The cerebral Champions League final: FootballCritic examines the battle in the dugout and ask whether Guardiola may start second-guessing himself against the closest thing to his coaching nemesis

FootballCritic.com takes an analytical look at the upcoming Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea, exclusively live on BT Sport this Saturday evening.

Published: 27 May 2021 - 9.53pm
Pep Guardiola comes up against Thomas Tuchel in Porto

Pep Guardiola comes up against Thomas Tuchel in Porto

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Pep Guardiola doesn’t have many coaching nemeses. But Thomas Tuchel and his current incarnation of Chelsea are heading in that direction. 

When the pair met in Germany, Pep’s Bayern Munich dominated firstly against Tuchel’s Mainz and then initially against his Borussia Dortmund side.

But in their last two meetings in Germany, Tuchel ground out 0-0 draws, losing the latter on penalties in the DFB Pokal final. And in Tuchel’s short spell in England, a confident win in the FA Cup semi-final was followed up by a league win just three weeks ago. 

Some coaches just don’t like facing others, particularly ones as studious and dedicated to understanding the game as both these men, and while the sample size is small, the trend is moving in a positive direction for Chelsea. And they could use some, because Tuchel’s excellent start has been teetering on the precipice between success and failure in the last month. 

Chelsea sought to almost blow their return to the Champions League next season, stumbling against Arsenal and Aston Villa in the run-in and having to rely on Tottenham winning at Leicester to qualify. And yet, in both those losses, Tuchel’s side were still able to rack up over five xG against a single goal scored which, in many ways, epitomises what Chelsea must fix if they are to best this great City side. 

Chelsea’s top scorer in the Premier League is Jorginho, with seven goals, all of them penalties. Timo Werner has scored just six against an xG of 13.43, which highlights where the season has gone wrong for him; getting into all the right positions, but not finishing the job when getting there. And even in the Champions League Olivier Giroud is the top marksman with six, despite hardly featuring at all for Tuchel since his arrival in January. 

And that’s going to be Chelsea’s problem. You don’t get many chances against this City side. They conceded the least goals (32), and the least xG (31) in the Premier League, which is all the more notable when seven of those goals were conceded prior to the signing of Ruben Dias, our English Player of the Year.

This is also a team who have only conceded four goals in their entire Champions League campaign. Even when Chelsea beat them at the Etihad last month, their xG was just 0.6 for the two goals they did score - an example of a game won by taking the chances that fell to them, and something they haven’t done enough of. 

But there’s one thing that could fall in Chelsea’s favour - the weight of expectation not only on Manchester City as a club, but Pep Guardiola himself. 

Defensively they are imperious, but going forward they are far more the finished article. They have spent most of this season playing a strikerless system in the big matches and will likely do the same again.

With Kevin De Bruyne and his heir apparent, Phil Foden, providing a combined 13 goal contributions between them in the tournament, they haven’t truly missed Sergio Aguero or felt there was a place for Gabriel Jesus, who perhaps can’t, and maybe never will, understand all the elements of Pep’s philosophy to guarantee his regular involvement. 

And so this is regarded as City’s big moment, the peak of the mountain, but for Guardiola it represents a first Champions League final in a decade, a spectacularly long time for the finest coach of this or maybe any generation. It’s a glaring hole in his CV - a Big Cup win without Lionel Messi by his side. 

And maybe, just maybe, the second-guessing will begin, which has cost him in the past. Going up against a deep thinker in Tuchel and having lost to him twice will set the machinations rolling in his head; do we do what we do, or adapt to stop them doing what they do?

And that, more than anything, is what could decide this final. We can expect a decidedly cagey opening spell as both teams show the other ultimate respect and attempt to work out what the other is doing. Neither will want to commit too much, too soon, and risk playing their hand. Like a boxing match between two elite fighters, there will be plenty of sparring before any punches are landed. 

Big matches call for bold coaching decisions, but here more than ever you feel that what goes on the dugout, as much as what happens on the pitch, could decide this most cerebral of Champions League finals.