The biggest prize in club football will be awarded on Saturday. And then, after the Championship playoff final ends with one of either Brentford or Swansea City earning their spot on the Premier League gravy train, there will be the small matter of crowning Europe’s best team. Chelsea and Manchester City have been perhaps the two best teams in Europe since the start of 2021, especially since the former changed manager, and their meetings so far this season have been nothing if not tactically absorbing contests.
Man City vs. Chelsea
- Date: Saturday, May 29 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
- Location: Estadio do Dragao — Porto, Portugal
- TV channel: CBS | Live stream: Paramount+
Let’s make some predictions:
Guardiola shows Tuchel something different
It is only natural that the build-up to Saturday’s final should be dominated by talk of the last two meetings between these sides. Twice in the last six weeks Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola have matched wits and on both occasions, tactically and in the final scoreline, it has been the Chelsea manager who has got the better of Manchester City.
Doubtless that will give a fillip to the Chelsea dressing room in the Estadio do Dragao ahead of kick-off but neither side seems to be getting too carried away with what happened in the previous meetings. Asked by CBS Sports what he had learned from his previous meetings with Saturday’s opponents, Guardiola’s answer was brief “How good they are. Congratulations on the two victories. We will see you on Saturday.” He betrayed no fear, quite the opposite. Guardiola is not alone in feeling that way. There has been an ease around the City camp in the build-up that suggests those other two games count for very little in their mind.
Raheem Sterling summed it up as well as anyone. “The more you win things, the happier the team morale is and I think the boys have been brilliant this year,” he said. “We have another opportunity in the final against Chelsea to create something special again. As I said, once you win trophies, you just want to win more so hopefully that carries on into the weekend.”
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That ease may just come from one simple truth. Guardiola and his players know that Chelsea have beaten a City team but perhaps not this City team, the one that will take to the pitch on Saturday at full strength and in its best system. In the other two recent games between these two you could sense that the English champions were just holding something back, not giving away their full plan. That was particularly evident in the Premier League fixture that came after both sides’ wins in their Champions League semifinals.
On that day Guardiola effectively matched systems with Chelsea, using a back three of Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. In possession the look and feel of it was not that dissimilar to how City attack from their more standard shapes: a three man defense, the duo of Rodri and Joao Cancelo further ahead and five players free to do what they do best in the final third. Yet in personnel terms it is hard to imagine that quintet will include Benjamin Mendy, Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres from the off, even if their manager does have a habit of springing surprises in the biggest games.
Even in an FA Cup semifinal, with the chance to win an unprecedented English quadruple on the line, Guardiola did without the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Ederson whilst playing a two-man midfield shield of Rodri and Fernandinho. That rather limited City’s ability to hem Chelsea in with their press, something they did with great efficacy against Paris Saint-Germain in the second half of the semifinal first leg. That was this team operating at peak efficiency with all its key cogs in position. Tuchel’s side have not seen that yet. No wonder City are in such relaxed mood.
Kante proves to be Chelsea’s key attacking weapon
Breaking that press proved to be beyond PSG in the semifinal but then they did not have a midfielder as dynamic as N’Golo Kante. Often narrowly defined by what he can do without the ball this season’s Champions League has been a reminder of the damage the France international can do to opposing defenses.
Against Real Madrid in particular, Kante was the release valve that allowed Chelsea to break the spells of possession built up by the Spanish giants and swiftly turn defense into attack. According to Opta’s sequencing data no player moved the ball further per possession than the 30-year-old, who advanced the ball an average of 26.7 meters towards goal in the second leg. One would hardly confuse him for Kevin De Bruyne in the final third but he still ended that game with three chances created, more than any of his teammates.
N’Golo Kante’s action bins in Champions League knockout games this season, showing a player who has largely been involved in the attacking half of the pitch.
This has been the year of front-footed Kante, particularly under Tuchel. His action bins above show a player with greater license to roam upfield, particularly into the right channel where he led so many of the counter-attacking charges against Real Madrid. He ranks 16th among all players in the competition for take-ons attempted with 30, only three fewer than Phil Foden. His 70 percent success rate is bettered by only one player above him in the rankings, Jens Cadjuste of Midtjylland.
