Although it would be understandable if Roman Abramovich feels pangs of envy when he watches Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, there is a difference between wanting attacking football and being prepared to create an environment in which it can flourish.
In Abramovich’s case his craving for entertainment, a desire nurtured ever since he watched Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid in 2003, has often clashed with his ruthless treatment of managers. If the Russian’s 18 years at Chelsea prove anything, it is new philosophies do not magically appear overnight. Saying you want to play like Guardiola’s Barcelona is one thing, but having the vision, trust and persistence to make it a reality is another.
Unlike Chelsea, patience has not been a problem for City. Part of the reason for City’s success in the last five years is that they had foundations before Guardiola’s arrival. Not only did they sign Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling a year before hiring the Catalan, they also committed to following the Barcelona blueprint off the pitch, making Txiki Begiristain director of football and Ferran Soriano chief executive officer.
With allies in the boardroom, Guardiola had room to breathe. He had a testing first year in England, winning nothing, but soon established City as the Premier League’s dominant force. Records have tumbled, the goals have flown in and the trophy cabinet is beginning to look crowded, especially as City will edge closer towards an unprecedented quadruple if they win their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Saturday evening.
It must feel like a case of what might have been for Abramovich, who has tried to hire Guardiola in the past. Then again, it is approaching a decade since Chelsea sacked Carlo Ancelotti a year after winning the league. Given their history, there is no reason to think that the conditions would have worked for Guardiola. Would, for instance, Abramovich have tolerated a trophyless first season? Would he have accepted Guardiola’s failed title defence at City last season? What would he make of the former Bayern Munich manager’s struggles in the Champions League?
City, who are motoring towards their third Premier League title in four years, handed Guardiola a new two-year deal two days before defeat at Tottenham left them in 11th place last November. Chelsea handed Thomas Tuchel an 18-month contract after firing Frank Lampard in January. Tuchel, who cites Guardiola as his biggest inspiration, can hear the clock ticking. He does not talk about project-building. He talks about trophies and knows he must remain on good terms with the board, even when there are disagreements over transfer policy.
Yet this is where Chelsea have a part to play. Previous attempts to introduce a more expansive style have not gone well. The André Villas-Boas experiment was a disaster and Sarriball turned out to be formulaic and predictable. All along there has been a sense of Chelsea being at their most comfortable with a counterpunching manager. For all Abramovich’s notions of idealism, the first great team of his ownership was built by Guardiola’s opposite, José Mourinho, who gave the club a winning mentality and infused a squad full of tough, strong players with a thirst for trophies.
Shifting from the Mourinho template has not been easy. When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they did it by soaking up pressure. When they failed to get Guardiola in 2013, they returned to Mourinho, who won another title in 2015 before leaving under a cloud.
Now there is a chance for something different. Of the 13 managers hired by Abramovich, Tuchel is by far the closest in style to Guardiola. There is mutual respect between the pair, dating back to their spells managing in Germany. As an aspiring coach, Tuchel watched Guardiola’s Barcelona in awe, saying that they “taught me everything about this game”. Guardiola, as the man to beat in the Bundesliga, was impressed when he first came up against Tuchel, whose shrewd tactics helped lowly Mainz unsettle Bayern in October 2013. It needed a half-time adjustment for Bayern to recover from a goal down and win 4-1.
Guardiola saw a kindred spirit. In December 2014, with Tuchel on sabbatical after leaving Mainz at the end of the previous season, the pair were seen pushing salt and pepper shakers around a table in a Munich restaurant as they discussed tactics.
Unfortunately the meeting did not help Tuchel after he joined Borussia Dortmund in April 2015. Bayern thumped Dortmund 5-1 at home, beat them on penalties in the German Cup final and won the league by 10 points, ensuring that Guardiola left for City on a high. Tuchel, much as he tried, could not outsmart Guardiola, who is unbeaten against his friend in five matches.
It is partly down to circumstance and resources. By the time Tuchel collected his first trophy as a manager, winning the German Cup shortly before his acrimonious split with Dortmund in 2017, Guardiola had won 21 major honours. They have taken different paths to the top. Tuchel’s modest playing career was cut short by injury at 25, sparking a climb up the coaching ladder that began in 2000 and led to him taking Paris Saint-Germain to the Champions League final in 2020. Guardiola’s first job was at Barcelona, who had the best midfield in the world backing up Lionel Messi.
Tuchel, who did not face City with PSG, started from a comparatively low base. It is only now that he meets Guardiola on even terms. Whereas Bayern could easily buy Dortmund’s stars, City are not going to raid Chelsea’s squad. Chelsea are hardly short of cash. They spent heavily last year and will rival City for Erling Haaland this summer.
Yet it should not be forgotten that Tuchel has arrived mid-season, setting up in a new country in the middle of a pandemic, with Chelsea at a low ebb. Given time to succeed, he could make Abramovich’s vision come true. At the moment, though, Tuchel is cutting his cloth accordingly. Although there have been flashes of brilliance in attack, Chelsea have mostly been tough to break down and hard to beat. Rather than trading punches with City, it is likely that Tuchel will resist calls to play a conventional striker, stick with Kai Havertz as a false 9 and look to play on the counterattack.
Tuchel is not stupid. Conscious of the demand for results, it makes sense for him to adjust his approach. He knows Chelsea’s sacking history, indicating that Abramovich will not hesitate to act if he senses the team are not progressing quickly enough.
Abramovich is entitled to that approach. He can point to the trophies won under his watch. “I think we are pragmatic in our choices,” he told Forbes last month. “We are comfortable making the right changes at the right time to ensure we can achieve our long‑term ambitions.”
The riposte, though, is that Chelsea have not challenged for the title since winning in under Antonio Conte in 2017. Until Tuchel’s arrival, they had not been in a Champions League semi-final for seven years. They were being left behind. To achieve those long‑term ambitions, Abramovich should study how City laid out the welcome mat for Guardiola.