Guardiola left to rue going back to the future as Chelsea claim final edge

By Sports Desk May 08, 2021

So, Manchester City's Premier League champagne remains on ice after a 2-1 defeat against Chelsea but what, if anything, did the phoney war tell us?

Raheem Sterling's first club goal since February put City ahead during a magnificently silly ending to the first half, which wrapped up with Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy being able to go to ground, get back up and still have time to catch Sergio Aguero's gentle interpretation of a Panenka.

Hakim Ziyech, as he did in the Blues' 1-0 win over City in last month's FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, found the net and Chelsea looked the most likely winners from that point.

Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi each had the ball in the net from offside positions before Marcos Alonso did so legally with a scuffed effort in stoppage time.

Three weeks from now, these squads – although almost certainly not these line-ups – will reconvene in the Champions League final. Maybe in Istanbul, but who knows?

Overthink, underthink... what to think?

Doing precisely the thing he hasn't in City's run to their maiden final in Europe's top competition, Pep Guardiola dropped a team sheet that prompt plenty of reaction, all roughly along the lines of "What on earth is that?"

Having made hay with a team packed full of playmakers since the turn of the year, the man who once joked he would like to pick a side of 11 midfielders selected precisely one such specialist.

Were City playing 3-1-4-2? 5-1-4, if that is even a thing? Holding midfielder Rodri was definitely in a category of one.

The easy conclusion to draw was one of Guardiola doing something so ludicrous, performing such a wanton act of deception that Chelsea or Tuchel would be completely unable to draw any conclusions for the final.

Watching a City team displaying nine changes from their midweek victory over PSG clank their way through proceedings, showing virtually none of their usual slick interplay, added some weight to that viewpoint.

However, that would mean Guardiola took a football match something less than completely seriously, which is something he had never really done.

After enjoying all the pre-match Beautiful Mind gifs, there was some precedent to be found.

Klassic Pep

When Guardiola's Bayern Munich took on Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund in 2015, his biographer Marti Perarnau recorded an unusual tactical approach in the book "Pep Guardiola: The Evolution".

Faced with a Dortmund team keen on packing central midfield, Guardiola opted to use wide areas and long passes to unpick Tuchel's setup. Bayern deployed a 3-3-4 with the ball at times and ran out 5-1 winners.

While City lacked their usual fluency and assurance in possession – their 533 passes were their fourth-lowest number attempted in the league game this season – there was a definite plan to use the pace of Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus to occupy Chelsea's back five.

Andreas Christensen injured himself trying to deal with a long punt in the 44th minute, with Jesus capitalising and squaring to an unusually hesitant Aguero before Sterling picked up the pieces.

Aguero then became the fourth City player after Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Sterling to miss a Premier League penalty this season.

"I'm completely in love with him. He is an absolute top legend, an extraordinary player," Guardiola said of Aguero after he scored against Crystal Palace last weekend. It is fair to say his assessment of the Argentina striker's brainwave contrasted somewhat.

But Guardiola could reflect on the plan at least partially working. And if the first-choice attack of De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva had taken up the high and harrying positions City's forwards did here, it is safe to presume their sharper creative skills would have mustered more than the five key passes Aguero, Jesus, Sterling and Torres managed between them.

Three not easy

One club that keen golfer Guardiola will surely put back in his tactical bag is the back three – certainly in this form, with three specialist centre-backs as opposed to a full-back tucking in to occasionally make a two a three.

Reece James in particular made merry for Chelsea after half-time, to the extent Benjamin Mendy had to be removed. It was no surprise that the visitors' winner came down City's left flank.

Tuchel also rested key performers, but his 3-4-3 appears to be set in stone. For all his struggles in front of goal and with offside flags, Werner's speed has now run City's defence ragged in two consecutive games.

Both times these were City backlines without Kyle Walker's recovery pace, something that should significantly offset the Germany international's threat.

But, once again, we're into guesswork. Afterwards, Tuchel was only too happy to deal in cold, hard facts.

"We arrive [at the final] with the knowledge that we are capable of beating them," he told Sky Sports after Chelsea overcame Guardiola's City for the fifth time in the Premier League.

Irrespective of formations, personnel and any other smoke and mirrors, perhaps that counts more than anything.

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  • Transfer deadline day: Five standout deals as clubs went shopping for game-changers Transfer deadline day: Five standout deals as clubs went shopping for game-changers

    Chelsea completed an extraordinary spending spree by landing World Cup star Enzo Fernandez from Benfica, the biggest deal of transfer deadline day.

    It was Premier League clubs that featured front and centre as big-name players found new homes on Tuesday, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City kept busy.

    Deals struck on this day can be born of desperation; however, if the right player becomes available, those that jump at the opportunity to reinforce might be thankful they took that choice come May.

    Here Stats Perform assesses five deals that went through and could prove hugely significant come the season's end.

