Chelsea expose City’s flank frailties: Neil Humphreys
Tuchel's Blues have beaten City twice in a month, and could make it thrice in Champions League final
Once can be written off as a happy accident. Twice feels like a habit. Three times might just allow Chelsea to win the Champions League.
Consecutive victories against Manchester City do not necessarily suggest that Thomas Tuchel has Pep Guardiola's number, but the German does have a plan of sorts to defeat the best side in England.
Luke Skywalker had his X-wing and a narrow trench. Tuchel has his wing-backs and a slender gap along the touchline. And now, the German has his shot at bringing down an empire in the making.
Marcos Alonso and Reece James were magnificent in Chelsea's 2-1 win at the Etihad yesterday morning (Singapore time), delaying City's title celebrations and planting a seed of doubt into a fastidious mind.
There is a popular school of thought that Guardiola's greatest opponent is himself, particularly in the Champions League. In the past, he has been accused of overthinking in the knockout stages and overly tinkering with a settled side.
In 2015, he changed Bayern Munich's tactics against Barcelona and the tired Bundesliga giants were toppled. At City, he meddled against Liverpool in 2018 and again against Tottenham Hotspur the following year, as if simply having the best XI was not enough.
Guardiola obsessed with the minutiae, blinking in a psychological battle of brinkmanship with himself. He must be sorely tempted to do so again. Tuchel has defeated him twice in two games.
Chelsea have squeezed City's midfield. Twice. Their wingers have slipped behind Guardiola's press. Twice. The Londoners have ruled the flanks. Twice.
In the FA Cup semi-final, Chelsea profited from the space behind City's fullbacks. Despite Guardiola's decision to stretch a back four across Wembley's expansive turf, the Blues still pinched a winner.
Maybe the FA Cup defeat convinced Guardiola to go with three centre-backs yesterday, in the hope that an aggressive high line might wrap up the English Premier League title early.
The plan almost worked, until Chelsea surged forward through Alonso and particularly James, who humiliated Benjamin Mendy.
Guardiola will change defensive personnel for the Champions League final, but his problem on the Chelsea flanks actually begins with a man in the middle.
Of course, such a simplistic characterisation does N'Golo Kante a disservice. The midfielder is not so much a man as he is a human threshing machine. He moves. He cuts down anything in his way. He clears a path. He'll do this all day long.
Tuchel's tactical acumen cannot be understated, but he also acknowledges the serendipity of his Chelsea hiring coinciding with Kante returning to his imperious best.
Having muted Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the Champions League semi-final, Kante took care of Rodri at the Etihad. He's like a stage invader. He stops City's orchestra of midfielders from playing anything of note.
In Chelsea's FA Cup and EPL victories, there was a faint whiff of Groundhog Day.
City advanced in numbers through the middle, before hitting a one-man wall. Kante recycled the ball and the Blues' wing-backs scampered away like kids stealing treats from an unguarded fridge.
Tuchel's plan comes with the usual conditions. Timo Werner must complement his selfless running with an ability to read an offside line and City's forwards need to miss more than they score (a mildly concerning issue for Guardiola).
But Guardiola knows his biggest concern is a little closer to home. The urge to tinker ahead of the Champions League final must be overwhelming. Does he stick or twist here?
Two different games and two different line-ups resulted in similar outcomes. Chelsea ruled the channels and danced behind City's high line.
Guardiola has less than three weeks to make a legacy-defining decision. If he doesn't fix his problems on the wings, he may not have a prayer in the final.