From Tuchel’s Tactics To Key Battles: Why Chelsea’s Triumph Against Manchester City In The Champions League Was A Re-birth Of The Old English Way

From Tuchel’s Tactics To Key Battles: Why Chelsea’s Triumph Against Manchester City In The Champions League Was A Re-birth Of The Old English Way

“If you gaze long into England. England gazes also into you” wrote Jonathan Wilson, to start his piece in the Guardian after Chelsea’s triumph against Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League final held in Porto last night.

There’s a stir of romanticism about England, the birth place of football, from its ‘genesis & the earliest tactical inventions of the pyramid’ to the early years of the formulation of ‘La Nuestra‘, or simply ‘our way‘ in the fields of Uruguay, Brazil & Argentina as the game spread to South America and across central Europe and then to the rest of the world.

There’s a certain pervading imprint of history, myth and folklore that the English game brings to football which has its roots deeply embedded into the way football was played and glorified through the years in Britain since the turn of the 20th century.

English teams have reached the Champions League final on twelve occasions, throughout the long spanning history of the competition since its formation in 1955.

Last night’s game between Chelsea and Manchester City was the third all-English final in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition and Chelsea delivered a masterclass to beat the Premier League champions Man City on a windy night in the Estádio do Dragão, in Porto.

At the final whistle in the Estádio do Dragão, as the air whooshed out through the stadium roof and the night sky crackled with a weird, irresistible energy, Pep Guardiola wandered off into a patch of green space and stood watching. He edged away from the capering figures skirting him tactfully like a hazard in a water course. He ran a hand over his gleaming skull, oddly tender in all that noise and light. Eventually he noticed Sergio Agüero standing on his own nearby and went in for a jittery hug.

– Barney Ronay, in the Guardian

Guardiola, the connoisseur of juego de posición and arguably the one of the most influential and critical football thinkers of the last two decades, lost out to a resolute Chelsea on the night, but it was perhaps, his own over-analysis, self-doubt and tinkering that paved the way for the defeat.

A more likely explanation is anxiety, induced by all those other defeats in big European knockout games that leads Guardiola to second-guess himself. Terrified by the prospect of being undone on the counter, the coach takes steps to avert his fate which themselves then cause that fate to come about. Playing Gündogan wide on the left against Liverpool in 2019, deploying a back three against Lyon in 2020 and then selecting no holding midfielder on Saturday(against Chelsea last night).

– Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian

Pep Guardiola disappointed after losing to Chelsea in the UCL final

Guardiola’s lack of success in Europe after his stint at his boyhood club Barcelona, also echoes the insecurities and reservations that caused the Catalonian boss to second-guess his own astute tactical approach.

As the starting lineups were announced in Porto on Saturday, Pep Guardiola named an XI without a recognised holding midfielder with both Rodri and Fernandinho on the bench. Guardiola fielded either Fernandinho or Rodri in 59 out of 60 games this season – this, the 61st, was only the second game that either of the pair didn’t feature for the Citizens.

Guardiola, perhaps, unsure of himself and unsure of what Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea would bring to the final, brought in an out of form Raheem Sterling sacrificing a pivot in the middle and fielded Ilkay Gundogan – City’s top scorer this season – in the centre of midfield alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, the two number tens who have been categorically successful for City in the Premier League with the front three of Sterling, Foden and Mahrez.

When the game kicked off, City immediately began their customary high-press, a hallmark tactical ploy of Guardiola sides, pressuring Chelsea to give away possession and it looked like the game would follow suit in the same pattern.

However, Tuchel did something unexpected and surprised his Spanish counterpart by completely bypassing the City press by playing long balls over the defence to the Chelsea attackers.

There’s nothing appealing or aesthetic about a simple long ball over the top, but it is effective, especially against a team that presses high up the pitch with a significantly high line.

Tuchel orchestrated swift long passes out from the back aimed at the tall, lanky false-nine Kai Havertz who would peel away to either flank creating an aerial mismatch against the City full backs Oleksander Zinchenko and Kyle Walker.

To complement Havertz’s movement, his German compatriot, the diminutive striker Timo Werner, worked the City centre backs and channels constantly making runs in behind the City defence.

Werner menaced and constantly dragged away City defenders as Barney Ronay writes, like “a reverse-Terminator impression, the man who can’t be called off, who will never stop, but who also refuses to kill you. Werner really should have scored twice and set the day decisively one way.”

Werner and Havertz’s movement and characteristic low drilled passes, especially into Werner who checked his runs and dropped back to the penalty spot area on a couple of occasions, should have seen the German striker score at least two goals in the game considering his chances, but just as it has unfurled for the former Leipzig forward this season, he lacked the finishing touch.

Tuchel also employed switching play across the pitch to mitigate City’s press in wide areas with long diagonals switching play to either flank when one flank was overloaded.

The Chelsea wing-backs Reece James and particularly Ben Chilwell on the left, broke away on a handful of occasions to pressure the City back four while Mason Mount would drop deeper aiming to find the killer pass.

And boy did he do so to devastating effect.

