After being outsmarted by his rival tactician in September, Thomas Tuchel must turn the tables to Pep Guardiola and devise the perfect game plan against Manchester City this weekend to keep Chelsea’s nebulous title hopes alive.
A miserable December in which they claimed just three out of seven wins has left the Blues 10 points behind City at the top of the Premier League. As a result, they can barely afford a draw at the Etihad on Saturday if they have realistic ambitions to become champions.
Tuchel, who was terribly wrong when Guardiola’s men dominated his side en route to a 1-0 win over Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, has some tactical conundrums to weigh ahead of their trip to Manchester – and sports post have reigned supreme over his best options.
Thomas Tuchel must come up with the perfect game plan for Chelsea away from Manchester City
Stick to 4-2-2-2
In their recent Carabao Cup semi-final victories over Tottenham, Tuchel switched to a new 4-2-2-2 system that ran smoothly in both legs.
Chelsea enjoyed almost complete control of the ball for nearly 200 minutes of action, and their powerful performance in the opener justified a more comfortable win than 2-0.
Kai Havertz started as Romelu Lukaku’s strike partner before being replaced by Timo Werner for most of the game. Both setups worked well, with Havertz taking good care of the Belgian, dropping deep at times to connect Chelsea’s midfield with the attack and Werner creating that space by drifting to the left.
He was able to stick to the same 4-2-2-2 formation that was twice the better of Tottenham recently
Teaming up with the likes of Timo Werner (right) with Romelu Lukaku (left) up front worked well
Still, the Blues’ attacking brilliance came at the expense of their rear guard, who seemed much more open than usual, especially in the second leg.
On the rare occasions when Spurs were able to launch counter-attacks, there were gaping holes for Harry Kane and co to pass through. If they were up against a more confident, clinical side, Chelsea could have taken a few that night.
City, the league’s top scorers currently boasting an 11-game win, are a strong team in form and would likely exploit similar vulnerabilities this weekend.
So Tuchel’s new setup could be too risky a proposition in the home of the runaway leaders.
But Chelsea seemed more vulnerable than usual in that line-up and should have been punished
Flood the midfield
Guardiola’s teams are known masters of the ball; outpress, outpass and outplay almost any opponent they lock with.
This feature alone explains why a 4-2-2-2 formation, consisting of just two central midfielders and a flat four, can be overrun quite easily by the dominant and free-flowing 4-2-3-1 system van City, in which Kevin de Bruyne, Rodri and Bernardo Silva operate as an alternating trio in the middle of the park.
Filling the midfield with larger numbers is a seemingly obvious solution for Tuchel. The German could use Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic together and switch to more of a 4-3-3.
Tuchel could flood the midfield with Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. to start
But City rioted at Stamford Bridge and claimed a 1-0 win when he last tried
Pep Guardiola beat his rival that day after three losses last season
Though attempted as part of a 3-5-2 formation, starting the three midfielders together spectacularly backfired for Tuchel in their previous defeat.
With only Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku high on the pitch, City were free to dictate the pace of the game, building their reckless attacks without much challenge and creating several clear opportunities that they should have taken.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek brings different qualities to the table than the aforementioned trio and can be positioned a little further forward, which could intrigue Tuchel as a possible option.
However, Chelsea have often suffered without the ball when Loftus-Cheek is selected from the start, a somewhat disturbing trait that could be exposed against City.
Return to 3-4-2-1
At the end of last season, Chelsea recorded three crucial wins over City to stay in the top four, reach the FA Cup final and win the Champions League. And all those wins came in Tuchel’s favorite 3-4-2-1 layout.
Particularly in that European win at Porto, when Guardiola also shot himself in the foot by playing without a tenacious midfielder, the Blues could easily break City’s attacks before launching menacing reactions of their own.
With N’Golo Kante in midfield, Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger on guard behind him and Ben Chilwell and Reece James parading down the flanks, City were often overwhelmed on the counterattack and frustrated in the final third.
Tuchel’s smartest bet on Saturday would certainly be to return to this tried and true formula that confused Guardiola three times in 2020/21. Although the absence of Chilwell and James at fullback means it may not be executed as effectively.
It would also leave the Chelsea head coach with an attacking dilemma. His false-nine system, with Kai Havertz and Timo Werner on the attack, worked very well at times last season.
Returning to the 3-4-2-1 that City beat in the Champions League final is Tuchel’s best bet
Romelu Lukaku may have to settle for a seat on the bench for the system to thrive
Re-handling that front line could yield a similar outcome, but it would require £97.5million from centre-forward Romelu Lukaku to return to the bench.
After his explosive interview with Sky Italy last month, Lukaku recently returned to the sidelines and Tuchel has often singled him out for praise in an apparent effort to cheer him up and make him shoot again.
But last September, when City rioted in west London, he found out the hard way that the Belgian’s lack of pressure can damage his side in games where they often have to defend without the ball.
Werner’s underrated movement and pace are needed if Chelsea are to play at half-time as expected at the Etihad, and last season his partnership with Havertz helped them to victory.
If Tuchel wants to get back to winning ways against Guardiola and stay there in the title race, relegating Lukaku may be his best move.