    Enzo Fernandez: Benfica to Chelsea, £106.8million

    A World Cup wonder for Argentina, Fernandez's stock soared over four weeks in Qatar, to the point he became linked to the wealthiest clubs in Europe.

    It was Chelsea owner Todd Boehly who lasted the distance in the race for his signature, adding Fernandez to the previous window deals for Mykhaylo Mudryk, Benoit Badiashile, Andrey Santos, David Datro Fofana, Joao Felix, Noni Madueke and Malo Gusto.

    Fernandez has only played half a season in Europe after moving to Benfica from River Plate, so there is an element of risk in Chelsea's investment, regardless of his national team performances alongside Lionel Messi and co.

    He has played five Champions League group games, and the 22-year-old has looked the part, with his arrival handing Graham Potter another expensive plaything. This means there can be no excuses now for the head coach as he looks to turn the Blues into a winning machine.

    Marcel Sabitzer: Bayern Munich to Manchester United (loan)

    Bayern Munich decided they could afford to part company with Sabitzer, with the former RB Leipzig midfielder jetting out to secure a move to Manchester United, swapping one European giant for another.

    It was reported Erik ten Hag fancied Ryan Gravenberch, his former Ajax player, but Bayern were said to have resisted that interest and instead allowed United to take Austria international Sabitzer.

    He emerged as a surprising spare part for Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann, with Sabitzer having featured in 23 games for the Bundesliga leaders this season, albeit starting only 11 times.

    Ten Hag will certainly like the fact Sabitzer has a duel success rate of 58.77 per cent – the highest of his career – this season.

    He is not a like-for-like replacement for the injured Christian Eriksen, but Sabitzer brings his own qualities, will want to prove a point, and should not let United down over the coming four months.

    Jorginho: Chelsea to Arsenal, £12million

    Arsenal wanted Moises Caicedo and were prepared to pay a king's ransom for the Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder. They settled for Jorginho, a Euro 2020 champion with Italy and Champions League winner with Chelsea, paying a small fraction of the fee they would have had to spend on Caicedo.

    A deal worth around £12million looks sensible business, and Jorginho makes the jump from 10th-placed Chelsea to the table-topping Gunners, seeking the first domestic league title of his career.

    He played 25 games this season for the Blues, scoring three penalties but not managing any goals other than those spot-kicks, nor any assists.

    Some Arsenal fans have grumbled over the signing, but Jorginho brings defensive qualities and experience of winning, which for Arsenal in recent years has been in short supply.

    Joao Cancelo: Manchester City to Bayern Munich (loan with option to buy)

    Bayern brought in goalkeeper Yann Sommer earlier in the window after Manuel Neuer suffered a season-ending broken leg. That was a deal that many saw coming, but the move for Cancelo came out of the sky blue, reportedly after a disagreement with Pep Guardiola saw City happy to offload the full-back.

    It went through on Tuesday, opening up the possibility of Cancelo being a Premier League and Bundesliga winner in the same season.

    He looks set to feature at right-back for Bayern, with Alphonso Davies featuring on the left. It means Bayern will have a pair of attacking full-backs that will put the fear up opponents.

    With Bayern in a slump, drawing their past three Bundesliga games, it felt important for there to be a new face coming in. Cancelo, until very recently a favourite of Guardiola, is used to winning things with City so should fit in well at Sabener Strasse.

    Pedro Porro: Sporting CP to Tottenham (loan with obligation to buy)

    Three and a half years since he joined Manchester City, Porro should finally make his debut in English football after being recruited to fill the right-back role for Antonio Conte at Spurs.

    This has the makings of a masterstroke signing, with Spain international Porro having caught Spurs' eye in the Champions League group stage earlier this season. He previously played for Real Valladolid while farmed out on loan from City, for whom he never played a competitive senior game.

    He represents an upgrade on Matt Doherty, who was released to join Atletico Madrid, and may have the edge on Emerson Royal, with Conte bringing in a player with serious defensive and attacking qualities.

    Among defenders with 10 or more appearances and at least 10 tackles, Porro's 78.95 per cent tackle success rate ranks as the sixth-best in the Portuguese Primeira Liga this season.

    Meanwhile, only one defender, Benfica's Alejandro Grimaldo, has created more chances than Porro's 34 from 14 games, which have brought him six assists.

    Porro ranks second among defenders in the Portuguese top flight for the most crosses played too, with 108 to Grimaldo's 116. Significantly, though, Porro has played 526 minutes fewer than Grimaldo, illustrating how effective the Spurs new boy has been when on the pitch.

  • Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million? Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million?

    Football can feel like a Formula One race at times, with things moving so rapidly that if you blink for a second, you could miss something.

    For example, few would have been able to predict six months ago that in January 2023, a player called Enzo Fernandez would be joining Chelsea for a British-record transfer fee of £106.8million (€121m).

    Not even many Benfica fans knew much about the midfielder when he arrived from River Plate for a reported fee of €12m in July.

