City’s high line
The problem historically for Pep Guardiola sides in Europe has been the high line that he operates, which means that if the press goes awry, his teams can be vulnerable to balls in behind them – as happened for Bayern against Real Madrid in 2014 and against Barcelona in 2015, and for City against Monaco in 2017, Liverpool in 2018 and Lyon last year. It was a problem for City domestically last season – notably against Norwich, Wolves, Manchester United and in the defeat at Chelsea that handed Liverpool the title – and even early in this campaign, in the 5-2 home defeat to Leicester and the reverse at Tottenham. Guardiola’s great success from December has been adjusting the balance of the press to combat a potential vulnerability that is inevitable with his approach, but United exposed City in that way and so, most pertinently, did Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final in which Timo Werner’s runs from deep were a persistent source of menace. Werner was also a threat in Chelsea’s league victory over City, although the lessons of that game were probably less relevant given it was a much-weakened City selection.
Preventing Chelsea’s counters
Given there will always be space behind City’s defensive line, how can they minimise the danger posed by balls played in behind them? It’s all about positioning. First of all, the team need to be compact from back to front, which means it’s easier to retain possession, particularly playing at the slightly slower pace City have this season, because the distances between players are smaller and so passes between them less risky – it’s effectively trying to transform the game into something as close to a rondo, the pre-match drills in which players in a circle try to keep the ball away from two other players in the middle.
A compact shape also means that when possession is lost, there are usually two or perhaps more players in position to close down the opponent who has just come into possession. But where City have really improved this season is in ensuring that, as far as possible, they always have one more defender than the opposition has forwards ready to spring forward in the counter – in practice usually two v one or three v two. City almost always have five men behind the ball, something that differentiates them from the more gung-ho pressing style of the German school, so that leaves them with three or two players in the next band up the pitch, positioned either to pounce on the opposing creative midfielder or to block passing lanes.
City’s false nine
False nines have existed since the late 19th century but the modern popularisation of the role can probably be attributed to Guardiola (even if Luciano Spalletti’s use of Francesco Totti at Roma and Alex Ferguson’s of Cristiano Ronaldo predated his deployment of Lionel Messi). It’s remarkable how, in a little over a decade, the position, which once seemed so radical, has become normalised to the point there are now numerous variants of false nine. What is striking now about the Barcelona of 2009, is how many natural goalscorers they had, with a front three of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi in the withdrawn central role. This City effectively play without a forward, other than Riyad Mahrez, City’s most in-form goalscorer, stationed high on the right. Phil Foden will drift in from the left, but it’s not even clear whether it will be Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne as the false nine, with the other deeper and Ilkay Gündogan, City’s leading scorer, breaking forward from midfield. N’Golo Kanté successfully stifled De Bruyne in that Cup semi-final; trying to liberate the Belgian may be key to Guardiola’s set-up.
Chelsea’s defensive shape
The advantage of Chelsea’s back three against a forward line as protean as City’s is that it offers greater natural flexibility than a back four. Assuming Mason Mount is used as one of the two more creative midfielders with Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho alongside Kanté in front of the back three, there is a basic trapezoid base that can be tweaked to adjust to whatever City do. The problem would appear to be on the Chelsea left, where the high starting position of Riyad Mahrez puts immediate pressure on Ben Chilwell, assuming he is preferred to Marcos Alonso. That, at the very least, will put a doubt in Chilwell’s mind and may make him less effective in joining the attack than he has been in recent weeks – and that in turn could reduce the threat Chelsea can offer.
Azpilicueta and/or James
In Chelsea’s last three games, Reece James has been used on the right side of the back three, with César Azpilicueta at right wing-back. That was apparently aimed at matching James against the pace of Jamie Vardy in the two fixtures against Leicester and it was something of a surprise when Thomas Tuchel retained it on Sunday against Aston Villa. It’s possible that Andreas Christensen could come in as the right-sided centre-back, but far more likely Azpilicueta will return to the middle with James at wing-back. It’s not with pace that City could trouble Chelsea through the centre, while Azpilicueta offers nothing like the attacking threat of James – and James will be of vital importance in offering width going forward, particularly if Chilwell on the opposite flank is occupied by trying to negate Mahrez.