A lot had been made of the dreamy unprecedented pursuit of a quadruple of trophies this season by English Premier League champions-elect Manchester City that the term “unprecedented” came to qualify their every win in the second half of the 2020/2021 campaign, as they kept the dream alive with one victory after another.
After opening up a healthy lead at the top of the EPL standings to be considered champions-in-waiting, Pep Guardiola’s charges strode on in their challenge for the UEFA Champions League, the EFL Carabao Cup and the English FA Cup to complete the quadruple dream that kept a steady buzz in the reportage around the Etihad side.
That was until Sunday’s semi-final fixture against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where, unfortunately one quarter of the quadruple pursuit was extinguished to officially consign the dream to the bin. And, it was a deserved victory for the purposeful and resilient Blues, who have now punched their tickets for the FA Cup final in May.
For a long while, the tactical chops in the English top flight has been Guardiola’s uncontested claim. Since taking over at City, he had had an unrivalled hold on the tactical front especially in the intricate comprehension of the complex mechanisms of the game of football. Jurgen Klopp himself could not hold a candle to Guardia’s excellence of this area of expertise.
Now, in Tuchel, the Spaniard must accept that he has met an equal. If he had any doubts left, this loss of the FA Cup title run and the collapsing of their quadruple dreams must now remove all doubts. The tactician that he is, he will see it and he will appreciate it in its subtlety.
Tuchel set up Chelsea to overload City in the wide areas and they had great success doing this in the early part of the semi-final. This came from Tuchel’s recognition of the propensity of the Cityzens to often leave space behind their full backs. It was their plan for players like Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech to get into these areas as often as possible.
It was this exact formula that Chelsea applied to score both the disallowed goal and the winning goal. That it was not corrected the moment the goal that was not allowed to stand went, in the sixth minute, allowed the Blues to repeat the system. That was all the goal needed to win and it was enough in the end.
To Guardiola’s credit, the moment he got to grips with their tactics, he initiated a pattern that meant that Chelsea were gradually pushed back over the course of the contest. Yet, the tight contest remained a compelling tactical battle that was won with that goal and a well-drilled defense, which, in true standard Chelsea practice, was thrifty.
Again, as part of Tuchel’s masterplan to outdo Guardiola in the tactical space, the ability of a runner like Werner against the City backline whilst leaving performers like Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic on the bench was deliberately considered and employer. It worked again as Werner made the difference for Chelsea.
The German, who has had a tough first season in the EPL, demonstrated why Tuchel kept faith with him for the specific assignment he was given. He it was who broke in behind the City defence to square for Ziyech to score. A very deliberate ploy by Tuchel, executed to perfection by Werner, to the advantage of the Blues.
What this clearly points to, beyond the obvious title hopes for Tuchel in his debut half-season and the end of the quadruple dreams of City, is that Chelsea have staked their claim to challenge forthrightly for the league title next season and present a very strong contention against City and all other comers. Tuchel is clearly making the £220 million worth of summer business into a formidable unit that will harness all the talent available in the team.
Apart from the blocked cracks in the backline, that has stifled most of the attacks thrown at it to the point of keeping 14 clean sheets in 19 games, Tuchel has also worked to carve the midfield in that shape as well, so that it now operates as effectively as the defense has become known for. With a little extra tweaking in the Tuchel style Jorginho and N’Golo Kante will be tough as nails to go past.
The German coach will have what is left of the season and the summer to fine-tune the rest of the squad. There may be a few buys to shore up the deficiencies in attack, their weakest link at the moment, but the tactical mind of Tuchel and the deep pockets of Chelsea owner and bankroller, Roman Abramovich, can solve that problem whether they bring in new legs or make do with what they already have.
So far, it has been good business for Chelsea bringing in a manager in the mould of Tuchel and if what he plans to do for Chelsea in the seasons ahead are anything like what he has been able to accomplish in his half-season at Stamford Bridge, then other teams will need to begin to see Chelsea in a whole new different light, especially after his tactical display against a tactical mind like Guardiola’s.