Chelsea 1-0 Manchester City: Guardiola’ tinkering proves costly in Champions League finalMay 30, 2021
There is a sense that Pep Guardiola overthinks these things. As if that which is staring him in the face becomes obscured in the dark, sleepless nights before a seismic encounter.
He did it in 2018 against Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final when he stationed centre-back Aymeric Laporte at left-back in a bid to nullify Mo Salah. The Egyptian winger scored after 12 minutes; after half an hour, it was 3-0 to Liverpool and the big prize that Guardiola had built towards that season lay in rubble. A near-flawless league campaign was captured in full HD in Amazon’s All Or Nothing documentary, but it also included the moments before and after Guardiola became embroiled in a tactical battle with his inner coach and ultimately out-witted himself. He made similar errors when City failed to progress against Monaco, Tottenham and Lyon, despite their status as overwhelming favourites.
When the team sheets were released by the UEFA communications department in the hour or so prior to kick off in the Estadio do Dragao, there were intakes of breath as you wondered whether he had fallen victim to his own frailties again. And so it proved.
There was no sign of Fernandinho, nor of Rodri, it was a team that you might baulk at selecting on FIFA 21 with six attacking midfielders afield, albeit one of them was Ilkay Gundogan who was stationed in the deep-lying position were he made his name at Borussia Dortmund. In short, there was no anchor point in midfield, no foundation stone on which to foil – and construct – attacks; it was bold, it was brave but, above all else, it was a massive gamble.
Thomas Tuchel, meanwhile, set Chelsea up in a manner that had brought success in his previous two games against City, effectively soaking up pressure and countering down the channels but in the opening minutes they took the game to their Premier League rivals perhaps mindful that there was vulnerability right through the middle of City’s team.
It was a thrilling opening. Inside the first nine minutes, there were chances at both ends – first for Raheem Sterling, who was squeezed wide at the crucial juncture as he advanced into the Chelsea penalty area. He had scored just once in 15 games, against the same opponents in the Premier League last month, and demonstrated why he is likely to be surplus to requirements this summer. Chelsea also caught sight of goal in that frantic start but Timo Werner slashed wildly at Ben Chilwell’s cross and the danger passed.
After 14 minutes, Werner again should have opened the scoring but he shot right at Ederson when he just needed to open his foot up and look for a corner after Chelsea broke at real pace. Then, seconds later, the German hit the side netting having been set up by Kai Havertz, just as he had been for the previous chance. It spoke to how porous City – who have been so defensively resolute this season – looked with Riyad Mahrez caught out badly for the first of those Werner chances.
The pace was unrelenting but City finally started to get a foothold in the game and almost took the lead in the 27th minute when Kevin de Bruyne found himself in space on the left and he picked out the run of Phil Foden. Antonio Rudiger was alert to the danger, though, and produced a ferocious sliding block to deny the spry City midfielder.
Both Tuchel and Guardiola prowled their technical areas like big cats in an enclosure, snarling at their players and exhorting them to greater efforts. It was the German’s words that seemed to be having the bigger impact but Chelsea’s lack of a recognised front man was glaring with Werner as wasteful with the ball in good areas as he had been in front of goal in the early part of the half.
Despite Werner’s travails, Havertz was demonstrating why he was the other German that Chelsea had coveted so much last summer. When he drifted between Ruben Dias and John Stones in the 42 minute and strode on to Mason Mount’s exquisitely threaded through ball there was an inevitability about what would happen next. The elegant playmaker, who has looked like a different man in recent weeks, rounded Ederson, took a touch and then a second to give the Londoners the lead. It was a reward he and his side – who had just lost defender Thiago Silva to a groin injury – richly deserved and spoke to City’s tactical problems with John Stones caught way up the pitch attempting to put pressure on Mount.
The camera focused on Guardiola as the clock ticked past 45 minutes and he looked slightly bemused but he had been the architect of his side’s struggles in that opening period.
City’s troubles continued after the break and they mounted further when de Bruyne was forced off after 60 minutes following a bodycheck by Rudiger which was deemed a booking but was cynical enough that it might just have been more than a yellow card. Gabriel Jesus replaced the inconsolable Belgian, who was led down the tunnel with tears streaming down his fast-bruising face.
From the free-kick, City thought they had a penalty after Sterling’s shot hit Reece James’s chest and his arm, but referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz, then VAR, deemed there to have been no offence.
Guardiola finally turned to one of his defensive midfielders to allow Gundogan to move into a more advanced position as City sought the equaliser that would force extra time.
But, despite City piling on the pressure, Chelsea almost added to their lead on the break when Havertz held the ball up long enough to allow substitute Christian Pulisic to join the attack.
The USA forward composed himself, then slotted the ball wide of Ederson’s left-hand post when a goal would have sealed the match. Head in hands, Tuchel fell to the turf in disbelief.
Ultimately, though, it did not matter as Chelsea – with N’Golo Kante outstanding – continued to repel everything City chucked at them, clinging on by their fingernails to lift their second Champions League title in nine years. After five years as Manchester City manager, Guardiola is still waiting for his first for the club – his tactical tinkering suggests he only has himself to blame for that