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Positional play 101: Why City vs Chelsea is the perfect tactical storm

Even for a manager as demonstrative as Pep Guardiola, a recent reaction by him encapsulated his greatest fears. With his Manchester City locked in a midweek skirmish, Chelsea’s Reece James faced up Benjamin Mendy on the touchline, feigned inside, before flicking the ball to right, taking the Frenchman out of the game. In the wake of his player’s despairing run, Guardiola sank to his knees, hands pressed to his face.

At face value it was the figure of a coach who shared the embarrassment of his man, ashamed that he had been duped so spectacularly. But a better interpretation is that it was exasperation when a plan crumbled from the ground down. For the Catalan tactician there are no isolated moments, only parts of a whole.

The great irony of City is that for all the pure beauty and the magical improvisation, strict rules underpin every aspect of play. They are the guidelines of what has come to be known as “positional play”.

Guardiola is credited with breathing life into the modern conception of the style, but is by no means its only proponent. Thomas Tuchel, his rival in the dugout on Saturday, is another. This is what makes it such a fascinating Champions League final. 

The analogy of the chess match, used ad nauseam in football commentary, could never be as perfect. The tight nuances in the game plan of each manager mean a literal misstep might be enough to throw the game. 

Positional play has its roots in the Totaalvoetbal schoo — the idea that any one player should be able to fulfil the role of any another. Through Dutch pioneers Johan Cruyff and his coach Rinus Michels, Ajax Amsterdam used Total Football to become the dominant force of the 1970s and the most stylish team of the 20th century. 

Building off the same concept, coaches such as Tuchel and Guardiola (who has a Cruyff statuette in his office) are able to apply an almost formulaic approach to their coaching. It can be difficult and tedious to coach, hence we don’t see these principles implemented more widely, but has a high upside — complete pitch domination. 

Players have the method drilled into them through markings on the training ground that represent the philosophy. The pitch is carved into zones: four lines cut through horizontally with vertical lines of varying length completing the representation. To maximise the use of space, the idea is that players should never flood a particular zone. As in Total Football, rotation is encouraged but it requires everyone in the side to have an intuitive understanding of which area they need to move into if a teammate transitions to another.

Done right in a match, the opposition will find themselves outnumbered in key parts of the pitch, their formations stretched to breaking point and their players forced into unfavourable one-on-ones.

This is why Guardiola was so livid with Mendy. If one cog does not hold its place the whole machine is liable to fall apart in the scramble to replace him.

But that incident was a rarity. In 2021 very few have been able to stifle either City or Chelsea. Since Tuchel arrived at Chelsea, a few notable games in the past month notwithstanding, every match has seen them exercise supreme control. 

How often have Antonio Rüdiger and César Azpilicueta surged forward in full confidence that their centre-back slot is being covered? Last week Mason Mount, the club’s player of the season, was at his deadliest when he carried the ball inside off the wing, his teammates working to drag defenders out of his way. 

City’s Ilkay Gündogan can largely thank the same idea for his standout season. The leading scorer has routinely found lanes to pummel into, with those ahead of him clearing the path with frenetic darts into and outside of the box. Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden have all become masterfully adept at this. It is their targeted movement, looking to overload the defence in its weak areas, that has negated the need for an out-out-striker.

Again, if we excuse a bizarre couple of weeks leading up to Porto showpiece, little has phased either of the two finalists. The significant goals that have been conceded have come from mistakes or, as with Youri Tielemans’ glorious example in the FA Cup final, freak moments of brilliance.

It sets up a fascinating outing for the football theory aficionado. Two sides relentlessly drilled and programmed; each searching for a sliver of frailty in the opposition armour. There’s unlikely to be a goalfest but the tense tussle will be just as appetising.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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