It’s been a while since Pep Guardiola had the luxury of a whole week between games. This contrasts with our next opponent Chelsea, which like Liverpool have benefitted from no European matches. Chelsea are also out of the EFL cup so there is no advantage for Manchester City. Yet Guardiola will relish the challenge and will be confident that with a whole week’s preparation he can get one over Conte.
Conte has been praised for turning Chelsea into a formidable team and a serious title contender. The turnaround has been astonishing. Two months ago Chelsea were losing 3-0 to Arsenal at the half time whistle. It appeared from that first half Conte would take time to adjust to the Premier League. At 55 minutes he brought on Marcos Alonso and stemmed the flow of goals. Since then Chelsea have won seven Premier League games in a row, conceding only one goal in the process and now sit at the top of the Premier League. Conte’s strategy? He switched Chelsea’s formation from 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 and is now labelled as a tactical genius for that move.
Luckily for City, we have our own tactical genius. Chelsea have found a formation that appears perfect for their personnel. Many managers have tried and failed to cope with Chelsea since they changed formation and Guardiola will need to be at his best to concoct a plan to beat them. Everton’s Ronald Koeman, also known for his tactical astuteness decided the best way to deal with Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation, was to match it like for like.
Koeman was forced to ditch his plan after 36 minutes, when he replaced Bryan Oviedo with Kevin Mirallas and reverted to a back four. Chelsea beat Everton 5-0 that day.
So while Chelsea’s formation appears to be set in stone for the time being, this repetitive behaviour could be leveraged to Guardiola’s advantage. So far this season Guardiola has experimented with different formations. We have seen 4-4-2, 3-5-2, false 9s and inverted full backs to name a few. Utilizing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War principle; introduction of the unexpected could be to our tactical benefit. Conte will be unable to guess what formation will be selected on Saturday and Guardiola will decide what is best for us based on merit.
Conte’s predilection for the 3-4-3 formation is hardly original. Nor is it impregnable. Guardiola actually played in this formation in Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona dream team over 20 years ago. Not only is it easy to predict Chelsea’s formation, it is also simple to predict their starting line up, as they have continuously selected the same eleven during this seven game run. Assuming all Chelsea players are fit, they will likely start with Matic and Kante as the middle two. Guardiola, as we all know loves midfielders, so it would be no surprise if he tries to outnumber these two and take control of the midfield. Victor Moses is new to the wing back role and Guardiola will see this as a potential weakness to exploit. We can expect to see one of our quick wingers attempt to make Moses’s job difficult.
This is a test for both clubs. A win for either team would make a deafening statement. City has struggled against top six teams recently and need a win after three home league draws on the bounce. A Chelsea win would stretch their lead over us to four points and the tabloids would claim Conte had outmanoeuvred Guardiola in this particular tactical battle.