Why Chelsea are who Pep Guardiola fears could topple Manchester City next season

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Jason Burt
·5 min read
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Thomas Tuchel — Why Chelsea are the side that Pep Guardiola fears could topple him next season - REUTERS
Thomas Tuchel — Why Chelsea are the side that Pep Guardiola fears could topple him next season - REUTERS

An intriguing dimension to Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley is just how much Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola regards opponents Chelsea as serious contenders. Not just for the FA Cup and the Champions League, in which both clubs are through to the last four, but for the Premier League. Not this season, of course, but next.

It was a theme embraced by head coach Thomas Tuchel. “From day one of next season we will hunt them and try to close the gap,” Tuchel said yesterday. “We will start to win the very first match and go from there. This is a young team and I believe we will be stronger for every experience and a big experience is coming up.”

The stakes are high. It may be only the third competition in terms of priority for both clubs and both managers, but the FA Cup could still prove extremely significant. If City triumph, they are not only on track to win an unprecedented quadruple – and Chelsea feel like the first true test in the run-in to deny them that – but Guardiola will have reasserted his dominance over Tuchel, who is yet to beat him.

If Chelsea win, they will not only be on course to claim their first silverware under their new head coach – and they are a club who are expected to win a trophy every season – but Tuchel will have laid down a serious marker. Maybe for the Champions League final and certainly for next season’s Premier League title race.

In fact, Guardiola has identified Chelsea as possibly City’s biggest rivals in what will be his attempt to win the title for the fourth time in five years, assuming they finish first this time. Sources close to Guardiola have said as much. There is a recognition that after spending £220 million last summer on recruits, Chelsea have significantly closed the gap in terms of squad depth – and they have done so by investing in youth. It is a collective brimming with possibilities and potential, and a squad who already have two good players for every position.

Guardiola’s position on a talent such as Kai Havertz, for example, is clear: the City manager rates the 21-year-old forward and believes – as do the Chelsea hierarchy – the German was a smart investment who will come good next season.

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are still on course for an historic quadruple this season after beating Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals - Martin Meissner /AP POOL 
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are still on course for an historic quadruple this season after beating Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals - Martin Meissner /AP POOL

Chelsea did not need Havertz, but they had the cash to do the deal at a time when Real Madrid, who also wanted him, did not. It was an opportunistic purchase even if a fee of up to £70 million was hardly cheap. Still, it was less than Bayer Leverkusen hoped to realise.

This campaign has been difficult for Havertz and for Chelsea fans who are still not sure what the club have bought. But the mitigation is obvious: a bout of Covid-19, moving to a new country in the most trying of circumstances, injuries and upheaval with a change of coach and an underperforming team.

But Chelsea have belief, as does Guardiola, although City did not consider a move for Havertz because their priorities lay elsewhere last summer, in improving their defence, in particular, which has worked to spectacular effect thanks to the impact of Ruben Dias.

And then there is Tuchel. Guardiola has a great deal of respect for him and the feeling is mutual. For all of Frank Lampard’s qualities, Chelsea became a different proposition, an upgrade, when Tuchel arrived in January. It was in the Guardiola playbook to not only take training immediately but to shake things up with a change of formation and, for example, shifting Callum Hudson-Odoi to right wing-back, where he had never played.

Famously, Guardiola and Tuchel met in a restaurant in Munich in December 2014 while the latter was on sabbatical and before he took over at Borussia Dortmund. “We had dinner,” Tuchel said. “And if you are out with Pep then why not talk about football? We started to talk about tactics … it was about positions on the field and what he did with Barcelona.”

That included making drawings on the table, explaining how to get the best out of Cesc Fabregas and playing Lionel Messi as a “false nine” and even animatedly moving the pepper pots around like players. “Sometimes, it’s easier to explain a formation when you use something,” Tuchel said.

There is a shared intensity and obsessive attention to detail. Guardiola welcomed “exceptional” Tuchel when he was appointed by Chelsea and the two men stayed in contact and spoke about the Premier League and what it was like while Tuchel was at Paris St-Germain.

Guardiola: City may spend £100m on a single player
Guardiola: City may spend £100m on a single player

Even so, Saturday’s semi-final is their first meeting since Guardiola’s Bayern Munich triumphed on penalties in the final of the German equivalent of the FA Cup – the DFB-Pokal – in 2016. In five attempts, Tuchel has yet to come out on top, losing four and drawing one although, clearly, Bayern were vastly superior to his Dortmund and Mainz sides.

For this season, the same can be said of City, but Guardiola is well aware of the threat. Chelsea will strengthen, with a central striker a priority, as they, along with City, consider the possibility of trying to sign Dortmund’s Erling Haaland.

Tuchel’s success so far will embolden them to believe challenging Guardiola’s City is not a hopeless task. “For me, in Europe there are two teams who are the benchmark, that’s Bayern Munich and Manchester City,” Tuchel said. Both have Guardiola’s imprint and Tuchel is determined to reach that mark. And Guardiola knows it.

Fans at Wembley requested to wear tracking devices
Fans at Wembley requested to wear tracking devices