After looking dangerous early on, an incisive attacking move saw Chelsea take the lead. City laboured without ever looking like getting through Thomas Tuchel’s well drilled rearguard. Their wingbacks allied with Kante and Jorginho remained compact in front of a back three, ensuring Pep Guardiola’s band of creatives barely got a sight of goal. City never looked like scoring and duly lost 1-0. That was on the 17th April in the FA Cup semi-final. Both Fernandinho and Rodri played.
The story of City’s defeat in this Champions League final was apparently decided in the starting lineup when tinkering Pep selected Gundogen as the defensive midfielder ahead of Fernandinho or Rodri. Pep had overthought it again in the Champions League and come a cropper. If only it was that simple.
True, it can be classed as a mistake as City’s defence had less protection, but Chelsea only scored one goal. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea scored one goal in January. The difference was City scored three.
Chelsea are a good side. They have good players and, crucially, Tuchel has set his side up in a way that makes them very hard to score against. The defensive resilience differentiated them from PSG and Dortmund.
This was the ultimate test for City’s false nine system, and it failed. De Bruyne is the main man for this City side, yet for a while now there’s a sense that playing as the false nine doesn’t get the best out of him. This game called for his trademark whipped crosses to a forward whose movement was good enough to escape Chelsea’s central defenders. Instead he was up against these defenders and defensive midfielders, unable to affect the game.
Likewise, Foden was central, high up the pitch, and barely got a touch. Only when Jesus came on did Foden get to roam and become involved in the build-up play. Foden had played false 9 at Anfield to some acclaim, yet during the first half there he struggled to get involved. Only later in the match, when drifting wide, did he really hurt Liverpool.
Having Fernandinho start would have pushed Gundogen higher, Foden could then have played on the left instead of Sterling. It would probably have been better, but it’s far from certain it would have been enough. City needed someone in the penalty area able to escape the centre-backs and they needed the likes of Foden and de Bruyne to be more involved, getting the ball into the penalty area.
With so many midfielders playing high, Stones and Dias frequently lacked passing options. Chilwell and James kept very tight to Sterling and Mahrez. It was reminiscent of Sterling’s struggles against Wan Bassaka. Foden against Wan Bassaka had been a different story and it was surprising not to see Foden moved out to the left at some point.
Apparently Guardiola’s thinking was to utilise Gundogens speed of passing to get City moving forward quicker. Presumably this was the tactical response to the lack of openings created in the FA Cup defeat. It didn’t materialise. The one time Sterling was able to use his directness to get in behind came from an Ederson pass. A poor first touch enabled James to intercept. Could Foden have made the same run? If so, his touch would likely have been better.
Defensively it was noticeable how much tighter Chelsea defenders were to their opponents. For all the improvements since Dias arrived, this still isn’t our strongest area. Fernandinho would have brought more snap to our midfield but it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the goal. This was a slick move, first Chilwell then Mount getting the ball forward quickly from deep before Zinchenko had got goal side of Havertz. Zinchenko has many qualities but lacks pace and was never going to make the recovery run that Walker might. This was the moment the false 9 worked – for Chelsea – as the space in the middle was free for Mount to play the ball into.
Both Guardiola and Tuchel have received great praise for their use of the false 9 this season, yet it’s telling that both City and Chelsea are looking to spend big on a number 9 this summer. Both sides have had an issue with dominating play, creating openings and failing to take them. The evident frustration of their managers implies they might not be quite so wedded to this system as some may think.
The defining memory of City’s night was a tearful, dazed de Bruyne being led away from the pitch after his attempts at a false 9 collided head on with Rudiger. Such had the role constrained him that he wasn’t missed.
By the end City had forsaken passing angles and coordinated runs for English tactics of yesteryear as the spirit of Rory Delap and John Fashanu saw Walker hurling long throws for John Stones to flick on. A headed clearance enabling Mahrez to volly just over. From Pep to Pulis, this was the closest City got to a goal.
It was a victory for a defensive system that once again kept Guardiola’s attacking combinations at bay. Rather than contemporary German gegenpressing and high defensive lines, there were elements of catenaccio as Tuchel delved deeper into the tactical history books with a back 5 protected by two defensive midfielders.
The challenge for Pep next season is how to overcome it. The solution will involve more than who plays as defensive midfielder.
Postscript: Can we win it next year?
Well, we could. Kane or Haaland are hugely difficult deals but the case for Kane in particular has just been strengthened. De Bruyne, Mahrez and Foden would all benefit from a top level striker to supply. In the Champions League itself, Barca, Real and Juve have financial struggles preventing necessary rebuilds – and that’s if they don’t get a ban. Bayern have just changed their manager. PSG remain a threat but all can’t be well if Pochettino is considering a return to Spurs. Chelsea, Liverpool and United have all beaten us but let’s not forget we’re also capable of beating them. It was heartbreaking to see Aguero in tears as this was his last chance to win it with City. He will be missed, just as he was in this match. Although De Bruyne turns 30 shortly and the desperation in his tears was clear, he still has a decent chance with City. Pep’s here for two more years, so don’t expect City to go away.