Manchester City host Chelsea at the Eithad on Saturday in a top-of-the-table English Premier League clash that promises to be a tactical battle like no other.
The 80 x 115 yard patch of grass that is encompassed by 55 000 seats in the sky blue part of Manchester will serve as something of a chessboard for Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte come Saturday.
Both squads are immensely talented and both sets of players have shown great tenacity under their newly appointed managers in this season so far. Chelsea sit at the top of the log with 31 points from 13 matches while Manchester City occupy third with 30 points from a possible 39.
You don’t hear this often before a Premier League encounter but it’s unlikely that passion and desire will decide this one. We expect both teams to bring truckloads to the table. Instead, it’s more likely that tactical genius and strategic superiority will prove the difference.
And the manner in which Guardiola and Conte will go about gaining that edge and achieving victory will be fascinating.
While they share many similarities – both are stylish, contemporary, love a suit, are passionate, are animated and think extensively about the game – their approaches to football are entirely different.
Conte is adaptable. He appears open to many ideas of how football can be played and is happy to tailor his game plan according to the characteristics of the players he has at his disposable.
Guirdiola, on the other hand, believes in the big, grand design. He has stuck by his philosophy of passing football where possession is king. Without the ball his teams have always been synonymous with a high and aggressive press. At Manchester City this has been no different. Nothing will come between Guardiola and that modus operandi. Not even the wrong players.
Ironically, with the above in mind, it has been Conte who has settled quicker out of the two in the Premier League. He has taken a long hard look at his group and after a tricky start, decided on a 3-4-3 formation. A beneficiary of this has been Victor Moses who has featured as a wing-back in order to best serve the spearhead of Chelsea’s offense, Diego Costa.
A photo posted by Chelsea FC – Official (@chelseafc) on Nov 28, 2016 at 2:00am PST
On the contrary, Guardiola has hacked at his squad in an attempt to shape them into the unit he wants them to be. A casualty of this was of course Joe Hart who is more a goalkeeper than he is a footballer. His supposed inability to perform the much-debated sweeper role saw him shipped off to Italy on loan.
On Saturday, we can be almost certain that Conte and Chelsea will stick with their 3-4-3 formation. Costa will be flanked by Pedro and Eden Hazard up front. N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matić will be in central midfield while Moses and Marcos Alonso will tirelessly occupy the wide areas in both defence and attack.
The back three will be made up of César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Chelsea will be compact and calculated. When they launch attacks, they will be accurate and efficient.
Guardiola, who has never managed a side that has beaten Chelsea, will be the one under pressure. He will be expected to conjure up a way of stopping this pragmatic Blues juggernaut.
Having conveniently kissed and made up with Yaya Toure after falling out with the player’s agent, the Ivorian could just be the force in the middle of the play that Manchester City need.
If Raheem Sterling is not passed fit to play (he suffered a knock against Burnley), Guardiola could be faced with his biggest managerial challenge to date on English shores. Sterling has provided wonderful penetration and intent to City’s forward play and his pace can hardly be replaced by anyone in word football.
A photo posted by Manchester City (@mancity) on Oct 17, 2016 at 10:25am PDT
Whoever the victor on Saturday, expect the triumphant manager to be lauded as the Premier League’s superior tactician. Guardiola needs to tread carefully though.
Where Conte is creating moulds for his players to slot into, Guardiola is doing the opposite. The Premier League is an unforgiving place for those who become stuck in their ways and are not willing to respond to the challenges of the English game.
Burnely caused Manchester City problems before a soft goal got them out of jail on the weekend. In the six matches prior to that result, Middlesbrough, Southampton and Everton all drew with Manchester City while Tottenham beat them.
The cracks are there, the coming weeks will see if they widen or are covered up.