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Saturday, June 12, 2021

UEFA Champions League Final: A ploy that failed, and one that triumphed

To unlock Chelsea's iron-wall backline, guarded by three solid centre-backs and two midfield enforcers, Pep Guardiola thought he required the collective ingenuity of his most creative players.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
May 31, 2021 8:17:42 am
Pep GuardiolaManchester City manager Pep Guardiola walks past the UEFA Champions League trophy after the final. (File)

Amidst the deluge of criticism he copped for his formational rejig in the Champions League final, Pep Guardiola remained calm. He smiled wistfully when a television presenter asked him about his strategic faux pax. “I made the decision, to have quality players. 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.”

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of one of the greatest thinkers in the game. To unlock Chelsea’s iron-wall backline, guarded by three iron-willed centre-backs and two eagle-eyed midfield enforcers – of whom one is considered the best in the world – Guardiola thought he required the collective ingenuity and intelligence of his most creative players.

Hence, he sacrificed the combativeness of Fernandinho and the robustness of Rodri to the space-shredding brilliance of Ilkay Gundogan. What Gundogan lacks in pace and knack of retrieving balls, he makes up with his instinct to find the perfect pass to the perfect man. City had men upfront and pace on the flanks to react quickly to Gundogan’s designs. The vision behind the plan was to use the width of the pitch, thereby decongesting the midfield and get into the space behind the high Chelsea defensive line.

Surprise quotient

Besides, there was the surprise element that Guardiola is committed to throw up. Chelsea would have expected Phil Foden on the wings, Raheem Sterling through the centre, Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings from behind and the Riyad Mahrez-Bernardo Silva combination in the right channel. But Guardiola thinks differently. No other manager might have tried so many formations or deployed so many players in so many positions as Guardiola this year.

However, the plan didn’t work against a well-drilled Chelsea, who, as opposed to City, have not budged from their three-man, two-pivots defence ploy employed since Thomas Tuchel assumed reins in January. Twice in five months before the final have City run into this wall, and it was invariable they tweaked and twiddled. So installing Gundogan at the midfield base was not an irrational move, rather too progressive against a side that relishes on transitions and counters at a frenetic pace.

Initially, the move seemed to work. Gundogan was splitting the narrow gaps between the defenders and finding space behind them. But Chelsea were quick to react, they advanced their defensive lines, which ensured that even if they were to lose the ball, they had ample time to regather it. Their quick fullbacks — Reece James was effective in neutering Sterling while Ben Chilwell fed sumptuous upfield crosses — afforded them this liberty. Soon, Chelsea began to throttle Gundogan, who came second-best when encountered by the dynamic press and persistence of N’golo Kante and Jorginho.

Kante, the phantom

Kante was a phantom in this match — nowhere but everywhere. At one moment, he was in City’s penalty area, trying to link up with Mason Mount; in the next, he was lunging full-pelt to intercept a pass at the other end. As if there were two separate Kantes at either end. If City wanted to unlock Chelsea’s defence, they first needed to decrypt the secret code of Kante. They couldn’t. For both attackers and defenders, he exudes assurance, for they know he would fill in the gaps they leave behind during transition and thus keep the shape. When they pressed without possession, Kante joined Mount in the centre, with wing-backs pushing high to prevent City from playing out from the back. When defending, he drifted in front of the back three, filling space and usually marking the man in the best position to shoot. His interventions were timely in denying Foden and Mahrez.

The biggest casualty in Guardiola’s shuffle was Foden, whose pace and trickery could fox the best defenders. But here, operating in a central channel, behind de Bruyne, his best gifts were contained. It’s not a role he’s unused to, but not his most accomplished. It was not surprising then that he enjoyed his finest moments in the game after being shifted wide upon Sterling’s substitution. The latter again was wasteful, at a position he had enjoyed so well at Liverpool, but years and injuries have slowed him down.

Right system, not the group

So in essence, Guardiola’s was the right ploy but with the wrong group of players. It would have been the perfect strategy if he still had David Silva, an incredible manipulator of space. Or a prime Sterling. Or Leroy Sane, the nimble-footed German they offloaded to Bayern Munich. Or the callow but quick Ferran Torres. The City players, for all their miasma of skills, tend to panic when disallowed space for a long period of time. Chelsea did exactly that, stifling the space, which they have adopted throughout Tuchelian days and against all teams.

Thus, Chelsea’s was a triumph of structural discipline and hard-drilled patterns rather than tactical inventiveness. Tuchel clung onto his successful, repeated system while Guardiola couldn’t resist tweaking, and sought an ill-fated invention. Maybe, on another day he would have pulled this off, maybe he has drawn a blueprint to beat Tuchel’s Chelsea in future, but in Porto, continuity and not change prevailed supreme.

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