by moving them from side to side by attacking down both flanks in the build-up, rather than the focus of the play coming down one half of the field. 

Chelsea have now kept more Premier League clean sheets than conceded goals under Tuchel

Don’t overcomplicate formation or positions

Guardiola’s tactical nous has seen him become one of the most distinguished managers in the history of the game. But his formations against Tuchel’s Chelsea exacerbated the complexity issue last term.

In May’s Premier League defeat on home soil, City lined up in a strange 5-1-3-1 formation and tried to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.

Instead of their usual 4-3-3, and trademark patient passing and possession-based game, the new formation saw the likes of Benjamin Mendy and Ferran Torres playing central roles behind Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero.

They largely failed to spark except a spell before half-time in which Sterling put them ahead and Sergio Aguero missed out on the chance to double their lead from the penalty spot.

Sergio Aguero missed a penalty as City lost at home to the Blues in the league in May

But it ultimately proved ineffective as Hakim Ziyech netted an equaliser before Alonso snatched a last-gasp victory, while Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi were only denied goals by the linesman’s flag. 

There was nothing particularly untoward with Guardiola’s formation in the FA Cup semi-final – in which he played both Rodri and Fernandinho – but he received plenty of criticism for making eight changes to the side at Wembley.

Ruben Dias, Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne were the only players to keep their place from a Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund a few days before, before the Belgian went off injured.

While there were suggestions he had not taken the competition seriously, the pile-up of fixtures meant something had to give.

Phil Foden was operating in central midfield in the Champions League final for Guardiola’s side

His most mind-boggling selections came in the Champions League final, but just as the top-flight defeat, he deployed players in confusing roles. 

As well as Gundogan, Phil Foden operated in central midfield, having displaced Sterling as the main man on the left of the attack for much of the second half of the season.

Guardiola will no doubt be pondering who to start at the heart of his attack with Aguero now gone and Gabriel Jesus blowing hot and cold, while Sterling is another option.

The hope is that the decision does not cause a radical overhaul of the formation or cause players to be put into positions they are not comfortable with.  

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