cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Tony, Ryan, Grace — We’ve reassembled the day after two somewhat lopsided Champions League semifinal matches, and the finals are now set: It’ll be Chelsea vs. Manchester City in Istanbul on May 29. Two English clubs, two glitzy managers, only one match to prove they’re the best. There’s a lot to talk about, and I wanted to start by putting the season-long arc of these two clubs in some perspective. Manchester City started poorly but has put it all together in the last six or seven months. Chelsea was underperforming enough for its leadership to fire its manager, and now they’re on the cusp of European greatness while still fighting to make the Top 4 in the English Premier League.
So, different paths to the final. But what did we see in the semifinal matches that explain both teams’ success?
ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): Goal-scorers are overrated. No one on Chelsea has more than six goals in the Premier League this season, and Manchester City’s leading scorer is İlkay Gündoğan, who is a midfielder.
grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I think, if you want a single story about both teams, it’s that Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel are the two people to have figured out how to play pandemic ball: Slow it down.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Defense does win championships?
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grace: This is a much less exciting City team to watch than the ones from 2017-20, but it’s a much more solid unit that Guardiola trusts on occasions like this. It’s capable of being compact now whereas it was leaving spaces to exploit previously.
tchow: I don’t think either team is playing really exciting football at the moment but when you’re finally getting results, nobody cares. Although to be fair, the Paris Saint-Germain–City semifinal matchup was pretty exciting, in my opinion, especially compared to that other matchup.
ryan: City is fantastic at defending in its own penalty area, and it seems comfortable letting opponents get there. That is not a sentence I ever thought I would type!
grace: It’s worth mentioning City caught a big break with the Kylian Mbappé injury. I lost count of the times Neymar was dribbling and dribbling because he didn’t trust any of his passing options.
ryan: And, over the two legs, FiveThirtyEight has the combined xG for both teams as basically even.
tchow: That defensive solidarity Ryan mentioned goes hand in hand with what Grace said about Guardiola and trust. He’s still tinkering with his lineups but perhaps both the defense and trust in his team allow him to not overthink as much, thus resulting in this success.
grace: Thomas Müller has talked about how Guardiola’s approach allows teams to really dominate against lesser sides. This is the first time he’s moved the sliders towards more of a “big game” approach.
cwick: Let’s dwell on City’s defense for a bit, since that has been a big part of its success this year — it has the lowest expected goals allowed of any team in the Premier League. But it’s also been number 1 since 2017-18. So has something really changed? Personnel? Tactics? Or just the goals have dropped off so we’re looking at defense more?
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ryan: The main difference is the press. City doesn’t win the ball as high up the field as often as it used to … mainly because it doesn’t try to do it. Per Stats Perform, their PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is higher than it’s been since Pep arrived.
grace: There’s been a shift away from the high pressing that was leaving too much space for opponents to exploit behind the back line. City didn’t get broken very often, but when it got broken, it REALLY conceded some high-quality chances that maybe the xG models couldn’t quite catch properly. The lower block has cut out a lot of those chances.
cwick: You know you’re right when you and your colleague say the same thing at the same time.
ryan: To just pile on with some more agreement: City’s non-penalty xG allowed per shot dropped from 0.12 last season to 0.09 this season. Opponents’ high-quality chances have all but disappeared.
grace: I remember at least at one point last season City’s xG allowed per shot was the highest in the Premier League. There was a leak in the roof, and the team has fixed it.
tchow: I think that Rúben Dias/John Stones partnership has pretty much solved City’s defensive issues since losing Vincent Kompany. Last season, it was still shuffling and juggling players around to make it work.
cwick: Grace, you wrote in your newsletter this week that Guardiola has finally figured out how to win the biggest games, but it was by doing unflashy things. Did Tuchel do anything flashy to help Chelsea win against Real Madrid?
grace: It was just about subtle tweaks to his overall approach, mainly moving to a midfield three to get N’Golo Kanté tighter to Toni Kroos in the first leg. His approach since he arrived has been pretty consistent: possession football with a lot of slow control. But those subtle tweaks are a hallmark of what he does best.
ryan: If anything, bumping César Azpilicueta up from center back to wing back was … the opposite of flashy.
grace: All this defensive solidity has been very un-Tuchel. I’m interested to see if he sticks with it next year or reverts to gung-ho attacking type.
cwick: I’m still pretty confused about where this group comes down on Tuchel’s transformation of Chelsea. The team was sort of mired in the upper-middle of the table when it fired Frank Lampard and brought on Tuchel. Since then it’s stabilized, holding on to fourth in the table and making this run against somewhat weaker competition in the Champions League. And now you’re telling me the team isn’t really playing Tuchel’s style. So is this success anyone’s doing? Or just a sign that Chelsea’s stockpile of young talent has finally started to emerge? Or should I stop looking for a narrative because soccer is too complicated for those juvenile storylines?
