After being outwitted by his rival tactician back in September, Thomas Tuchel must turn the tables back on Pep Guardiola and devise the perfect game plan against Manchester City this weekend to keep Chelsea’s faint title hopes alive.
A miserable December which saw them claim just three wins out of seven has left the Blues trailing City by 10 points at the Premier League summit. As a result, they can barely afford a draw at the Etihad on Saturday if they have any realistic ambitions of becoming champions.
Tuchel, who got it horribly wrong when Guardiola’s men dominated his side on their way to a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, has a number of tactical conundrums to weigh up ahead of their trip to Manchester – and Sportsmail have run the rule over his best options.
Thomas Tuchel must devise the perfect game plan for Chelsea away at Manchester City
Stick with 4-2-2-2
In their recent Carabao Cup semi-final victories over Tottenham, Tuchel switched to a new-look 4-2-2-2 system which ran smoothly in both legs.
Chelsea enjoyed near-complete control of the ball across almost 200 minutes of action, and their powerful performance in the opener warranted a more comfortable win than 2-0.
Kai Havertz started as Romelu Lukaku’s strike partner before being replaced by Timo Werner for the majority of the tie. Both setups worked well, with Havertz dovetailing the Belgian and sometimes dropping deep to link Chelsea’s midfield to attack and Werner creating space by drifting out to the left.
He could stick with the same 4-2-2-2 setup that recently got the better of Tottenham twice
Partnering the likes of Timo Werner (right) with Romelu Lukaku (left) up front worked well
Yet, the Blues’ offensive brilliance came at the expense of their backline, which particularly in the second leg appeared far more open than usual.
On the rare occasions Spurs were able to launch counter-attacks, there were gaping holes for the likes of Harry Kane and co to advance through. If they were up against a more confident, clinical side, Chelsea may have conceded a fair few on the night.
City, the league’s top scorers who are currently boasting an 11-match winning run, are very much a team in-form and would likely exploit similar vulnerabilities this weekend.
Thus, Tuchel’s new setup could prove too risky a proposition at the home of the runaway leaders.
But Chelsea looked more vulnerable than usual in that setup and should have been punished
Flood the midfield
Guardiola’s teams are renowned masters of the ball; outpressing, outpassing and outplaying almost every opponent they lock horns with.
This characteristic alone explains why a 4-2-2-2 formation, consisting of just two central midfielders and a flat back four, could quite easily be overrun by City’s dominant and free-flowing 4-2-3-1 system, in which Kevin de Bruyne, Rodri and Bernardo Silva operate as an interchanging trio in the middle of the park.
Packing the midfield with greater numbers is a seemingly obvious solution for Tuchel. The German could deploy Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic together and shift to more of a 4-3-3.
Tuchel could flood the midfield by starting Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic
But City ran riot at Stamford Bridge and claimed a 1-0 win when he last tried doing so
Pep Guardiola got the better of his rival that day after suffering three defeats last season
Though while it was attempted as part of a 3-5-2 setup, starting the three midfielders together backfired spectacularly for Tuchel in their previous defeat.
With only Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku pressing high up the pitch, City were free to dictate the tempo of the game, build their swashbuckling attacks without much challenge and create several clear-cut opportunities they should have taken.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek brings different qualities to the table than the aforementioned trio and can be positioned slightly further forward, which could intrigue Tuchel as a potential option.
However, Chelsea have often suffered without the ball when Loftus-Cheek is selected from the start, a slightly concerning trait which could be exposed against City.
Revert to 3-4-2-1
At the back end of last season Chelsea recorded three crucial victories over City to stay in the top-four race, reach the FA Cup final and win the Champions League. And all of those victories came in Tuchel’s preferred 3-4-2-1 layout.
Particularly in that European triumph out in Porto, when Guardiola also shot himself in the foot by playing without a holding midfielder, the Blues were able to break up City’s attacks with ease before launching threatening replies of their own.
With N’Golo Kante mopping up in midfield, Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger on guard behind him and Ben Chilwell and Reece James parading down the flanks, City often found themselves overwhelmed on the counter and frustrated in the final third.
Tuchel’s smartest bet on Saturday would surely be to revert back to this proven formula which befuddled Guardiola on three occasions in 2020/21. Though Chilwell and James’ respective absences at wing-back mean it may not be executed as effectively.
It would also leave the Chelsea head coach with a dilemma in attack. His false-nine system, with Kai Havertz and Timo Werner combining in attack, worked emphatically at times last season.
Reverting to the 3-4-2-1 which beat City in the Champions League final is Tuchel’s best bet
Romelu Lukaku may have to settle for a place on the bench for the system to flourish
Fielding that frontline once more could yield a similar result, but it would require £97.5million centre-forward Romelu Lukaku to return to the bench.
Following his explosive Sky Italy interview last month, Lukaku recently returned to the side and Tuchel has often singled him out for praise in an apparent attempt to lift his spirits and get him firing again.
Yet last September, when City ran riot in west London, he found out the hard way that the Belgian’s lack of pressing can damage his side in matches when they may often have to defend without the ball.
Werner’s undervalued movement and pace in behind will be needed if Chelsea are to play on the break as expected at the Etihad, and last season his partnership with Havertz helped propel them to glory.
If Tuchel wants to return to winning ways against Guardiola and hang on in there in the title race, demoting Lukaku may be his best move.