Something that has never failed to astound me is the level of ignorance that exists in certain sections of the UK media when it comes to the likes of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola. I believe there remains a level of desperation from some for Guardiola to fail, simply so they can dismiss his accomplishments at Barcelona and Bayern Munich because they were not in the Premier League. As if their primary function is to prove to all and sundry that the Premier League is the best league in the world and success elsewhere pales in comparison.
To a lesser extent, Conte has had a taste of that too, but his track record is not as lucrative as Guardiola’s and he doesn’t have quite the same reputation. Therefore, his pedestal is not as enticing to the media. His reputation as a fine coach with a keen tactical mind was coming under question during Chelsea’s patchy early season form, though those same critics are now eating out of his hands since the success of changing formation. Moving to his favoured back three set-up which he used to great effect at Juventus, and with Italy, has so far served Conte well. The transition has been almost seamless, better than anyone could have expected, though probably helped by Conte’s understanding and experience of it.
In contrast, Guardiola has experimented with a few different formations, as he continues to search for what best suits the squad he currently has. Clearly, his plan is to have so much possession that a goalkeeper whose primary quality is shot-stopping should, in theory, not be needed as much as one that is comfortable receiving the ball at his feet outside the penalty area.
The theory has not quite translated so well on the pitch as Claudio Bravo has had a difficult time since his arrival at the Etihad. Equally, the continual injuries to Vincent Kompany have not helped a back-line that still looks vulnerable and will surely be a priority to address next summer. Anyone who has observed Guardiola since he took the reins at Barcelona will be aware of what is almost an obsession for him in regards to developing and innovating tactically.
So, to see these two come head-to-head with their new respective clubs was intriguing in itself. The simple narrative would be to say that Conte won the tactical battle by virtue of Chelsea being the victors on the day, but in truth, that would not be the full story of the match.
Since the move to a back three, Chelsea have had an excellent defensive record and it has been suggested that their superior defence, thanks to Conte and his tactics, won them the match.
The fact of the matter is that Manchester City could and should have scored five goals, maybe more. Referee Anthony Taylor was simply awful on the day and should have sent David Luiz off for a blatant foul on Sergio Aguero in the first-half to deny the Argentine hitman an obvious goal scoring opportunity. For some reason, Taylor missed that and a number of other calls throughout the match. That is in no way an excuse for City, because Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne had enough clear cut chances to render a poor referee meaningless. Then, irrespective of Chelsea being down to ten men or not, there would have been a very different story coming out of this game.
City dominated the first-half and were still forcing the play until Chelsea equalised; this is where I believe the credit to Conte really comes in – he had Chelsea perfectly set to exploit City’s vulnerabilities on the counter-attack, something they did with aplomb in the second-half. Conte deserves the plaudits for the way Chelsea took advantage of City’s weakness, but to herald them defensively because they only conceded one goal would be to ignore what actually took place in the match. The fact the scoreline ended the way it did was down to City being wasteful with their chances and Chelsea being clinical with theirs. The frustration of missing numerous chances, some poor refereeing decisions and losing a match they should’ve won was what I think culminated in Aguero making that inexcusable challenge on Luiz.
Essentially, Guardiola largely got his tactics right because City created a number of chances and should really have had the game sewn up before the break. The only reason they didn’t was down to individuals who you could normally rely on in such situations and not because of tactics.
As a neutral, I can see both coaches getting their tactical approach right on the attacking side, but not with the defending. However, City made more costly mistakes than Chelsea and that is where this game was decided; so for media to argue otherwise is either blind ignorance or simply to feed an agenda led narrative and not to objectively report.