Thomas Tuchel never beat Pep Guardiola in their five Bundesliga matchups spread out over three seasons from 2013 through 2016. Of course, winning was never the expectation with Tuchel’s Mainz and Borussia Dortmund up against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich machine. In lieu of cleverness making up the difference, Tuchel simply bypassed the tactics and joined a Chelsea squad worth an estimated $850 million in terms of player value. With the economic disparity evened out, Tuchel has already beaten Guardiola’s Manchester City twice over the past two months leading up to the 2021 Champions League Final.
With our understanding of the current pressing style, Guardiola’s time in the Bundesliga represented a specific era. Part of his allure was how he could not only dominate a league but also bend its overall style towards possession. But looking back, it was a false moment: managers criticized for learning too much into passing at the expense of Germany’s traditional counter attacking play, most notably Joachim Low in the 2018 World Cup. The Bundesliga’s current model of NBA-style fastbreaks seems an extreme reaction to the control that Guardiola attempted to implement.
But Guardiola did have two followers who broke from tradition in Julian Nagelsmann and Tuchel. We have documentation about Tuchel’s Dortmund from 2015 when we realized he was combining the best of Guardiola’s positional play with the incisive foundations of German soccer. Tuchel differentiated himself from predecessor Jurgen Klopp’s intense press, favoring a Barcelona-esque model. Guardiola even said so himself back in 2015 when he named Tuchel and Antonio Conte as the two managers of the future (Tuchel has also made clear his admiration for Guardiola’s Barcelona). There was even a mythological night out between the two in 2014, where they supposedly discussed tactics at a Munich bar for four hours.
Tactically, this Champions League Final represents a reunion of that mid-2010s philosophy, which is even more poignant now considering how far we are from that style.
Guardiola’s longevity at City has added a new context to past failures in Europe’s top competition. As much as Guardiola is mocked for overthinking Champions League knockout matches, we’ve underappreciated the building of a European power in real time. Clubs do not get their continental reputations overnight. They have to earn a reputation through years and decades of both successes and heartbreaks. It wouldn’t have been right for City to win it in previous seasons as the newness of their entry wouldn’t be able to hold the weight of the trophy. Since Guardiola took over in 2016, their Champions League results have gone: round of 16, quarterfinals, quarterfinals, and quarterfinals, before finally breaking through to the semifinals last season. This final was earned over the six prior seasons of reputation-building.
There is a theory that the short-offseason combined with player fatigue forced Guardiola to simplify his tactics. There was no room for him to tinker as the key to this season was just to get through it in a pragmatic manner. He could not surprise with fatal 4-2-4 formations in knockout matches as his midfield didn’t have the legs. In contrast to pressing, he wanted his players to slow down and stop running. There were no gimmicks or tricks, just the basics of controlling matches with the ball and letting his squad win through their superior individual quality. Guardiola let his tactical ego aside.
Likewise, if there was one word to differentiate Tuchel’s short time with Chelsea, it is structure. The lineups have the requisite passing and possession numbers, but most impressive is the defending and clean sheets. In his club-record 13 match unbeaten streak to begin his Chelsea career, his side gave up just two goals. They outscored opponents 8-2 in the knockout stages of the Champions League. The run illustrates how positional play is not only a way for teams to create triangles in possession, but that structure also prevents counter attacks by having multiple players close to the ball should they lose it. Structure is not only about creating space for wingers and midfielders, but also about stopping opposition counterattacks early whether by tackling or tactical fouls.
Tuchel also differentiated himself from Frank Lampard through his shape, showing a clear bridge between the two managers in terms of tactical problem-solving and imagination. Lampard was unable to shoehorn the expectations and abilities of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, and especially Kai Havertz, who is a nuanced match-winning attacker who doesn’t fit into easy formations. Whereas Lampard tinkered with variants of a 4-3-3, Tuchel went straight to a 3-4-2-1 formation that unlocked the team on all levels. There was the defensive stability with three defenders, which also gave N’Golo Kante the freedom to be at his destructive box-to-box best. Werner reverted to his strength as a general attacker from the left, with Havertz, Ziyech, Mason Mount, and Christian Pulisic given freedom to work in between the lines.
And while we imagine positional play from Guardiola’s framework of controlling matches, Tuchel still added his Bundesliga-spin with verticality. The rules unlocked his high-priced side’s inherent athleticism to create a dynamic side with or without the ball. They are, or were at one point in this season, the most dangerous counter attacking team in Europe built around speed, dribbling, and directness.
There were discussions as to where Tuchel ranked among Chelsea managers after his start. We had memes of all the managers he not only beat, but also kept a clean sheet against in Jurgen Klopp, Diego Simeone, Zinedine Zidane, and Guardiola himself. Though results move fast. In the two weeks leading up to the European final, Tuchel’s side lost the FA Cup and almost were knocked out of the top four entirely. They’ve lost three out of their last four matches. A season can turn from grandeur back to anxiety in a matter of matches.
Tuchel won this season regardless in re-proving his tactical quality. He walked backwards into this Champions League Final after getting sacked at PSG just months earlier. His twist of fate shows how a large part of a manager’s greatness is in their ability to spot the right job opportunity, which in this case came in the form of Chelsea’s $270 million transfer window last summer. No matter the result on Saturday, he still has room to explain that he needs an entire preseason to fully unlock the squad’s potential.
In terms of legacy, this final would be a defining title for Guardiola. For all of his domestic dominance, he only has two Champions League trophies, and hasn’t won the top prize in a decade. The discrepancy between his league form and Europe is so large that he’s created his own paradox in which his tactical innovation and domestic dominance highlights his lack of knockout success. He is in a unique situation of not only developing City’s reputation in Europe, but fully seeing it out. Intellectually, we know that Guardiola is the best manager of his era just by reeling off his accomplishments. But in winning another Champions League trophy, we would have to feel it emotionally too.