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The Champions League Final preview

A possession based three at the back team has never won the Champions League. Three at the back systems are typically related to defensive teams but Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola have changed the paradigms of football fans around the world who previously associated a defensive approach with a 3 at the back system. Remarkably, both face off against each other in the final, so no matter what the outcome is, history will be made. Let’s take a deeper look into how both teams play.

How do Chelsea play?

Chelsea play possession based football which is enabled by an overload in the build-up within the 3 at the back system. The players within the build-up phase are all in close proximity and this encourages short passing play which is a key feature of Chelsea’s game.

The 3-2 build-up shape with the wingbacks stretching the pitch high and wide makes it very difficult to dispossess The Blues, particularly when you consider the technical quality they have in that phase. The likes of N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho, and Thiago Silva, amongst others, all excel technically. The defence don’t make very many mistakes in possession as a result of that (prime examples of excellent technical Chelsea performances include both legs against Madrid, away to Liverpool, Leicester at home, etc). However, they’re not immune to mistakes as we saw recently with Jorginho’s horrid error against Arsenal, so it’s crucial that the pressure doesn’t get to the Chelsea players and they remain technically secure in the build-up. If they do remain technically sound, which they typically do, this will enable them to keep the ball against City’s (counter)press. This has a number of implications.

First, it means they can exploit space behind City’s defence if they create a passing angle by playing out of the press to pick out the willing runner in Timo Werner (or someone else) behind the last line.

Secondly, if the pass in behind City’s defence isn’t on, or the player in possession decides to play a short pass, Chelsea can force City back into a deeper block where they have settled possession. Here, they aim to create via combinations and overloads on the flanks before crossing the ball into the box or shooting themselves.

A real world example of this can be seen below.

Again, considering Werner likes to drift onto the sides, he can also partake in the combination play.

Although the above examples showcase Chelsea combining on the right, they’re arguably more dangerous down the left hand side thanks to the wonderful combination Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount have. Both have a superb understanding between each other in terms of slowing down or speeding up the play and interchanging positions in an effort to combine to create a chance or have a shot themselves.

Overall, the settled attack is relatively rigid in terms of the players’ freedom but this is designed to maintain the even distribution of spaces across the pitch in an effort to maintain shape. The benefits of maintaining shape can be seen when a quick switch of play occurs and the far side inside forward and wingback are present and can punish the opposition block which is circulating across to close them down, as seen below.

Although the chance creation approach is quite rigid in a sense from Tuchel, the players are afforded relative freedom once the ball reaches the final third which is why sometimes you’ll see someone like Chilwell attacking the back post from deep or Mount drifting over to combine on the right which can be beneficial because each respective action offers its own offensive benefit.

However, as implied, the attack is primarily rigid, and this is also for defensive reasons. The even distribution of spaces across the pitch enables Chelsea to counterpress effectively once play breaks down in the final third because the unit is already in close proximity to press the play.

Again, a feature of any top pressing team is good depth management in midfield behind the first line of pressing, and this is achieved by Tuchel’s system as well thanks to the presence of the midfield pivot and the aggressive outside centre backs, which will be discussed in more detail shortly.

In relation to settled pressing (when the unit prepares to press a settled situation [goal kick, passes between the CB’s, etc]), Tuchel has implemented a combination of zonal and man-marking, and they set up in this shape.

Once the opposition pass into midfield or down the sides, Chelsea begin to aggressively man-mark their respective men in anticipation of them receiving the ball.

In the above instance, Arsenal successfully switch the play, but Chelsea shuttle across and create the same defensive situation on the left-hand side too.

The man-marking is also carried out by the outside central defenders who push up to press attackers who drop deep to influence the play. The idea behind this approach is to prevent attackers dropping between the lines to create gaps in behind Chelsea’s press before turning and running at defenders. Below, Zouma follows Odegaard all the way back into Arsenal’s defensive third and is ready to press him again should he receive possession (note the way he doesn’t immediately sprint back into defence when Odegaard passes the ball).

