Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has expressed his admiration for Pep Guardiola many times over the years. Tuchel is a tactician by trade, and he showed his keen mind for soccer strategy as soon as he took over the Blues midseason, replacing the less experienced Frank Lampard and reinvigorating the talented Chelsea roster.
So it’s only natural that he respects Guardiola, the Manchester City manager whose legendary stint at Barcelona helped rewrite the way the game is played for the modern era. Guardiola ushered in an era where strikers weren’t just strikers and center backs weren’t just center backs and passing and possession was the path ahead.
Saturday, Tuchel takes on Guardiola in the biggest game of the year, the UEFA Champions League final (3 p.m. ET, CBS, streaming on Paramount+ and the CBS Sports app). And the managerial matchup deservingly takes center stage: The established legend vs. the rising star.
Manchester City are the favorites (-112 at William Hill Sportsbook) for good reason. And Guardiola’s task, in a way, could be seen as simpler. He already has established a likely “Best XI” starting lineup, with only a few small possible changes. He has a set plan, his players have been with him for years, and his system won City the Premier League and English League Cup this season. The pressure is on: City have won seemingly everything except Champions League under Pep. But the path to that victory is clear.
For Tuchel, though, he has decisions ahead. His team enters the final in uneven form, and although he professes to have “genuine confidence,” he is dealing with multiple major injury concerns (to goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, midfielder N’Golo Kanté and center back Andreas Christensen). With that, here we will break down Chelsea’s likely starting XI, the potential other options and what those personnel decisions could tell us about Tuchel’s game plan against Guardiola.
Likely starter: Edouard Mendy
Other option: Kepa Arrizabalaga
This one is straight-forward. If Mendy is healthy, he’ll start. The team defends better with him, and he certainly stops shots better. Plus, his distribution from the back has improved under Tuchel.
But Mendy picked up a knock in the regular-season finale against Aston Villa, bringing Kepa back into the side. Known as “the world’s most expensive keeper,” he was having a nice resurgence as a cup and rotational keeper until recent losses to Arsenal, Leicester City and Aston Villa put that into question. If Kepa needs to start, one thing to look out for: Third-stringer Willie Caballero has a reputation for penalty saves, and it’s possible he could be subbed on late if the game appears to be headed toward a shootout.
Likely starters: Reece James, Thiago Silva, Antonio Rudiger
Other options: Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen
Tuchel has depended on a back three since his arrival at Chelsea and that almost certainly won’t change ahead of the final. Thiago Silva is arguably the “first name on the team sheet” for Tuchel in big matches. The veteran played for Tuchel at PSG and was key in their run to the UCL final last season. And Rudiger may be in the best form of anyone on Chelsea, even notching a goal against Leicester City this month.
James and Azpilicueta recently swapped roles, with the captain stepping up into a wing back slot and James handling backline duties. That’s been a path to taking advantage of James’ strength and athleticism — he shut down Leicester’s Jamie Vardy thoroughly in both of their recent matchups. Both James and Azpilicueta are ever present in Chelsea’s lineup these days so they’ll likely both start, it’s just a question of where. Expect James to get the role of tracking Phil Foden if he starts in the back.
Christensen, however, has returned to health. And the Dane’s ability to use his size and maintain possession makes him an intriguing option for Tuchel, particularly if he wants to break up the group that hasn’t played as well lately.
One underlying question: Would Tuchel play more conservatively with Kepa? Would he specifically want Azpilicueta, who has played with Kepa for years for club and country, in the back three? Could backup Kurt Zouma, the team’s best aerial threat and a starter under Lampard for most of 2020, come into play if Kepa’s in goal?
