THERE was more than a hint of arrogance about the way Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola approached the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea. Some might call it a lack of respect, others might consider it a sign of great respect.
Was it, “I don’t need a ball winner”, or “We’ve lost twice against this lot, we need to change”?. Guardiola got it wrong and he got it wrong against the wrong opponent. That was the narrative, but basically, the most influential coach of his age came unstuck against a rising force in football management. Tuchel knew how to play City and pointed the way for the Premier League in 2021-22 – become a stone in their shoe and you stop Manchester City!
It has been a long season for both clubs but they have big squads of star players. They also represent the segment of elite football that will probably be less affected by the pandemic than most of their rivals. These are not clubs owned by conventional businessmen or corporates or influenced by market forces, therefore, the loss of income can be endured without too much panic. It is not entirely out of the question that we shall see both City and Chelsea closing in on the Champions League again in 2021-22.
Chelsea’s victory may put an end to universal “Pep Worship”, the overwhelming appreciation of Guardiola and his methods. If Pep was a coach at most other clubs, continual failure in the Champions League would not be tolerated. If, for example, Mourinho, Conte, Ancelotti or Pochettino made the sort of tactical change that Guardiola surprised everyone with before kick-off and proceeded to lose, questions would be asked. Do people dare challenge Guardiola and his methods or pick away at the mystique?
Tuchel clearly set out his team with a mission, which poses a question or two about the Pep way and its sustainability. Has he actually been found out? Domestically, he has enough armoury and savvy to beat most Premier sides, but on the international stage, where most top sides have little between them in terms of strength and resources, Guardiola’s teams seek out banana skins and slip out of contention in crucial games.
It is perfectly feasible that a group of top managers spend hours studying Guardiola’s way and work on solutions to combat and overcome his team. For every problem in business and, generally, life, there is a sub-industry that springs up developing remedies. Football is no different. A new, innovative method? We can play against that by neutralising one aspect of the team, pressuring another and, basically, by simply not giving an inch.
A decade ago, José Mourinho had the secret elixir, but he has slid out of the very top bracket, perhaps temporarily. But people know how Mourinho’s teams play and they know how to get under his skin. In the 1960s, Helenio Herrera seemingly had a way that was unbeatable for a while, then his time passed. Other innovators such as Brian Clough, Arsene Wenger and Don Revie also had their golden period, but nothing lasts forever.
That’s not to say that Guardiola’s time has passed, but there are signs of vulnerability. But he’s still young, still energetic and highly respected. But will he learn from his mistakes?
Tuchel is an acolyte of Jürgen Klopp, who also had Guardiola’s number in key matches. Tuchel is intelligent, a deep thinker and doesn’t seem prone to hysterics. His reaction to an 18-month contract (the first time Chelsea had ever acted like they think) wasn’t to appear indignant, he was realistic and after all, he can read Wikipedia’s list of Chelsea managers. He also knows that if you take the Stamford Bridge job, you have to win trophies and failure is not part of the agenda.
He doesn’t look like a Silicon Valley CEO presenting the latest gadget, Tuchel opts for a practical Patagonia vest that an IT technician might wear. He looks as though he would work for that black-clad CEO with the trendy stubble. But this is no master and apprentice situation, Tuchel is his own man – the way his team played in Porto demonstrated just that.
Chelsea deserved their triumph and the game was something of a key moment in European football. The man whose career has been so indelibly linked to the Champions League has not won it for 10 years across three elite clubs. He may yet win it again, but Porto showed that he has imperfections and also a competitor for his crown.
As for Tuchel and Chelsea, the achievement is no less impressive than the club’s first Champions League success in 2012. Since Roman Abramovich arrived in London, they have won 17 trophies, more than any major club in England as well as Real Madrid and Juventus. Abramovich’s way is simple – Chelsea hire top managers, sign top players and he wants a quick return. The short-termism aspect may not be to everyone’s liking, but it works and by now nobody should be talking about building dynasties or long-term planning. Abramovich may have been the architect of modern football, but nobody is calling for his departure.
He has, after all, spent £ 2 billion of his own money on the club but, until the aftermath of the match in Porto, he hadn’t met Tuchel, one assumes because of his ban from the UK. Nevertheless, Abramovich looked tanned, healthy and was sporting a huge smile to go with his equally gargantuan trophy.
Chelsea fans have grown to love Abramovich because of the success he has brought/bought the club. At one time, the Russian owner coveted Guardiola, but that longing may have gone, the Russian owner probably wouldn’t swap Tuchel and the trophy with the big ears for a basket full of Fabergé eggs.
But it can all change so quickly. The last time Chelsea won the Champions League, they made a mess of defending it and the man who led the team, Roberto di Matteo, was out of a job by November. That was the Chelsea system encapsulated. Tuchel knows.