The zonal aspect of this press comes on the far side of the pitch. The far side wingback, midfielder and centre backs simply shuttle across into their traditional position in case the press is bypassed. This means that even if one of Chelsea’s man-markers loses his man, they still have at least four players behind the ball in defensive transition. Again, considering Chelsea play with three centre backs, two central midfielders and two wingbacks, it typically doesn’t take too long for the entire unit to recover either. Tuchel’s Chelsea rarely get caught out in defensive transition because their overall pressing game is so good from a tactical and athletic perspective.

However, to mention Chelsea’s pressing game and to not give specific credit to N’golo Kanté would be a major injustice to the World Cup winner. With injury concerns clouding his availability for the final, fans around the world will be praying that the Frenchman is fit to compete on the biggest club stage of all. It would be a massive miss to Chelsea’s defensive and offensive game should Kanté miss the final because his ability to cover spaces down the sides along with offering dynamism offensively is second to none. He is the dream central midfielder in any double pivot, hence Tuchel’s comments in his first Chelsea press conference.

“Kanté is strongest in the double six.”

When Chelsea’s press is bypassed, they defend in a 5-4-1 type shape with the inside forwards tasked with defending the sides. It’s a very difficult shape to penetrate because Thiago Silva is an elite leader who maintains the high line and the 5 defenders make it very hard to exploit the block via switches of play because the 5 man defence has less ground to cover than the typical 4 man defence. They gather a lot of men behind the ball.

Overall, Chelsea are a top team and are one of the hardest teams to play against in the world thanks to the amazing manager that is Thomas Tuchel combined with their squad of world class talents. However, if there is a flaw in the Chelsea team, it would have to be their lack of goals. This is not a systematic issue because Chelsea have top chance creation methods and general control overall, but more so a player issue with their front three all flattering to deceive this season with Timo Werner being their top scorer with only 12 goals.

One could say that Chelsea are a top technical team who are really hard to get the ball off because of their technical quality, their compactness off the ball, and their structure on the ball. A key theme to their game is short passing play, and the same overall description fits Pep’s City. 

City

City build play in a very similar fashion to Chelsea in the sense that they attempt to create the 3-2 shape in the build-up.

City are similarly difficult to dispossess as a result of this combined with their supreme and cautious technicians. Although City line up with what looks like a typical back four (often Walker, Stones, Dias, Cancelo/Zinchenko), the inverted fullback comes inside and plays as a central midfield player creating a 3-2 on-ball shape. When pressed, City can utilise the numerical advantage in the build-up to play out of the press to either A) hit runners in behind the oppositions defence or B) retain possession and force the opposition back, just like Chelsea do. However, due to the fact that they defend in a four at the back system, The Citizens are often prone to having a single pivot on occasion.

Although this is not a common occurrence because of the emphasis Guardiola puts on having two players in the pivot.

Furthermore, the inverted fullback and Gundogan are often fluid in their rotations in relation to operating in the pivot. Gundogan typically starts high in the left half space between the lines but Pep often makes mid or pre-game adjustments where Cancelo or Zinchenko will start as an inverted fullback before their role is reverted to a traditional fullback role with Gundogan dropping deeper into the pivot, as seen below.

This change is made when the team needs a threat from deeper areas in terms of a passing option that’s not as high as the typical City wide player. Subsequently, the fullback can then carry the ball to then ultimately exploit the space that Guardiola has identified down the sides of the opposition by initiating and partaking in combination play.

However, overall, despite the interchanging of positions between Gundogan and the inverted fullback, the positioning of the 3-2 build-up remains.

Further up the pitch, City aim to create via overloads on the flanks, just like Chelsea do.

Where City differ from Chelsea is in the profile of the player that occupies the wing – an attacker (Mahrez, Foden) versus a defender (Chilwell, Azpilicueta). This means that City’s general threat down the sides is far greater than Chelsea’s.