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Likely starters: Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho, N’Golo Kante, Ben Chilwell
Other options: Reece James, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Alonso
Ahead of the three center backs, Tuchel relies on two wing backs and two central midfielders. Kante and Chilwell are near-locks to start if healthy. Kante, whose status is slightly up in the air, is the everywhere man, and his form in Champions League has been a big part of how Chelsea got here. Since Tuchel took over, Kante has been a dominant defensive force. In the Premier League, he ranks second in tackles per 90 minutes (4.41), second in interceptions per 90 (2.83) and sixth in ball recoveries (8.68), a feat made more impressive by the fact that Tuchel’s possession heavy tactics give Kante fewer opportunities to run up those stats than players on more defensively oriented teams. Together with Rudiger and typically Mason Mount, Kante and Chilwell have made the left side Chelsea’s great strength in recent months.
The choice between James and Azpilicueta likely comes down to the aforementioned decision on Christensen. James is a better crosser and much faster than Azpilicueta, but the captain’s leadership is invaluable. Hard to imagine he doesn’t start, which opens up a very loose possibility that James could play central defensive midfield — which he did at the end of the season finale with great success.
More likely, it’s either Jorginho or Kovacic next to Kante. Jorginho is the possession master, and when he’s on form, he can control a match without breaking a sweat. He’s all about positioning and smart passes. But he hasn’t been in great form lately, particularly in coughing up the pivotal goal against Arsenal this month. Kovacic, who is a much more aggressive runner and dribbler, was probably outplaying him until he went down with an injury of his own. He attempts 3.91 take-ons per 90 and completes a sky-high 78% of them while Jorginho attempts 1.15 with a similar completion percentage. Kovacic is back and there’s a lot to recommend him, but it’s not clear that he’s had the reps or trust to step in for the biggest match of the season.
Likely starters: Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount
Other options: Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech
Tuchel always deploys three attackers, but exactly how they’re arrayed can change dramatically. Mason Mount is Mason Mount. He’ll start. He’ll probably play on the left side, linking up and switching spots with Kante to wreak havoc when possible. He’s not the best finisher yet (Opta’s goals added stat suggests Mount’s shooting has cost him about half a goal’s worth of xG over Tuchels’s time in charge), and he may eventually move to a deeper midfield role. But Mount has thrived under Tuchel as he did under Lampard and is the only true lock to start up front.
Nobody in world football has elicited more hot takes this season than Werner. The former RB Leipzig forward is Chelsea’s leading scorer and assister across all competitions (albeit barely), but his finishing has been almost astonishingly bad. Under Tuchel, Werner leads Chelsea with 8.61 xG across the Champions League and Premier League. He has three goals. Ultimately, the German gets into positions to score as well as almost anyone in the world, and he is strong in the high press. Expect him to start. Expect Twitter to boil.
The last spot comes down to where Tuchel wants to line up with Werner, who can play either wing or center forward. Pulisic, Havertz and Ziyech all have credible arguments. Pulisic is Chelsea’s most dangerous player with the ball at his feet, as he leads the squad with 6.05 take-ons per 90 under Tuchel and can play either wing. Havertz’s recent form as a center forward has been the best of anyone in the role, and his height could be an advantage against City’s defense. And Ziyech has scored goals in the past two matchups against City, albeit against rotational squads, and his left foot is magic.
The thought here is that Havertz offers the most variety in his skill set. He can play a holdup style like Olivier Giroud (who almost certainly won’t start but is a likely sub if Chelsea need a goal). Havertz also can run with the ball, as he did extensively in Lampard’s system as a quasi-box-to-box midfielder. He’s tall, and he’s left-footed (like Ziyech and Giroud), and he has played with Werner for years on the German national team.
But the front three is where Tuchel is most likely to get crazy. He has so much attacking talent — Lampard routinely tried to get five attackers on the field by playing Havertz and Mount as midfielders — and he also can deploy the same group in many ways. Will it be a front two with Mount operating as a solo 10? A pair of wingers with a clear-cut striker? A three-man front with balance? One wide player? Two wide players?
The front three is where Tuchel may try to win the match — and the Champions League. He’ll be facing the best defense in Europe, and he doesn’t have any players who are finding the goal on a regular basis. Everything is on the table. Halftime subs, 65′ subs, double-subs.
If Tuchel wants to be known for tactics, if he wants to beat Guardiola at his own game, it comes down to this. Mount and … we’ll find out Saturday.