Pep Guardiola has long been an admirer of Antonio Conte, whose Chelsea side Manchester City will be attempting to outwit at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, but feels there have been two key advantages behind Chelsea’s rise to the top of the Premier League table.
One is the absence of European commitments, as a result of their lacklustre campaign in 2015-16; the other is a lowering of expectation for much the same reason. When Conte came to England he was not under quite the same pressure to provide immediate results as Guardiola, which was just as well since it took him a while to make Chelsea the force they are at the moment.
“In my case I had to win the treble and change English football, so you could say expectations were quite high,” Guardiola joked. “I was always going to fall short but it is true that I knew from the beginning Chelsea would have a good season. They have brought in very good players and, even though they were only so-so at the start, once they settled on a way to play they became very good. The fact that they usually have a week to work on things in training helps a lot. It is a big advantage if you have time.”
The City manager named Chelsea as title contenders in the summer, even though they had been so unimpressive the previous season, largely because of his admiration for the work Conte had done with Juventus and the Italian national side. “He is an excellent manager, one of the very best,” Guardiola said. “I learned a lot from his Juventus team and, when he took over as Italy manager, he was able to make them play beautiful football in a culture where it is so defensive.”
Time is now running out for City’s title challenge unless they can do better at Chelsea than they did at Arsenal on Sunday, though Guardiola is still haunted by the 3-1 defeat Conte’s side inflicted at the Etihad in December. Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho were both shown red cards in the closing stages of that game but Guardiola admits he, too, was frustrated by “circumstances out of our control”, by which he means a couple of occasions when the referee, Anthony Taylor, had been lenient with Chelsea players.
“I have watched the game many times and believe me we were much the better team,” Guardiola said. “We were one goal up, we missed some unbelievable chances to go two or three ahead and there were unbelievable penalty decisions that did not go our way. We were four points behind Chelsea afterwards.
“Then we had to go to Leicester without Sergio, we lost another three and soon the lead is 10 points. These are minimum details but that is why we find ourselves in our present position. In spite of that I think we have played a lot of good football in many games, but so have Chelsea. I don’t think for a moment that losing at the weekend will affect Chelsea’s confidence. They will be more focused, sometimes it can be dangerous for a team used to winning every week to relax.”
City are likely to be active in the transfer market over summer, with a goalkeeper and at least a couple of defenders among their priorities. “We will do what we can to get better, maybe by buying some players to make us stronger,” Guardiola said. “But in summer all the teams are going to be thinking about that. Every club will be trying to improve, even Chelsea will be out buying players. When Sir Alex Ferguson was winning titles at Manchester United he was still buying players. You have to do that. So one club is unlikely to get ahead through the transfer market, it will just make the whole of the Premier League even stronger.”
Until the summer window opens the major concern for City and their supporters is arresting the tendency to let opponents back into games. City surrendered the lead twice at Arsenal, and lost from a winning position at home to Chelsea, and went out of Europe through an inability to protect a first-leg lead. “We play well going forward but we are not solid when teams come back at us,” Guardiola said. “When opponents arrive at our line we seem to think, ‘Wow, they are going to create chances and score goals,’ and worrying about the result does not help our confidence. We want to be as proactive as possible in games but we need to change the way we react when we go ahead.
“We always seem to play better when we have problems. Chelsea are good at the positional game, very dynamic on the counterattack, in fact they use all the aspects of the game. That is why they are one of the best teams in Europe. But we should have beaten them, and we would have done but for situations we could not control.”
Kevin De Bruyne, the City midfielder who played for Chelsea between 2012 and 2014, said: “I don’t think they will be shaken [by the defeat by Crystal Palace]. They are professionals who know how to cope with a loss. It happens. They’re still a lot of points ahead but obviously they will try to win the game against us because, if they lose and Tottenham win, then maybe they have a little bit of pressure that they haven’t had throughout the whole season until now.
“They’ve done unbelievably, especially since changing formation. Obviously they haven’t had to think about Europe so they can be on it every game and they know what they’re doing every time. I think he [Conte] probably drilled it into them.”