Chelsea FC boss Thomas Tuchel can take on Pep Guardiola as FA Cup clash marks start of new rivalry

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James Robson
·4-min read
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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola identified Thomas Tuchel as one of his greatest threats long before he was parachuted in to save Chelsea. Tomorrow, the pair will meet on English soil for the first time in a clash that promises to light the blue touch paper for the Premier League’s next great rivalry.

How double-chasing Chelsea handle quadruple-chasing Manchester City will be instructive as to what is to come next season and beyond. In less than three months, Tuchel has demonstrated enough qualities to suggest he will be the man to lead the resistance against Guardiola’s bid to dominate English football in the coming years.

Be it tactical nous, man-management, big-game psychology or speed of adaptability, Tuchel has passed every test placed in front of him, defeat to Sam Allardyce’s West Brom not withstanding. City at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final may be the severest examination of his credentials since taking charge, particularly as he faces a team at a very different stage in their development than his own.

To an extent, Tuchel is still in firefighting mode, having to make do and mend his way to the end of the season with a squad he inherited, albeit with spectacular results so far.

That his start to life at Chelsea has been so impressive will surprise Guardiola least of all. He was fascinated by the German’s approach as far back as his time at Mainz.

In Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, author Marti Perarnau reveals the Catalan’s words to Tuchel ahead of his own move from Bayern Munich to City. “I told him that he’s the one who’s going to have to take positional play forward in Germany,” he recounted after they met for dinner.

The pair would get together for in-depth discussions about the game, using salt cellars and pepper pots to illustrate formations while eating at Schumann’s Bar in Munich.

Guardiola was not universally loved at Bayern, but he altered German football, adapting his Tiki-Taka from Barcelona and dominating in a new country. Tuchel was one of the coaches most fascinated by Guardiola’s Bayern reign. And the feeling was mutual, with Guardiola impressed with the manner in which Tuchel rebuilt Dortmund after the departure of Jurgen Klopp and several star players.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

While he could not emulate Klopp’s success at Germany’s second club, his work there earned him a move to Paris Saint-Germain and a platform to truly challenge for the biggest prizes.

Like Guardiola at Bayern, Tuchel’s domestic success in France — back-to-back titles and two cups — was largely dismissed, but in reaching last season’s Champions League Final, he managed something Guardiola has not in 10 years. Guardiola is only now in his first semi-final in five years at City, while Tuchel is in the last four in Europe’s premier competition for the second season in succession.

He is establishing himself as a serial competitor for the biggest honours and his achievements so far at Chelsea feel like just the start. Given a full season and with a summer transfer window, Chelsea could look very different under him.

How impressive his impact has been in such a short space of time cannot be overstated. It was on his flight over to London to sign his contract that he devised the formational change that would solve the longstanding defensive fragility that had blighted Frank Lampard’s short reign.

In came the largely unused Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger as part of a three-man defence and with it a run of 14 clean sheets in 18 games.

A total of 25 points from his 12 League games is only five fewer than City over the same period, and considering he took over a side that had lost five of its previous eight, it represents the rapid improvement he has overseen.

Wins at Anfield and in both legs against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League have stood out as examples of his tactical acumen.

The next step is to make Chelsea a more expansive side, with the type of flair he was more associated with at PSG. The introduction of a top-quality striker should facilitate that. But this season was always going to be about stopping the rot after the unravelling of Lampard’s reign while trying to secure the minimum target of a top-four finish. That he has added the promise of a Champions League and FA Cup double is a testament to the qualities that saw Guardiola identify him as such a threat.

“I remember asking him in 2015 to name two coaches with the greatest potential,” wrote Perarnau. “Without a second’s hesitation, he said, ‘Tuchel and (Antonio) Conte’.”

Conte would go on to lead Chelsea to the title ahead of Guardiola’s City in 2017. Tomorrow could be a pointer as to whether history is about to repeat itself.

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