For the Chelsea goal, Rudiger played a ball out to Chilwell on the left-flank as the former Leicester man lured Walker in to press him. Mount dropped into a pocket of space created by Walker’s press while John Stones moved in to pressure Mount.

Werner then immediately ran across to the left dragging Ruben Diaz in central defence. Walker and Stones were left in no mans land tracking back to cover Werner which left Havertz with a lot of space ahead of him and the former Leverkusen starlet made a darting run creating 1v1 with the left-back Zinchenko.

Mount’s ball was precise and with just the right weight on it for Havertz to round Ederson and score.

Kai Havertz celebrates scoring against Man City in the UCL final

And so began the second phase of Chelsea’s operation.

Tuchel instructed his full-backs to remain extremely tight on the wide players and both Chilwell and James did exceptional jobs in stifling Mahrez and Foden respectively.

Chelsea were tight, organised, resilient and aggressive.

They lost veteran Brazilian centre-back Thiago Silva to injury in the first half, but Andreas Christensen, the out of favour Dane Chelsea youth-product came in, in the biggest game of the season at the heart of the central defence and put in an astute performance with a couple of critical blocks as well.

Then there was Antonio Rudiger, a player left on the fringes and out in the cold under Frank Lampard who has found new impetus & his feet under Tuchel. Rudiger has enjoyed a rebirth of sorts in the last six months since the German manager’s arrival and his last-ditch tackle to deny Phil Foden as the young Englishman looked destined to score bearing down on the Chelsea goal, was a pivotal moment in the game.

Then there was the Chelsea midfield of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. The French world cup winner put in another man of the match performance as he marauded the pitch, getting to every second ball, making crucial tackles, stopping City’s play through midfield and breaking away in attack to create chances.

As the Chelsea fans sing in their chant of for the tiny Frenchman, “He’s got the power to know” and it did seem like he ‘knew’ what would happen next at all times and rather intuitively, he was always one step ahead of the City midfielder’s next moves.

N’Golo Kante put in a man of the match performance against Man City in the UCL final

Jorginho, the sarrista and regista for Chelsea, for all his critics, put in an assured performance in midfield complementing Kante and his lack of work ethic, legs and pressure of ball carriers in Chelsea’s FA Cup final loss to Leicester, for which he was singled out for, was far behind him as he hustled, harried and hacked away at the City players while also distributing play when the turnovers of possession occurred.

Last but certainly by no means the least, Chelsea’s club captain, the battle ready warhorse Cezar Azpilicueta put in a shift that the club’s fans have grown accustomed to watching over the years. The Spanish full-back bought from Marseille for €7m in 2012, converted to a right-centre back under Antonio Conte who Gary Neville once described as ‘the best 1 v 1 defender in the Premier League’ lead his team over the line with inspired blocks, interceptions and clearances.

Every Chelsea player put in the performance of their lives on Saturday to win the club their second UEFA Champions League trophy, nine years from the miracle of Munich. Some would argue that ‘that night in Munich’ would prove to be the English club’s only UCL title win, but nearly a decade on, drawing parallels to the 2011/12 season with Thomas Tuchel coming in to replace club legend Frank Lampard half way through the season, history repeated itself for the Blues from London.

Tuchel, who is a progressive proponent of the modern German school, made an instant impact at Chelsea following his arrival from Paris. He converted a Chelsea team with a defence leaking in goals at the rate of nearly a goal every game into the best defensive unit in Europe.

Under the German boss, the Blues went through seven Champions League knockout games this season with Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy conceding only twice.

Mendy’s assurance in goal as opposed to the floundering Kepa Arrizabalaga saw him become the first African player to win the Champions League in the competition’s history.

Tellingly, City didn’t have a single shot on target after the seventh minute in the final on Saturday and this was despite Thiago Silva being forced off in the first half.

Chelsea win the UEFA Champions League 2020/21

For all of Guardiola’s ‘La Masia‘ bred and Cruyff-infused possession play, he was undone by the most English of styles of play. The long ball.

Tuchel’s Chelsea put in a thoroughly English performance against City.

One that was full of grit, determination, robustness, strength, power, a relentless fighting spirit and a direct approach. Tuchel who is perhaps as guardiolista as a the modern German school can be, approached this game by counteracting his opponent and completely nullifying his opponent’s game plan, much to Guardiola’s dismay.

It was a performance that Herbert Chapman, the Arsenal pioneer and legendary manager from the 1920s and 1930s and the inventor of the ‘third back’, was notoriously well known to orchestrate in his time managing Chelsea’s London rivals.

Guardiola’s ever so successful tactics were met by Tuchel with stark surprise and the embodiment of what it means to coach an English side.

In putting in as English a performance the UEFA Champions League has seen in a final since Sir Alex Ferguson’s all conquering Manchester United of yesteryear, Tuchel etched his name into the history books becoming Chelsea’s second manager to win the Champions League trophy.

It was a throwback to English football’s forgotten roots and the rapid direct approach which was the nation’s imprint on the game in years gone by, in the current era of constantly evolving philosophies and styles.

This was the embodiment of Chelsea football club.

This was the embodiment of Chelsea football club from West London, England.

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