Control: How Pep Guardiola made tactical shifts to beat Chelsea

The American Cityzen
8 min readSep 27, 2021

No matter what his tactics, Pep Guardiola’s philosophy always goes back to one key element: control. Many people mistake control with possession, which is not always the case. For example, Manchester City dominated possession this season against Spurs, but they did not control the game. Spurs had numerous counter-attack and seemingly did it whenever they wanted. Although Spurs did not have possession, they were in control most of the match. The match last week against Southampton also showed that retaining possession does not exactly mean that a team can be in control. For much of the match, or at least for the first half, Southampton controlled the game with their pressing. They did not allow City to build many meaningful attacks where the final product involved a move in the box.

However, on Saturday against Chelsea, Manchester City maintained an impressive level of control throughout most of the match. Thomas Tuchel is very similar to Pep Guardiola in that control is extremely important to him. In their 3 wins against City last year, Chelsea was in control for the majority of the time. City enjoyed most of the possession, but Tuchel set up his side to take the ball from City in midfield and launch quick counter-attacks. With his lineup on Saturday, it was obvious that Tuchel stuck with the same strategy.

Above is the lineup that Chelsea chose, and it is clear that Tuchel crafted this lineup to control the midfield and launch quick counter-attacks. His strategy is evident in a couple of ways. 1) Chelsea rarely plays three central midfielders. Almost always, their setup is 3–4–3 rather than 3–5–2, and there are three players across the front line instead of two. 2) Timo Werner started. Before the match against City, the last game that Timo Werner started was the first game of the season against Crystal Palace. Werner was very good last season against City by running in behind the defense to break open counter-attacks for Chelsea. From this setup by Chelsea, Manchester City had a very tough task ahead of them to try to control the game through their possession by creating some chances, as well as stop Chelsea’s potent counter-attack.

Pep Guardiola’s side did a masterful job at keeping control of the match through their possession despite Chelsea’s efforts to keep them at bay. The purpose of controlling the match through possession is not about never taking any risks and never losing the ball. Rather, the purpose of maintaining control is controlling where the team loses the ball. For example, if City lose the ball high up the field, they are much less susceptible to the counter-attack, as most of their players are behind the ball. Chelsea would have to build up and play through City’s defense rather than launch a quick counter-attack. If City lost the ball in midfield, however, their back line would be exposed. In order for City to sustain meaningful attack in possession, they forced Chelsea’s midfield into making difficult decisions to pull them in different ways to create space for other teammates.

The “Inverted Midfielder”

The absence of Ilkay Gundogan is understated in such an important game. During almost all of Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Manchester City, Ilkay Gundogan has been in the starting lineup for nearly all of the biggest matches. Even going back to Pep Guardiola’s first season, Ilkay Gundogan was trusted only a couple of months after signing to play against Luis Enrique’s Barcelona powerhouse that included players like Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez. The reason he prefers Gundogan in those games is because Gundogan brings a certain level of control to the midfield. He is very good at dropping deep to receive the ball and keep play moving. Interestingly, Gundogan has almost exclusively played on the left-hand side of Manchester City’s midfield three. In a sense, he was used an an “inverted midfielder.”

Many people know the term “inverted winger” to mean a winger that plays on the opposite side of their dominant foot. A perfect example of an inverted winger would by City’s own Riyad Mahrez. He is left-footed playing on the right wing, which allows him to cut inside and pick out a pass or create a better position for him to shoot. In the case of Gundogan, he is an “inverted midfielder” by playing usually on the left hand side of central midfielder. One advantage for this is that when he drops deeper to receive the ball, his natural turn on his strong foot would be to turn towards the middle of the pitch to give him more passing options and be able to dictate play more effectively. This was also how Manchester City made adjustments in their match against Southampton to try to gain more control in that match (see the analysis here).

