I n the 90's there were several seemingly one sided league campaigns that were turned on their heads and are now considered to be unforgettable parts of English footballing folklore.
In 1997/98, Wenger's Arsenal were trailing by 11 with only 9 games left to close out another thrilling battle against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. The turning point came in the 30th game of the season when United hosted Arsenal at Old Trafford. The Gunners took the hosts down 1-0 and it turned out to be a pivotal game. Arsenal took off from there, clawing their way back with a relentless run before securing the title by a solitary point.
A few seasons prior, in January 1996, it was Sir Alex doing the chasing as Newcastle United were up by a dozen points. With nothing to lose and all to gain, Sir Alex Ferguson took a last throw of the dice by suggesting that lower table teams such as Nottingham Forest were not trying as hard against Newcastle. The comment infuriated Kevin Keegan, who infamously let his steam out on Sky Sports. His team suffered a similar meltdown as the Red Devils won 13 of the last 15 games to upend Newcastle to take the title - as unlikely an outcome as they come for a team lying fifth on Boxing Day.
This weekend we could witness the rebirth of Chelsea's title campaign and a setting of the scene of what could be an iconic title race or confirmation that we might as well call the season now and hand over the title to City (who are odds on favourites). Lets take a look at the key tactical issue that will decide what is in effect a title decider.
During their near-cataclysmic display against Arsenal, City were unable to deal with Arsenal's counter-press. 28 losses of possession in their own third is unheard of for a Pep Guardiola team and even during their loss to Tuchel's men in the Champions League final, they only lost the ball in their own third 13 times. So how did Arteta do it and is there anything Tuchel can utilise in this weekend's fixture?
The first thing to notice is that City had Ake playing at left back, who was unable to progress the game as effectively as a Zinchenko would out on the left. As a result Arsenal knew that City's main outlet would be Cancelo and a revved up Martinelli took him to the cleaners, hounding him at any given opportunity That is unlikely to be the case this weekend as Zinchenko/Walker will probably slot back into the starting lineup alongside Cancelo thus providing an alternative outlet.
So a tougher task awaits Tuchel's men. They have historically chosen to sit off Guardiola's men but against Liverpool recently there was a change of approach as they utilised a PPDA of 7 (very high press). Nevertheless their best hope is find certain periods in the game in which to put on a more sustained press and I would recommend that Tuchel uses the likes of Mount/Pulisic/Hudson Odoi or Werner in the wider positions to do that effectively.
Both team's attack in a methodical manner but the difference is that once Guardiola's men get into a certain shape 2-3-2-3 or 3-2-2-3 they are afforded the freedom to create. Yes there are certain patterns and movements in attack that are ingrained but ultimately the players are given a playbook and they can choose the plays out there in real time.
One key pattern of play that was noticeable against Arsenal in the second half was the domination of Mahrez and Bernado Silva of the right half space. Time and time again they both dovetailed beautifully and with Cancelo finally getting into his stride towards the end, they began to wreak havoc. With Chelsea missing Ben Chilwell and Reece James, their left flank looks vulnerable. Yes they have Rudiger in City's right half space but if they overload that space, can he save Alonso's blushes or is it worth Tuchel gambling on Malang Sarr starting...
The big question for Pep is who does he go for in the starting lineup. Grealish seems to be out of fashion at the moment and Bernardo Silva has gone from reject to MVP. Sterling seems to have been reinvigorated and enjoying his football again but Jesus and Foden are now considered to be fixtures in Guardiola's big game lineups. My personal preference is Foden, Silva and Jesus as a front three or even Foden, Jesus and Mahrez with Gundogan/Silva and Rodri behind them.
This would allow City to dominate possession but also have a penetrative threat. De Bruyne rarely offers a threat in the big matches and although he does seem to be getting back into form, he would be more potent in the second half when the game is more stretched. Likewise with Sterling.
Chelsea will simply not be able to compete with City in the possession stakes. For all of Tuchel's brilliance as a coach, he simply does not commit to all out possession in the same way Guardiola does and his appreciations of the nuances associated with building an all out possession side are of a lesser standard. Having said that, it is important that Chelsea follow the blueprint of the Champions League final and use mobile targets in the forward line in order to bypass City's press.
In the previous league encounter, Werner and Lukaku were too static and any time a forward pass was attempted, City just got in front of them and nicked it. The Chelsea players then resorted to playing out from the back at all costs but City were just too sharp and suffocated the Blues, with Jorginho having his worst big game in quite some time and setting the scene for his struggles for the rest of the season so far.
It is important that Chelsea know when to go long and put City on the backfoot. It is impossible to keep playing out from the back every single time against such a well drilled City outfit. Courage is also needed especially in the full back and midfield areas. Partey was outstanding against City, and for the first time he was able to showcase his talent in tight spaces against a top opponent in the EPL - Chelsea will need Kovacic and Kante to be at their ball carrying best.
Lukaku's rant in many ways was a blessing in disguise. By confronting the manager in such a crass way he has made it easier for Tuchel to drop him, with both of them aware that the current truce is a temporary one before he eventually leaves this summer. At the same time, you have a more motivated player on your hands - eager to prove his doubters and his manager wrong but at the same time happy to be brought back into the fold and not left languishing in the reserves.
Whilst he will come in handy against stubborn lesser sides who are proving hard to beat, this is not the type of game which will suit him. He has to be benched for this fixture and Havertz or Werner should be the focal point. Ziyech is another player who should be left out, he lacks the character for games of this magnitude as well as the cutting edge. Pulisic was tremendous against Liverpool and looks set to hit the run of form he did before the tragic hamstring injury in the FA Cup final.. he would be a thorn in Pep's side and should start.
At CDM, City have a slight vulnerability. Rodri is in good form but he can be suspect defensively and if Gundogan is not selected in the midfield, there will be an opening here for Chelsea to overload their CAM zone and get some strikes off from distance. Mount/Pulisic are two players who would be particularly handy in this respect.
With no James or Chilwell, Chelsea are severely compromised down the flanks. Alonso looked his age against Liverpool and Azpi is just not going to be able to provide a box to box threat throughout the 90 minutes. The solution that Tuchel may consider worth trying is Hudson-Odoi as a wing back. He may not be strong defensively but he can carry the ball distances and Chelsea will need that especially if they are pinned down in their half. He will also offer crossing ability and a goal threat.
City go into this game with everything seemingly in their favour. Minimal injury woes, steamrolling opponents left right and centre and a squad that seems to be in total harmony. Chelsea are anything but and seem like a wounded carcass being dragged to the finish line despite it being only halfway through the season. Having said that, Chelsea's performance against Liverpool breathed new life into their season and the sheer intensity of the press was a glimpse into the updated thinking of Tuchel of how to confront the twin titans of Guardiola and Klopp... time to fight fire with fire.
City's defeats in the previous campaign were a result of Pep overthinking and making some seriously dumb selection decisions. This year he seems more switched on lineup wise and if he picks a lineup designed to put City on the front foot but with Rodri holding and two orthodox full backs, it is hard to see City losing this game. Likewise if Tuchel does not pick Lukaku and is bold with his wing back choices, they too will look hard to beat.
Prediction - All signs point to an entertaining draw if both teams are at relative full strength but this will really come down to team selection. Expect City to dominate proceedings and Chelsea to try and control certain portions of the game and take the game to City in patches.