W hen these two sides went head to head during the Champions League final, it was a mirror image of their game from the FA Cup even though the approach taken in both games was wildly different. City dominated possession, with 60+% and committed to the high press - classic Guardiola hallmarks. The versatile Tuchel, ceded possession and targeted City's high line to great success.
In between these encounters, Man City lost a third game - in the league - but this did give a glimpse of a chink in Tuchel's teflon coated armour. One has to wonder if Pep was too hasty in dispensing the tactics he came up with for that game because City tore Chelsea apart only for Aguero to produce an infamously god-awful Panenka from the penalty spot which failed to extend City's lead to 2-0.
In this match, City went with a 3-5-2 and whilst they enjoyed less of the ball than their other losses (51% possession), it was the only game in which they outscored Chelsea in terms of XG 2.03. It is rare for Chelsea's back three to face two forwards blessed with the movement of Aguero and Jesus but this seemed to trouble them in the first half. It is difficult to envisage Pep trying this again but if he uses Torres and Jesus up front, it could give Tuchel food for thought
In terms of selection issues, Defenders Aymeric Laporte and John Stones were both injured on international duty and are unlikely to feature against Chelsea. This is a concern as Dias and Ake are two of the weakest 1 v 1 defenders at the club, and that could play into Chelsea's hands. Oleksandr Zinchenko is another doubt, while Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan will be assessed later this week. For Chelsea, Pulisic and Mendy are potential doubts though they have not been fully ruled out for the weekend.
My predictions are based on a lot of these players passing fitness tests but anyway without further ado, let us dive now into the tactics and key battles which could decide Saturday's fascinating duel!
Chelsea to no one's surprise adopt a 3-4-2-1 when they build up. City in previous encounters sought to utilise a 2-3-5 pressing structure, man to man in an effort to disrupt Chelsea's build up phase. Whilst the numbers suggest this worked to a degree i.e. Chelsea's possession stats were inferior in their last three encounters, Chelsea were able to get through the waves of pressure and exert pressure on City's backline regularly enough to pose a threat.
Players like Rudiger know his position so well that pressing him is almost futile especially when you consider he has Alonso or a Chilwell right next to him or a Jorginho nearby. These are very press resistant footballers but City have at times been able to force even players of this calibre into rushing their passes or hitting it long - low percentage plays which led to City regaining the ball.
During the Champions League final, Rudiger's passing % dropped from his usual 91% to 75% a sign that his possession game did struggle under extreme stress. One key factor behind this is that he is an inverted side centre back and does not have a left foot. This makes it easier to cut off his passes to the left back and down the line, forcing him to have to readjust his body shape to get it back on to his right - by which time his passing options are cut off and he has to go long. Azpilicueta on the other hand was able to maintain a 89% pass accuracy rate... a right footer at right centre back.
As for Jorginho he tends not to have a huge influence on these encounters in possession as his relative lack of mobility makes him an easy pressing target. Thus when he does get it, he tends to pass it backwards but nevertheless he is not someone who is likely to make an error in possession. Kante on the other hand is a bigger threat for City to contend with. Not only is he good at protecting the ball, but a quick twist and turn and he can burst into space and feed the ball into Chelsea's inside forwards.. Kovacic similarly so.
Pep needs to formulate a midfield which can press but can also drop back and plug the gaps, slowing down Chelsea's tempo of play once they beat the press. Fernandinho and Rodri is not that midfield, neither is a midfield where Gundogan is sitting deep. His strange midfield of Sterling, Rodri, Torres, flanked by Cancelo and Mendy was actually the most effective at disrupting Chelsea. He was willing to give up more of the control in return for counter pressing and taking Chelsea by surprise. We need to see more of this type of innovating thinking.
If there can be one criticism levelled at Chelsea, it is that their chance creation production line feels rather forced than effortless. Liverpool and Man City look more fluid in attack and United boast greater firepower in their ranks, but what Chelsea do have is a clinicality and precision in the way they produce chances. It is a very methodical way of attacking and every player is expected to play their role in the execution of their attacks.
With Laporte and Stones missing, it is presumed that Ake will be tasked with marking Lukaku in the right half space. Whilst Ake has the pace to keep up with the Belgian, he is feeble in the tackle and lacks the presence to put Lukaku in his place. The other hot selection topic is whether to use Timo Werner. He ran City ragged in the Champions League final although he was wasteful...
