AWhile it’s understandable for Roman Abramovich to have cravings watching Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, there is a difference between wanting attacking football and being ready to create an environment in which he can thrive.
In Abramovich’s case, his thirst for entertainment, a desire fueled since watching Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid in 2003, has often met with his ruthless treatment of managers. If the Russian’s 18-year-old at Chelsea proves anything, it’s new philosophies that don’t magically appear overnight. Saying you want to play like Guardiola’s Barcelona is one thing, but having the vision, the confidence and the persistence to make it happen is another.
Unlike Chelsea, patience has not been an issue for City. Part of City’s success over the past five years is that they had a foundation before Guardiola arrived. Not only did they sign Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling a year before hiring the Catalan, but they are also committed to following Barcelona’s plan off the pitch, making Txiki Begiristain director of football and Ferran Soriano general manager.
With allies in the boardroom, Guardiola had room to breathe. He spent a first year of testing in England, winning nothing, but quickly established City as the dominant force in the Premier League. Records have fallen, goals have stolen and the trophy cabinet is starting to look crowded, especially as City will be closing in on an all-time quadruple if they win their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Saturday night.
It must sound like what could have been for Abramovich, who tried to hire Guardiola in the past. Then again, it is approaching a decade since Chelsea sacked Carlo Ancelotti a year after winning the championship. Given their history, there is no reason to believe the conditions would have worked for Guardiola. For example, would Abramovich have tolerated a first season without a trophy? Would he have accepted Guardiola’s failed defense at City last season? What would he think of the former Bayern Munich coach’s difficulties in the Champions League?
City, set to win their third Premier League title in four years, handed Guardiola a new two-year deal two days before the loss to Tottenham left them in 11th place last November. Chelsea have handed Thomas Tuchel an 18-month contract after sacking Frank Lampard in January. Tuchel, who cites Guardiola as his biggest inspiration, can hear the ticking of the clock. He’s not talking about building projects. He talks about trophies and knows he has to stay on good terms with the board, even if there is a disagreement over transfer policy.
Yet this is where Chelsea has a role to play. Previous attempts to introduce a more expansive style have not gone well. The André Villas-Boas experience was a disaster and Sarriball turned out to be formulaic and predictable. Throughout, there has been a feeling that Chelsea are most comfortable with a counter-strike manager. Despite all of Abramovich’s notions of idealism, his property’s first big team was built by Guardiola’s opposite, José Mourinho, who gave the club a winning mentality and infused a squad full of strong, tough players. with a thirst for trophies.
Leaving the Mourinho model was not easy. When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they did it by soaking up the pressure. When they failed to secure Guardiola in 2013, they reverted to Mourinho, who won another title in 2015 before leaving under a cloud.
Now there is a chance for something different. Of the 13 managers hired by Abramovich, Tuchel is by far the closest in style to Guardiola. There is a mutual respect between the two, dating back to their management spells in Germany. As an aspiring coach, Tuchel watched Guardiola’s Barcelona in awe, saying they “taught me everything about this game”. Guardiola, as the man to beat in the Bundesliga, was impressed when he first faced off against Tuchel, whose astute tactics helped modest Mainz destabilize Bayern in October 2013. It took a half-time adjustment for Bayern to recover from a goal and win 4-1.
Guardiola saw a cognate spirit. In December 2014, while Tuchel was on sabbatical after leaving Mainz at the end of the previous season, the pair were seen pushing salt and pepper shakers around a table in a Munich restaurant while ‘they were discussing tactics.
Unfortunately, the meeting did not help Tuchel after joining Borussia Dortmund in April 2015. Bayern beat Dortmund 5-1 at home, beat them on penalties in the German Cup final and won the championship by 10 points, ensuring that Guardiola left for City on a high. Tuchel, as much as he tried, couldn’t outsmart Guardiola, who is unbeaten against his friend in five matches.
This is partly due to circumstances and resources. By the time Tuchel won his first trophy as a manager, winning the German Cup shortly before his acrimonious split from Dortmund in 2017, Guardiola had won 21 major honors. They took different paths to reach the top. Tuchel’s modest playing career was interrupted by injury at 25, which sparked a rise in the coaching ladder that began in 2000 and saw him take Paris Saint-Germain to the final of the Champions League in 2020. Guardiola’s first job was at Barcelona, which had the best midfielder in the world along with Lionel Messi.
Tuchel, who did not face City with PSG, started from a relatively low base. It is only now that he meets Guardiola on a tie. While Bayern could easily buy the Dortmund stars, City are not going to attack the Chelsea side. Chelsea are hardly short of cash. They spent a lot last year and will compete with City for Erling Haaland this summer.
However, we must not forget that Tuchel arrived mid-season, settling in a new country in the midst of a pandemic, with Chelsea at its lowest. With time to succeed, he could realize Abramovich’s vision. For now, however, Tuchel is cutting his fabric accordingly. While there were flashes of brilliance in attack, Chelsea were mostly tough to break and tough to beat. Rather than trading punches with City, it’s likely that Tuchel will resist calls to play a conventional striker, stick with Kai Havertz as a false 9, and look to play on the counterattack.
Tuchel is not stupid. Aware of the requirement for results, it makes sense for him to adjust his approach. He knows the history of Chelsea’s sacking, indicating that Abramovich will not hesitate to act if he feels the team is not progressing fast enough.
Abramovich is entitled to this approach. He can mark the trophies won under his direction. “I think we are pragmatic in our choices,” he told Forbes last month. “We’re comfortable making the right changes at the right time to make sure we can achieve our long-term ambitions.”
The retort, however, is that Chelsea haven’t contested the title since winning under Antonio Conte in 2017. Until Tuchel’s arrival, they hadn’t been in the Champions League semi-finals for seven. years. They were left behind. To realize these long-term ambitions, Abramovich would have to study how City laid out the welcome mat for Guardiola.