This has been City’s bread and butter since Guardiola has come to the club, and it’s an incredibly effective strategy when breaking down and cutting through teams, particularly considering the quality and profile of players they have in attack. Although Chelsea are a top creative team, City are on a whole different level because of the profile of players who receive out wide.

City are also rigid with their positioning in attack which means they too have a big threat when switching the play quickly. Below, Mahrez receives in space after a switch of play thanks to the strict positional discipline of the City team. The difference in Mahrez receiving in a 1v1 situation versus a defender like Azpilicueta cannot be ignored. 

Another difference that can be seen between the attack of City and Chelsea is Guardiola’s preference to use a midfielder as the focal point of the attack as opposed to a traditional forward like Werner. Kevin De Bruyne is used as the false 9 where he shows for the ball to feet and drifts between the lines to initiate combination play and to find space to play one of his trademark defence splitting passes. Although City are still really good creatively because of their combinations down the sides, they lack penetration and runs in behind that a traditional strikers regularly offers so are almost exclusively reliant on scoring in transition, from pressing, or via a cutback or cross to a runner from deep, as seen below.

City scored as a result of this type of combination against PSG, albeit in transition.

Although this is a brilliant method of chance creation which City will definitely create from, the problem with it is it’s very difficult to find space in behind the last line of a compact block, particularly when they have 5 defenders so are at a lower risk of being exploited by switches of play, and that’s what Chelsea have. So, in short, City will have to find space in behind Chelsea’s block to initiate the movement from deep of the far side attackers or exploit them in transition.

In the first leg against PSG, City lacked natural penetration to complement the wide range of playmakers and creators they had in their final third. Although they came from behind to win, they did so with two fortunate set pieces. In the below image, every player is looking for the ball to feet.

City sustained pressure on PSG’s block but rarely created any chances. A dribble or a movement inside from a creator like Mahrez triggered a run in behind from the far side fullback and the likes of Foden, so it’s not improbable that City can score in this instance, but they’d be much more threatening with a natural striker, in my opinion.

Despite the differences of the player profiles out wide and the respective centre forwards, the positional play City and Chelsea implement is very much so similar in terms of positioning and philosophy, and this is no different out of possession in relation to counterpressing. Both Chelsea and City attack in the same 3-2-4-1 shape (regardless of the rotations between Gundogan and Cancelo/Zinchenko). Therefore, City can counterpress with incredible effectiveness should play break down in the final third, as seen below.

However, where the two teams differ is in relation to settled pressing where Pep’s men typically utilise a zonal approach in the 4-4-2.

This is a superb pressing system which creates many turnovers in favour of City resulting in them having opportunities to score in transition and general control on the game.

They’re also comfortable falling back into a 4-4-2 block if the press is bypassed.

This is another major strength of City’s game which enables them to assert their control on games.

Alternatively, Guardiola has also used the 4-3-3 when pressing and this could be an approach he utilises against Chelsea due to the fact that he could match-up the three pressing forwards with Chelsea’s 3 central defenders when pressing high. However, the pressing system isn’t as efficient as the 4-4-2 as it’s reliant on fluidity in the sense that the wide players have to come inside from the touchline to press the play which can see the opposition have too much time on the ball and ultimately play through City with too much ease. However, when settled, it is a good pressing system, but again, the problem is getting it into that ideal pressing shape which can be seen below.

Overall, City have unbelievable levels of quality and equal threat on both sides in terms of attacking the box from deep and creativity on the ball. However, none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for their elite counterpress, settled press (in the 4-4-2), and depth management/compactness in midfield to back that up. I argued back in February (and again in May) that the system Pep has implemented may be the most complete football has ever seen despite the lack of a threat from the centre forward position which is what I deem to be the primary flaw.

How do they match up?

Okay, so after conducting extensive, but necessary, analysis on both teams, we now have to explore how they match up stylistically and quality-wise. These teams played twice already this season under their respective managers, but Guardiola didn’t play his best teams on both occasions. However, more importantly, he didn’t play his preferred system which he has consistently used on the route to the Champions League final. So, the final will be an entirely new tactical battle that we haven’t seen before (in all likelihood).