Now that Chelsea have a box presence. It does seem more likely that crosses will be utilised than in previous encounters between the two sides. With Alonso cemented back in the side, and James an increasingly permanent presence down the other - expect to see Lukaku and Havertz make their presence felt inside the box. Rodri, Dias and Walker will be tasked with dealing with the aerial threat but outside of those two... there isn't much of a threat from open play aerially.
On paper, one might think that Chelsea are well set to counter but in truth the statistics from past Chelsea City games have not quite reflected that, with both sides managing to stifle each others counters before they can truly get going. Perhaps one major factor is City's ability to produce clever fouls before the opposition can get going. Nevertheless with Ake in City's defence, there is a chance for Chelsea to get Lukaku running at him like a train on the counter.
Jorginho has failed to get his trademark long passes going in this transitional phases, as he gets closed down too quickly but one player who did manage to unlock City's defence on the transition was Mason Mount. His sheer dynamism and versatility means he can find pockets of space in games like this and really drive the game forward with a pass or a run which eats up space. He will be a key player if Chelsea do anything on the counter.
One of Pep's biggest flaws from the final was playing Gundogan as a CDM. It meant City had no legs for the negative transition and it allowed Chelsea to be one yard ahead in any counter situations with Gundogan always looking like he was chasing the game rather than being in the right position. Rodri is an absolute must IMO and the one player who can get back and position himself well for the counters.
Since the arrival of Grealish, City's build up has predominantly been built from the left hand side. This has been extrapolated by the fact that Cancelo is deployed at left back, the superior player in the build up compared to Kyle Walker. Thus it is fairly predictable that City will force most of their passes through this side of the pitch.
One way Chelsea can counteract this is by pushing Kante and Mount down this side of the pitch. This will make it more tougher for City to be progressive with the build up and force it down the flank where Walker and Jesus play. Walker does not really progress the game much in his latter years and Jesus' build up skills are very limited. If Mahrez starts, then City do function better in the build up phase and the likes of Havertz and Alonso would need to block out the passes into Mahrez.
The reintroduction of Raheem Sterling into City's starting line-up was a dismal failure. Sterling in a City shirt lacks the assurance and desire that we were blessed to witness during the European Championships. He looks a man devoid of purpose and that is something City can ill afford when they have a team that needs as much spark as they can get in the final third.
Before that game, Ferran Torres, Mahrez, Jesus have given that City line the killer instinct that complements the likes of Grealish and De Bruyne so well. All three can penetrate spaces, get on to through balls and it gives City's possession a sense of urgency and directness that was missing in the Champions League Final. Look at the front three used in that game... Sterling, De Bruyne and Mahrez. Not much thrust in that attack bar Riyad.
Chelsea's backline struggled when Pep used Aguero, Jesus, Torres and Sterling in the same lineup. They were at sixes and sevens, trying to put out all the fires City were causing in their third. Thus it is advised that Pep goes for an attacking front three full of pace, with a midfield of Rodri, Gundogan and De Bruyne.
City have made no impact in truth on Chelsea in positive transitions. That is not to say the likes of Sterling have not been able to get in good positions but the killer instinct was simply not there. If City want to beat this Chelsea side they need to seduce Chelsea into having more of the possession and countering them with pace.
Jesus, Torres and Grealish or even Mahrez, Torres/Jesus and Grealish is the forward line of choice if City want to hurt this Chelsea side in the transition. Rudiger tends to defend 1 v 1 situations on the counter well, but even he would be slightly concerned with having to deal with a fluid front line possessing such pace and penetration. If I was Tuchel and saw that City front line, I would be tempted to go with a 5-4-1 and just seek to frustrate City for large periods and make the backline as compact as possible.
The type of game where Tuchel is much more likely to put out a solid set of tactics and knows he has the default gameplan to come away with a victory. However there has been evidence of an evolution from this City side. Pep seems to be slightly moving away from the suffocation by possession template and his front three this season has looked very un Pep-like. How this game pans out very much depends on whether Pep goes back into his shell of stupid selections or is brave enough to play with a pacey forward line and risk ceding control.
Prediction… If Pep goes with a front three which has Sterling or Foden i.e. non penetrative players, I expect Chelsea to squeeze a win. Likewise if I see Rodri and Gundogan missing from the midfield. If he goes with a pacey front three and a proper midfield of Rodri, Gundogan and De Bruyne - there is an opportunity they can actually give this much lauded Chelsea backline some trouble.
On the other hand Ake is a massive weak link in defence. Edging towards a Chelsea win and at worst a draw... City players are battling injuries, there is also no guarantee Pep picks the right lineup and they rarely win these type of games unless they're firing on all cylinders.