Cometh the hour. Cometh the Pep.
When the teams’ line-ups dropped an hour before kick-off, City’s starting XI depicted what many had anticipated (some rather feared) – that Pep had once again made an unorthodox tweak to his side in what was easily one of his biggest games in a decade. While many raised an eyebrow at Raheem Sterling’s inclusion from the start, most of the clamour came over the exclusion of Fernandinho and/or Rodri, with İlkay Gündoğan, the player with most goals for City this season (17 in all competitions), tasked with playing as the sole defensive midfielder.
If I were to hazard an explanation, I’d say Pep had his side’s FA Cup defeat against Chelsea in mind. When the Blues played Guardiola’s side last month, they proved to be a side that could hold the ball away from his players, hence depriving them the possession they needed to establish a stronghold in the game. Pep’s line-up for the UCL final was a more sincere attempt at dealing with that than the one he chose when the two sides met in the Premier League earlier this month, where he picked wingers Sterling and Ferran Torres as two number 8s in an attempt to exploit their ability to quickly charge at the opposition with ball at their feet and also run into spaces as and when possible. Once again, the idea in the final could have been creating a system that could thrive both with and without the ball. Chelsea’s relative toothlessness up front meant that they could be irritated by making them feel profligate with more possession, allowing cracks to appear in their otherwise airtight defence which City could then pounce on. Chelsea have had a hard time coming back in matches they go behind in; had City managed that, they could have established an insurmountable advantage.
Of course, the narratives we weave predicate on the outcomes received. Pep’s was an idea that could have helped City, but as it turned out, it didn’t.
Unlike Pep, Thomas Tuchel did not need to change personnel to make his team from a possession-based one to one that countered. The duo of Mason Mount and Kai Havertz could, as per requirement, act as narrow forwards making fluid movements up front alongside Timo Werner, or support N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho in keeping the ball and exhaust the opposition. With Pep’s line-up, they chose to go with the former.
It’s not that the players Pep sent out weren’t good on the ball; they were, in fact, some of the very best in the world. Yet, going forward, City lacked the incisive movement of Gündoğan that has been the staple of his game this season, while also missing the creativity João Cancelo, who was left on the bench for Oleksandr Zinchenko, who while not as skilful as the Portuguese was more adept at occupying a space between Sterling on the wing and Gündoğan in the middle to make underlapping runs and play as an auxiliary centre-mid, capable of providing better insulation against Reece James’ movement on Chelsea’s right. With their rigid, reliable defence, Chelsea kept City at bay and were able to create chances on the other end early in the game, with only Timo Werner’s goal-forgiving antics keeping them level.
However, it did not take long for the German forward to justify his inclusion in the side. With or without goals, Werner’s movement has been a constant thorn for the oppositions throughout the season; effort being something he couldn’t be faulted for. It was one such movement in 42nd minute with which Werner dragged the City back-line with him just enough for Mason Mount to thread a 45-yard ball to Kai Havertz, who darted into the opened space, manoeuvred the ball over a charging Ederson and slotted in what was his first-ever Champions League goal for Chelsea and what ultimately ended up being the only goal of the match.
Chelsea’s biggest challenge coming into the game was making sure they didn’t concede the first goal. Now, having taken the lead, they were ready to sit on it and frustrate City furthermore. For all their attempts and player substitutions, City were not able to threaten Chelsea’s defence in any way throughout the match. The second half of the final played out a lot like a movie that felt promising up to the halfway mark but ended up rushing towards an ending in the second one that all had felt inevitable for a while. As the Chelsea contingent ran onto the pitch with the full-time whistle, Pep and Tuchel exchanged a warm embrace, but the Blue Moon fell cold on the inside for the flame of hope had long died. It was over.
While it is hard to pinpoint Chelsea’s success at any one player, given the whole squad were uniformly brilliant on the day, it is hard not to laud Kanté for yet another display of defensive masterclass. Be it positioning, pressing, tackling, or ball-carrying, the Frenchman warranted every bit of his third consecutive Man of the Match award in a Champions League fixture and then some. One the other side, in Fernandinho, City not only missed a brilliant number 6, they also missed a seasoned general – a veteran who held together his team’s tempo and temperament while intercepting passing lanes and making tactical fouls to make sure the opposition gradually lost theirs.
For Manchester City, this is heartbreak not experienced previously. Having worked so hard and come so close to finally reach their Holy Grail, the Sky Blues will need some time to regain the mental appetite to do the whole thing all over again. That said, for big teams, losing the Champions League final is usually the right way when going about trying to win it. The experience of the occasion does help in the long run, and Manchester City have long established themselves as serial winners in European football who will continue to be favourites for any competition they enter. Had it gone his way, Pep Guardiola’s tweaks would have been hailed as a masterstroke, but since it has been a case of history repeating itself, he shall now be subjected to criticism for “overthinking” – not necessarily unwarranted – until the next major Champions League tie rolls around.
For Chelsea, there could have been no better way to end Thomas Tuchel’s first four months at the club. As required of every Chelsea manager, the 47-year-old has already delivered a silverware, once again justifying Roman Abramovich’s ruthlessness in hiring and firing managers at the first sign of trouble. Love it, hate it, but you cannot deny that when it boils down to just winning trophies, his method works.