Although for Tuchel’s men it is a stylistic encounter they have faced often (Arsenal, Leicester twice) so they’ll be familiar with how to match up pressing wise with City’s build-up by inviting the pass to the outside centre back and matching up man-to man before pressing aggressively should City aim to progress the play down that side. Interestingly, as noted previously, City don’t play with typical wingback profiles. They build play within a 3-2 shape but the wingbacks are wingers who stay higher than the typical wingback. Wingbacks may be more inclined to receive the ball with their posture in a less aggressive position because they’re often defensive players, whereas the attacking player is more inclined to receive on the front foot. This means that Azpilicueta (RWB) and Chilwell (LWB) won’t press as high as they typically would versus a three at the back system because City’s “wingbacks” are more aggressive and dangerous profiles than the traditional wingback profile. Again, this means that the pressing emphasis for Chelsea will be on City’s double pivot and the outside central defenders. There’s a big onus on Chelsea’s double pivot being really aggressive as a result of that so City can’t dominate the ball with ease. This could be troublesome if Kanté is out injured. However, the pressing dynamics will still primarily remain the same for Chelsea because they’ll be matching up with City’s build-up with the three forwards on the three centre backs, the midfield two on City’s double pivot, and the wingbacks on City’s wide players, which is the same as their pressing always is versus a three at the back system.

City’s press, on the other hand, doesn’t match up quite as well because they have two players in the frontline within their 4-4-2 so they have to cover more ground and can be passed around by the three Chelsea central defenders, but either way still a compact press. It’s possible that Guardiola will press in a 4-3-3 so his block can circulate across more quickly to press Chelsea when building play or when they switch the play (so there’s an extra player closer across to recover on that side too). In short, there’s a better distribution of spaces when pressing within the 4-3-3 in terms of how it matches up versus the 3-2-4-1 shape.

Each team has a similar transitional threat should they play out of each other’s press in an effective manner, but they’re also similar in the sense that they’ll keep the ball if that transitional attack isn’t on because both like to control the game with the ball. Both create in the same manner in settled attacking situations within the 3-2-4-1 shape, but Chelsea’s five at the back system offers better coverage of the spaces down the sides when compared to City’s four at the back system and this is the area both teams try to create in. This is a minor advantage for Chelsea, and it’s important to note that City lack penetration whereas Chelsea don’t stylistically. However, City have elite creative players so will always create chances thus rendering this aspect of the game quite even overall. Again, in City’s favour, Chelsea similarly lack goals considering that their top scorer has a measly 12 goals this season.

This brings us to gamestate which affects this game massively. Not only do both teams lack goals despite their creative qualities, but each team are also incredibly compact off the ball along whilst being incredibly difficult to dispossess in possession. When both teams get the ball back they’re not likely to lose it quickly. If one team begins to chase the game when losing, the other can begin to drag their shape out of position and exploit them in transition or via controlling the game with the ball. I think City are more likely to take control of the game should they go in front than Chelsea are because their team is simply better technically, but Chelsea can control the game with and without the ball too so will need to be brave and showcase their quality to keep the ball and not let City sustain pressure for too long should The Blues find themselves 1-0 up.

So, who’s more likely to win?

It’s a razor tight affair in which gamestate plays a big factor. I don’t have a concrete prediction as such, but if I was to make a call on the game, I’d say that whichever team scores first is more likely to win, and that particularly applies to City. The bookies favour City quite heavily, and although I see how that could play out, I think Chelsea are certainly the value bet, but again, it’s important to wait until the XI’s are out because it’d be a big blow for Chelsea if Kanté and Mendy both miss out due to injury.

Either way, it’ll be a monumental showcasing of a high level of tactical and technical football with both managers certified to make history and go down as a pioneer in the sport for winning the Champions League with a three at the back possession based team for the very first time.

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