    Fernandez had been making a name for himself in his home country, with a loan spell at Defensa y Justicia under former Chelsea and Argentina striker Hernan Crespo convincing River Plate to give him a chance, which he took.

    After 52 appearances for Los Millonarios, interest from Europe saw Fernandez linked with some big names, and it was Benfica who took the plunge.

    The Lisbon club will be pleased they did after making a profit of well over €100m after just half a season, with the midfielder not only impressing in the Primeira Liga and Champions League, but also starring for Argentina as they lifted the World Cup in Qatar last month, with Fernandez claiming the FIFA Best Young Player of the Tournament award.

    Is he really worth all that money, though?

    Chelsea clearly think so, and in Fernandez they have bought a player who will feel like a dream come true for head coach Graham Potter.

    In his time at Brighton and Hove Albion, Potter delighted in building midfields that could dominate the ball, that could keep hold of possession while also making incisive passes to turn the opposition around.

    Despite being one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League, Potter's Brighton averaged 54.3 per cent possession in league games in 2021-22 (only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea had more), while averaging 496 passes per game, and 59 passes into the final third per game (sixth in the league for both metrics).

    Only Man City, Arsenal and, funnily enough, Brighton have a higher possession average than Chelsea since Potter took charge at Stamford Bridge in September, while only City have attempted more passes than the Blues, which will be where Fernandez comes in.

    The man who only turned 22 earlier on January 17 is a passing machine, having completed 1,431 in total in just 17 Primeira Liga games, over 200 more than the player with the next most in the Portuguese top-flight.

    It is not simply quantity over quality either, as Fernandez has also made 248 passes into the final third, at least 51 more than any other player.

    Not only do they lead the league in terms of the table, but Benfica are also league leaders in averages for possession (66.0 per cent), passes per game (623) and passes ending in the final third per game (70.6). Their style enables Fernandez, but in turn, his ability allows them to execute it, which must have Potter salivating. 

    Fernandez showed similar form in the Champions League as Benfica surprisingly won a group that included Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, before going on to star in the World Cup as well.

    Several big clubs had already taken a shine to him, but the astonishing figure shelled out for him by Chelsea was no doubt rubber-stamped after his performances in Qatar, with Fernandez leading all players in the epic final between Argentina and France for touches (118), successful passes (77) and tackles (10). His 10 tackles were the most of any player in a World Cup final since Gennaro Gattuso in 2006 (15).

    But is he better than what Chelsea already have?

    In the Blues' midfield this season, Mateo Kovacic leads the way in terms of number of passes per 90 in Premier League games (69.0), ahead of Jorginho (61.7), with no other player to have played more than five games averaging even 50.

    Fernandez has been averaging 84.18 successful passes per game in Portugal, though consideration must be given to the difference in strength between the Premier League and Primeira Liga. In fact, it is the second-most of any midfielder in any of Europe's top 10 leagues this season, behind only Manchester City's Rodri (84.58), and ahead of Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti (78.06) and Real Madrid's Toni Kroos (74.53).

    There is also the Argentine's creativity to take into account, with Chelsea struggling to score goals this season having only managed 22 in 20 league games so far.

    In league games, of those to have played more than twice, Conor Gallagher is averaging the most chances created from open play of Potter's midfield options at 1.59 per game, followed by Carney Chukwuemeka (1.38) and Mason Mount (1.24). Fernandez has averaged 1.62 per game.

    When you consider that Potter already had Kovacic, Mount, Gallagher, N'Golo Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Denis Zakaria, Lewis Hall and Chukwuemeka to choose from, with Jorginho having departed for Arsenal on deadline day, you might think spending nine figures on another midfielder to be somewhat indulgent.

    With the early promise and potential trajectory of Fernandez though, Chelsea have quite probably taken the next step in a long-term rebuild. Jorginho and Kante are both 31 years old and out of contract at the end of the season, and investing in the future rather than the past makes sense for a team that always wants to be challenging for the biggest trophies.

    With great spending comes great expectations though, and the pressure will be immense on Fernandez to not just shine on the big stage, but to do so immediately.

    Chelsea's newest addition could justifiably insist he has done just that with every challenge thrown at him in a short space of time, including the biggest challenge of winning the World Cup.

    Enzo will no doubt back himself to prove he can live up to the price tag and be the Ferrari that Graham Potter needs.

  • Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee

    Enzo Fernandez has finally signed for Chelsea, becoming the Premier League's record signing after the Blues met his £106.8million (€121m) release clause at Benfica.

    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) in January alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

    Fernandez's ability on the ball, as well as his tenacity, will add a new facet to Potter's midfield options.

    Only 11 players carried the ball further than Fernandez (1,239.7 metres) at the World Cup, while just 10 were involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 27.

    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

    He made just 17 league appearances during his short stint with Benfica, though he also featured in five group games in the Champions League.

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