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Tactical Preview: Manchester City and Chelsea’s titanic battle in the UEFA Champions League

Manchester City and Chelsea are set to meet each other for the fourth time this season, with this unquestionably set to be their biggest clash yet with the Champions League trophy on the line.

Pep Guardiola debuted his false nine and inverted full-back formula against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in his first match of the new year, but Thomas Tuchel has since got the better of his Catalan counterpart in both the FA Cup and league.

None of the clashes between Guardiola and Tuchel in England featured all of their big guns, though, as many players were rested with the tight schedule in mind.

However, this is the biggest (and last) match of the season, so there will be no holding back. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from this ultimate Champions League showdown from a tactical standpoint, and where the match might be won or lost:


City’s formation might seem interesting, but truthfully, they never stick to what they have on paper. If you tried, you could very easily arrange this XI in a 4-3-3, but in practice, a sort of a 4-2-4 seems most likely for them, which we will examine later.

As far as their players are concerned, Ederson should have a spot in goal nailed down, with a back-four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rúben Dias and Oleksandr Zinchenko in front of him.

Fernandinho’s guile and experience should see him get a starting spot in midfield alongside İlkay Gündoğan, while Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden are likely to start out wide. Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are the best bets as far as the main attackers are concerned.

Chelsea will almost certainly continue in their 3-4-2-1, with Édouard Mendy’s goal protected by Andreas Christensen (if fit), Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger.

César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso are expected to be used as wing-backs, though Reece James and Ben Chilwell must also be in contention.

If the former is used, expect Azpilicueta to drop to the right of the back-three and Christensen to miss out on a starting spot.

In midfield, N’Golo Kanté should be fit enough to start alongside Jorginho, and Kai Havertz too should be cleared to get a spot in attack alongside Mason Mount despite his minor hamstring issues.

Timo Werner will most likely be used as a central striker, with the hope that he finally returns with a goal in such a massive match.

Manchester City’s split double false nine

Guardiola has done a fair few funky footballing things at City, and his split double false nine has to be right up there in that list.

Defending with a back-five has worked quite well for Chelsea under Tuchel, but one of its flaws was exposed when their man-oriented back-three was caught out a couple of time against City in their most recent league match:

City were using a narrow front-three in this match, but that is not the case in their preferred system. They employ natural wingers for the most part, often using a false nine or even two of those, as you can see in the below image.

Now typically, false nines occupy central areas, but that is not always the case for Guardiola. A couple of times this season, he has asked his attackers to drift wide and leave the centre completely unoccupied. The most notable application of this came against a compact Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup final.

This would not only prove troublesome for Chelsea’s man-oriented centre-backs, but it would also work well to exploit their defensive weaknesses, which are mostly focused on the wings which their 5-3-2 shape naturally does not do an especially great job of protecting.

Of course, the main drawback of using such a system is the lack of central attackers to vertically stretch the opposition defence and attack crosses, but this problem also exists with a false nine, so it should not deter Guardiola from using a split double false nine if he deems it useful.

Chelsea’s problems against a wide press

Under Tuchel, Chelsea have been quite good at keeping possession, which is where their 3-2 build-up shape is quite handy.

Further back, this is more of a 5-2, as the keeper operates in the centre of the last line and a wide centre-back and wing-backs make up the spots on either wing.

With such strong numbers at the back, the Blues have been able to negotiate most of the high presses that they have faced, including the one employed by City in the FA Cup.

The one time they struggled the most, though, was against Arsenal. In that match, the Gunners employed a wide press where they closed down all central passing lanes before converging on the wing-back who received possession. This largely proved successful due to Chelsea’s lack of passing options out wide in their narrow formation.

It is important to note that Chelsea were not using all of their first-choice players in this match; Kurt Zouma started ahead of Antonio Rüdiger for example.

With that being said, though, it is equally important to remember that Manchester City are far better at pressing than Arsenal, where the use of a split double false nine may benefit them even further.


About a couple of weeks ago, Guardiola said he ‘knew how they would play, but had two options.’ Presumably, one of those was the previously discussed split double false nine, while the other might have been a simpler central false nine.

On paper, it appears that the former is the best option given Chelsea’s strengths and weaknesses, but with Guardiola, you just never know.

Chelsea’s new formula under Tuchel has proven quite successful, although it has had some attacking drawbacks due to the lack of central creators.

In fact, the Pensioners have not scored from open play since their league win over City in early May, which is something that might be a slight cause for concern – especially against such a rock-solid defence.

Either way, this all-English Champions League final is shaping up to be a titanic battle of wits with City looking to secure their first-ever Champions League title while Chelsea are going in for their second, so this will be a match that you will not want to miss.

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