At least in part that is because Jorginho has taken on the role of being a leader of Chelsea’s defensive lines. “He asks me to organize the midfield, to be close every time, to have short connections with the other players so we can have a good balance from high,” the Italian international told CBS Sports earlier this week.
The Italian and Kante have proven to be a strong match in the middle of Tuchel’s 3-4-3. Whilst one is most comfortable sitting and distributing the other is rarely more effective than when he is able to move. “It is unbelievable, the energy [Kante] brings to the team,” said Jorginho. “He gives everything he can, that’s massive. He doesn’t surprise me, I know him and train with him every day. I know his quality, his [best] positions.”
If Chelsea are to replicate their successful gameplan from the FA Cup semifinal, rapid transitions will be key. Though in the league match the possession stakes were more equal at Wembley Tuchel’s side, masters of keep ball for most of his reign, sat deep and looked to charge up the field with purpose, looking to unlock the pace of their frontline. Kante was at the heart of that and will be again if Chelsea are to be successful again in Porto.
If needed… Aguero haunts Chelsea one last time
Just one more game, Chelsea must be thinking, then we don’t have to see him again. Sergio Aguero, the man who always raises his game against the Blues, will ride off into the sunset, Barcelona beckoning for Manchester City’s greatest ever striker.
He may not be the force he was but you suspect that won’t stop everyone associated with Chelsea from clenching with nerves should the Argentine enter the pitch. Indeed when Aguero was mulling his options over where to go next and pundits suggested Tuchel’s side as an option the most convincing argument in favor of such a deal seemed to be that they wouldn’t have to face the striker who has scored 15 goals in 22 games against them.
It seems hard to envision Aguero starting in the Champions League final. Simply put he is past his prime, a player whose struggles with injury and illness this season have robbed him of that burst that could take him clear of a defender and give him the space to hammer a shot past the goalkeeper. Yet there is more than just a belief in the overwhelming power of narrative to convince you that there might be one more “AGUEROOOOOO” moment left in City’s greatest ever striker.
Of the 279 goals scored by Aguero in Opta’s data banks, more were scored in the final 15 minutes of games than any other period, 56 in total, a tally to which he added one more in Sunday’s 5-0 win over Everton. His expected goals (xG) are similarly at their peak as the game wears on. It makes sense, as defenders’ minds grow tired following extended spells of pressure the 32-year-old can find pockets of space that might not have been there before. He might not be able to make them for himself anymore but if Chelsea nod off late on they can be sure that their old foe will make them pay.
Bonus: Chelsea win… if it goes to penalties
Some predictions are bolder than others. And look this is City, masters of implausibly missing spot-kicks whoever is their taker. It is not a particularly radical statement to say that they are incomprehensibly bad from 12 yards out. It is hard to explain because it is not as if Guardiola has built a squad full of players who can’t kick a ball. By rights the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Aguero and Gundogan are exactly who you would want to take spot kicks: technically excellent, composed in front of goal and creative enough to see ways to score that others don’t.
Every penalty taken by a City player in the Premier League and Champions League since the start of the 2016-17 season.
You wouldn’t know it to look at their spot kick graphic above, which probably shows all 55 of the penalties taken in the Champions League and Premier League since Guardiola’s appointment in the start of the 2016-17 season. Probably because it is not entirely certain that the graphic goes high enough to capture the one Mahrez skied into geostationary orbit above Earth against Liverpool in 2018.
A penalty is worth just under 0.79xG on Opta’s model. As such those 55 City have won would be expected to result in 43.36 goals. This team have actually scored 36. The more recent your focus is the more embarrassing it becomes. City have had 20 Premier League penalties in the past two seasons. They have scored 11 of them. The idea that goalkeeper Ederson should take the spot kicks has been seriously broached. Might he even be on the five if the final does go to penalties?
All of this is to say that if these two teams are tied after 120 minutes don’t come into any shootout expecting a repeat of the 21 straight goals scored by Villarreal and Manchester United in Wednesday’s Europa League final. Unless, that is, City have been saving up a whole boatload of reversion to the mean for a moment just like this.