Has Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel Become Guardiola’s New Managerial Kryptonite?

There is a certain type and calibre of manager that Pep Guardiola both loves and hates to come up against. If the Catalan had his way his team would play them every week but also never at all.

These coaches are obsessives as he is, forever searching for that tactical tweak; always thinking in chess moves, and of course, they have brilliant minds because to challenge one of the greatest, most innovative thinkers in the game’s long history a brilliant mind is essential. 

More so, these very select few, who get under Guardiola’s skin and wobble his firm convictions, but also fascinate and excite him, must have methodologies that differ to his own. Their principles test the foundations of his principles, much like a baseline specialist in tennis encountering a serve/volleyer. 

By way of contrast just listen to the Manchester City boss when his side faces a team such as Brighton, led by Graham Potter who shares the same possession-based ideologies and generally sings from the same hymn sheet. Guardiola typically gushes over Potter ahead of the fixture and praises the Seagulls to the rafters. Then his team invariably beats Brighton quite comfortably because he is the best at what he does, and he has the best players.

A distinct change in attitude however can be detected ahead of any meeting with Liverpool and to be clear, this is not due to the chasm in quality between the Reds and the Seagulls. It is because Jurgen Klopp’s perfected style of football is a threat to his own, differing as it does so substantially. It is, to lend a hackneyed analogy, heavy metal music to Guardiola’s orchestral fare. It is high-energy, wanton destruction compared to intricate control. 

Naturally, prior to any match-up with the Merseysiders, Guardiola will talk up his managerial adversary. Above all else he is a football enthusiast, and he is a gentleman. But there is a reflectiveness to his words as these culture-clashes approach; a carefulness he broods, even begins to doubt, as much as an extraordinarily successful man can doubt. And according to many City supporters, it is precisely during such moments when Pep Guardiola to the detriment of his team, that is usually a finely-tuned machine begins to ‘overthink’ matters.

Liverpool incidentally, are 5/4 to win and score over 2.5 goals at Brentford this weekend. That’s a decent inclusion for your bet builder. 

The Guardiola v Klopp rivalry began in the Bundesliga with eight marquee contests between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund ending in four wins apiece before transferring to England in 2016. Initial skirmishes were fairly muted, cautious even, but then at the Etihad, in Guardiola’s second season, City comprehensively dismantled Liverpool 5-0. That result and performance must have been immensely satisfying to the home boss while for Klopp almost certainly it prompted a couple of dark nights of the soul. Maybe on that occasion it was he who doubted his uncompromising ways and means. 

It is to his huge credit then that any such doubts were cast aside, because in the return fixture at Anfield, his team doubled down on their mandate, tearing into the visitors from the off. Liverpool’s blitzkrieg after blitzkrieg meant it was impossible for City to find any rhythm and indeed, they got caught up in the intensity because by the finale this thrilling contest became essentially a game of basketball, finishing 4-3. The Blues could have won that day, in a spectacle of pure chance. But Guardiola loathes leaving things to chance.

Which very possibly explains why three months later, as these behemoths were paired in a Champions League quarter-final, Guardiola blinked, deploying Ilkay Gundogan in an unfamiliar role wide on the right. To summarize what occurred that evening, as Liverpool mercilessly ravaged their opponents, we only need refer to the BBC match report. The German was commended for ‘sticking strictly to his instincts’ with Liverpool’s ‘fiercely intense pressing style’ consistently ‘rattling’ their beleaguered foe. As for Guardiola it was a ‘rare night when his tactics went awry’.

That season, an Amazon documentary was being made, with a camera crew following the Manchester City squad and staff’s every move, and ahead of the second leg, Guardiola was caught in conflab with his assistants. “They scare me,” he intoned, his face furrowed with worry. “They’re dangerous.”

A year later he said this of his Anfield experiences: “There’s something about it that you will find in no other stadium in the world. They score a goal and over the next five minutes you feel that you’ll receive another four. You feel small and the rival players seem to be all over.”

It should be said that in due course, Pep Guardiola found a solution to his Klopp-shaped problem, because a chess grandmaster always does find a solution. In stationing Bernardo Silva centrally alongside Fernandinho and minimizing the supply line to the Reds’ fearsome front three, Manchester City have won four of the last six encounters, most encouragingly of all, ending their Anfield hoodoo last season with a 4-0 victory. For a good while though, Jurgen Klopp was kryptonite to Pep Guardiola’s managerial superpowers.

All of which makes their forthcoming bout on Merseyside an engrossing proposition but before these two coaches pit their estimable wits once again, Guardiola must tackle another peer who has persistently become a thorn in his side. What’s more, there are parallels with Klopp’s hex over the Catalan that are striking.

When Thomas Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge back in January, after previously coaching Mainz and Borussia Dortmund like his fellow countryman Klopp did before him he immediately set about transforming Chelsea into a formidable and well-drilled unit that was nigh-on impossible to breach. In 63% of their games last season under his charge the Blues kept clean sheets. In 68% of their games an array of fantastic attacking talent ensured they gained victories as Chelsea climbed from eighth to a Champions League spot.

It is a transformation helped in part by the terrific form of Mason Mount. The 22-year-old is due a goal and is 4/1 to find the net this Saturday lunchtime. 

One such triumph came at the expense of City at the Etihad, with Marcos Alonso firing home a last-gasp decider to cap a superb team performance, while three weeks earlier the Pensioners put paid to City’s FA Cup aspirations, winning out at Wembley. On both occasions they were unquestionably the better side.

Here then was another brilliant mind, espousing a very different style of play to the eventual league champions, who evidently had Guardiola’s number.

Perhaps privately acknowledging this made the City coach go left-field in his team selection when his side faced Chelsea in the Champions League final last May. Ahead of one of the biggest occasions of his life, once again Guardiola blinked. Once again, he deployed Ilkay Gundogan in an unfamiliar role, this time as a sort of floating holding midfielder. Once again, it was a compromise that backfired, a ‘rare night when his tactics went awry’.

It is pertinent therefore to ask if Thomas Tuchel has now replaced Jurgen Klopp as Guardiola’s coaching nemesis, especially as this weekend their sides meet up for the fourth time in recent months for an early title six-pointer. 

Football writer and Manchester City fan Simon Curtis cedes that both Germans have repeatedly gained the upper hand over a coach who is widely hailed and rightfully so as a genius but believes this can be explained as much by contrasting systems colliding, not the individuals responsible for them.  

“I think there’s more at work here than Tuchel becoming Pep’s new kryptonite. Culturally, the effervescence and creative instinct of a Catalan honed on Cruyff and the Barcelona school, is going to hit the rocks against the deeply planned physically intimidating organisation of teams put out by the likes of Klopp, Flick and Tuchel. 

Guardiola is often seen as someone who tinkers tactically to shine on the biggest occasions. This must provide his sort of character with a deep-seated headache when coming up against the very best of methodical Teutonic efficiency. It has proved to be the type of steel hard surface that can leave visible bruises on Guardiola.”

Will the City manager be bruised again in the coming weeks, as he takes on, back-to-back, his two most difficult opposite numbers? Assessing his team selections, and how he attempts to redress previous failings, will be as fascinating as the matches themselves. 

As for the betting, as good as Chelsea have been this term, 17/10 is too tempting a price to pass up for City to leave West London with the points this weekend. 

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