Without Gundogan in the lineup, Pep Guardiola had to figure out a different way to try keep control of the attack, so he turned to Bernardo Silva. For much of this season, Bernardo Silva had been playing on the left side of central midfield, although in previous seasons he played on the right. However, in this match, he moved back to the right side as an “inverted midfielder” role. He also dropped deeper, like Gundogan would, in order to dictate play from deep and help Manchester City’s attack. Here is the average positioning of Manchester City players against Chelsea:

You can see that Bernardo Silva’s average positioning is almost as deep as Rodri. The other central midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, is much higher up the pitch. Manchester City made it an intentional strategy to have him drop deep to help with the build-up. His positioning resulted in a couple of things:

  1. He was able to turn inside and have more passing options to keep the ball moving quicker amid any Chelsea pressure

Here is an example of him immediately dropping deep after gaining possession and allowing himself to have more passing options. Once Chelsea lose possession, he immediately drops to the right side to become available for the pass. At that point, he can cut inside, and he has multiple options on his stronger left foot. He passed it to Rodri in the middle, but due to his body positioning, he had almost every teammate in his field of vision. He had Laporte and Dias also available for a pass as well. Upon getting pressed by Chelsea, he found Rodri, dropped a little more, and was able to fire a ball over to Cancelo to progress City’s attack. These passeswould be much more difficult if he was right footed, because the ball would be more exposed to the Chelsea press and the player would have to run inside against his natural instinct to make a pass.

2. Bernardo’s positioning pulled forced a Chelsea player out of position

Bernardo’s positioning deep on the right side of midfield forced Kovacic to come out and mark him, or else he would have a lot of space to run up the field. Kyle Walker played high and wide on the touchline to occupy Marcos Alonso, which allowed Bernardo to drop in. This positioning forced Kovacic to come out a little wider and create some space in midfield for City’s other players.

Kyle Walker’s positioning forces Marcos Alonso to stay back and wide, forcing Kovacic to mark Bernardo. Bernardo keeps Kovacic wide and allows Kevin De Bruyne to run into the vacated space. Although the attack ultimately failed, Bernardo’s positioning allowed City to sustain a longer attack.

Laporte’s ability on the ball

Bernardo Silva was not the only person to draw out midfielders. Aymeric Laporte on the left side did a good job of drawing out N’Golo Kante and forcing him to make tough decisions on his pressing, which ultimately created space in behind him. Werner and Lukaku played very narrow, so Laporte was able to carry the ball up field. He would do so until he attracted the attention of Kante, and he would force Kante to either stay back in position or commit to trying to tackle Laporte.

Above, you can see that Kante tried to stay in between Laporte and Cancelo to cut off the passing lane and not commit to either one. Laporte was then able to find Phil Foden in the space vacated by Kante to sustain the attack and circulate the ball. This also forced Kante very wide and created more space in the midfield for Foden and De Bruyne.

This time, Laporte carries the ball enough to get Kante to commit, and then passes the ball wide to Cancelo. Because Azpilicueta as the wing-back was occupied with Grealish, Cancelo was able to run with the ball all the way into the box and create a corner.

The third time, Laporte gets Kante to commit again. Interestingly, Kante doesn’t follow Cancelo this time, but rather, Azpilicueta presses up on Cancelo so he cannot duplicate that previous run. This allows Cancelo to find Grealish one-on-one with a center-back and wins another corner for City.

Pressing Jorginho

As discussed earlier, Chelsea’s main strategy was to try to hit City on the counter-attack. However, Manchester City did a very good job at stopping the counters before they started. That strategy involved intense pressing, but specifically, the pressure on Jorginho. In order to take the ball from midfield and cut through City’s midfield to launch a counter-attack, Chelsea relies on the passing range and ability of Jorginho to make that happen. Whenever City lost the ball, they pressed high, and they especially made sure to surround Jorginho to ensure that he had no time on the ball to deliver accurate balls in behind City’s defense.

Throughout the first ten minutes of the game, this strategy was clear. Here are a couple of instances in which City surrounded Jorginho on the ball to make him uncomfortable.

Manchester City were able to control the match in multiple ways. The use of the “inverted midfielder”, the intense pressure on Jorginho, and Laporte’s ability on the ball were some ways in which they did it. Pep Guardiola crafted a detailed plan on breaking down an impressive Chelsea side, and it worked to perfection.

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The American Cityzen

I’m a City supporter providing analysis and thoughts on all things City