The Premier League’s two key managerial acquisitions this summer, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, face off in this weekend’s big clash at the Etihad Stadium. The stark contrast between Guardiola and Conte’s philosophy is vivid, and with both sides vying to mount a title challenge, this clash has all the ingredients of a potential Premier League classic.
Matches of this stature tend to be cautious considering most managers prefer to avoid defeat against title rivals, but City have failed to record a domestic win since the Manchester Derby, and will be desperate to make a statement here. Frankly, Chelsea’s form hints that the pressure will be on Guardiola to end their seven-game winning streak.
Chelsea are the Premier League’s form team following a tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1, and it would be surprising to see Conte stray away from the successful system. Diego Costa has often struggled against the sheer physicality of Manchester City centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, but with both men unavailable – the former injured and the later on loan –the Chelsea striker should fancy his chances running at John Stones rather than Nicolas Otamendi.
Though the Blues have been fairly convincing in Conte’s 3-4-2-1, last weekend’s clash with Spurs posed the league leaders a few issues, despite their impressive fight back. It was always uncertain as to whether Chelsea could cope with intense high pressure, and for large spells of the first half against Spurs, the Blues struggled to push into the opposing half as a unit.
City are likely to replicate Spurs’ pressing but in an intelligent manner: where Mauricio Pochettino’s men constantly pressed and tired before half-time, City will likely aim to fluster the Blues in spurts. But where Chelsea’s shape is all but certain to be a 3-4-2-1, Guardiola’s unpredictability makes it difficult to determine how the Spaniard will approach the match.
However, Eden Hazard and Pedro’s resurgence poses a similar threat. The former operating in an inside-left role may force a centre-back or Fernandinho to keep tabs on the Belgian, whereas Pedro’s movement beyond the defence could force Claudio Bravo off his line on several occasions.
Between the 3-2-2-3 and the 4-1-4-1, it’s possible we may see a hybrid of the two. Guardiola should offer a hint of caution going forward, but he may instruct full-backs, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna to sit in half-spaces to help negate potential counter-attacks with Ilkay Gundogan or Fernandinho splitting the centre-backs when necessary.
In the past Guardiola preferred to control bigger matches with ball retention, and considering Chelsea has yet to sort out issues with their midfield two when opposing sides overload central areas suggests the City manager could sacrifice a winger for a ball-player. Gundogan and Fernandinho will likely start in midfield with David Silva, but Raheem Sterling’s fitness remains pivotal, nonetheless.
Conte’s wing-backs are integral to their success and Guardiola is forced to make a major decision regarding his shape. Nolito and Sterling possess the work-ethic to track the forward movement of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, yet if City dominate possession, as expected, he may aim to quickly shift balls to the wide players to peg the Chelsea wing-backs deeper.
The pairing of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are vast improvements to a Chelsea side that were feeble in midfield last season, but once again, here, they face a difficult task coping with intelligent space invaders in Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Ilkay Gundogan and Silva could operate centrally if Guardiola opts for 4-1-4-1, which would enable De Bruyne to serve as a counter-attacking threat behind the Chelsea wing-backs.
Upfront, Sergio Aguero should lead the line following two goals at Burnley, but unlike previous meetings against Chelsea, he faces a 1v3 disadvantage upfront. Aguero’s pace and movement would likely be a threat to David Luiz and Gary Cahill, but now, they have an additional spare man in Cesar Azpilicueta to sweep up danger. This may see Aguero’s main involvement based around linking play when he drops deep or moves towards the flank, whilst poaching loose balls within the 18-yard box.
On the other hand, Guardiola will be tasked with limiting David Luiz’s productivity from deep areas – the Brazilian is the chief playmaker in Conte’s 3-4-2-1 and his influence was limited against Spurs when Chelsea endured pressure from Pochettino’ men. Therefore, Guardiola is expected to instruct his wide players and Aguero to quickly close down Chelsea’s centre-back trio.
Ultimately, Guardiola’s system should define the tempo and the pattern of the match. With no one yet to identify a ploy capable of nullifying Chelsea’s threats, surely pressure will be on his midfield duo to keep Pedro and Hazard quiet, whilst preventing the wing-backs from pushing forward.
Likewise, Conte’s received a week to manage heavy cohesive high-pressing, but last week’s switch to a narrow 5-4-1 negated Spurs’ superiority in central areas, and he may follow suit here. City’s technically gifted creators and direct wide threats pose a serious threat to the Blues away from home, and if Conte’s men fail to start the match with the intensity the Italian demands, then their seven-game winning streak will be under severe threat.