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tchow: That defensive solidity is probably the most glaring thing about Tuchel’s Chelsea team. The squad has kept 11 clean sheets in 15 games (in the Premier League) since he took over. That’s compared to seven clean sheets in 19 under Lampard this season. Chelsea’s xGA has also dropped a significant amount since Tuchel (from 1.09 to 0.49). Watching those two legs against Real Madrid, he didn’t tinker much because he really didn’t have to. It’s been working.
ryan: I think it’s a combo of things: Chelsea was underperforming its xG under Lampard, a bunch of players got healthy/more comfortable playing with each other, and Tuchel is a significantly better coach than Lampard.
grace: I didn’t think Chelsea were in terrible shape when Tuchel arrived. But he turned the side into a possession-based defensive machine rather than Lampard’s more aggressive approach.
ryan: Chelsea has only lost two games since hiring Tuchel: a freak result against West Brom when they played down a man, and the second leg against Porto, which didn’t matter. I’m not convinced it’s not actually the second-best team in the world right now.
grace: And the second-best team in the world could absolutely pull something off against the best team in the world.
tchow: I think you have to give a lot of the credit for the success to Tuchel. But it’s also difficult to install a whole new system of play mid-season so rather than a full revamp. I think he’s just done some minor subtle tweaks here and there. I would bet next season’s Chelsea plays quite differently, which is kind of a scary thought.
ryan: We kind of saw the ultimate “everyone else is screwed” version of Chelsea against Real: it conceded nothing and just created chance after chance at the other end because it has a ton of incredibly talented and expensive and young attacking players. If it can improve the attack without hurting the defensive solidity, then watch out.
tchow: Okay some of those tweaks might be not so “subtle.” Switching from a back four to a constant back three is not a small change. Reinstalling captain Azpi back into a full-time starter position was also a smart move. Running out Jorginho alongside Kanté has reintroduced us to world-beater Kanté. So yeah, Tuchel has done some things.
cwick: Remarkably, we have not yet mentioned Kepa’s absence as the skeleton key for this whole Chelsea season.
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grace: I think the stats nerds won the argument on Kepa. Hard to imagine him playing for another top side.
ryan: The last time these teams met in a cup final was also the highlight of Kepa’s Chelsea career: when he refused to be subbed out before the shootout during the 2019 Carabao Cup.
cwick: In the long run, I think his former coach, Maurizio Sarri, won the argument.
grace: Won the argument but can’t get a job.
ryan: The last Juve manager to win Serie A!
cwick: I want to get to PSG and Real Madrid in a minute, but let’s preview the Chelsea vs. Manchester City final quickly. Does a one-match final (as opposed to a two-leg tie) favor either team? Presumably Chelsea, the underdog? And should we read closely into the two teams’ EPL match this weekend?
grace: It’s easier for me to imagine Tuchel pulling something off in this kind of scenario. Then again, I’m going off that absolutely awful FA Cup semifinal Chelsea and City played recently, so, err, great fun in store for us on the 29th.
ryan: Kepa started that game and didn’t give up a goal. We should immediately dismiss it out of hand.
tchow: Champions League finals are always cagey. Two teams playing great defense but still finding themselves on offense makes for a … not exciting game if I had to guess.
grace: I do think the FA Cup defeat increases the chances that Guardiola does something weird, so there’s that.
tchow: I do wonder if Pep and Tuchel will preview any tricks during this weekend’s match or if they will both save their real tactics for the true prize.
ryan: I kind of feel like the style of the final favors … Chelsea? It’s been pretty deadly when it has conceded possession and counter-attacked. And it will probably be sitting back a bit in the final, too.
grace: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to put money on it, but I’d have to lean Chelsea here.
tchow: If there’s a way for both teams to lose, I’d prefer that. But I think all three of us are going against the FiveThirtyEight predictions right now and saying Chelsea. (FiveThirtyEight’s model says Chelsea has only a 36 percent chance of winning.)
ryan: Are we all really gonna convince ourselves that the underdog is gonna win again, like we did last year?
tchow: Did we just jinx this and now Pep will finally be the prince that was promised and deliver the Champions League trophy to Manchester City?
grace: We’re in the tank for Tuchel again.
ryan: Chelsea did sort of tank for Tuchel, too.
cwick: You guys are nuts. Man City is going to clean Chelsea’s clock. It has better subs, Phil Foden is primed for a breakout, and its defense is gnarly.
ryan: Ever heard of Timo Werner, Chad?
cwick: Timo Werner has barely heard of Timo Werner!
cwick: While we wait for you to be wrong, let’s talk about the teams that have already gotten it wrong: PSG and Real Madrid. What should PSG take from its loss to Man City? Is losing to the best team in the league such a scarring event that it should somehow alter the course of its franchise?
ryan: It should maybe invest some of those trillions of dollars in actual fullbacks?
grace: I think it has to look at the squad-building approach. City has similar resources but never signed a player for more than £70 million, going all in on squad depth instead. PSG bet the house on two megastar forwards.
tchow: Going to the finals one year and then losing in the semis to a team like Man City is nothing to scoff at. PSG is a good team! Why not run it back and try again? Does a player like Mbappé really think he has a better chance at any of the other clubs wanting him?
ryan: Important note: PSG are currently in second place in Ligue 1.
grace: One could reasonably spend ungodly sums across the first 11 and run a pretty cheap bench, but PSG has, like, Mauro Icardi doing nothing in games like this. City has I don’t even know how many better options than Icardi.
tchow: Yeah, I don’t think Icardi touched the ball in that second game against City.
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ryan: It feels like we should be past the “starting Lassana Diarra in an important Champions League game” stage of PSG’s squad development, but we’re basically still there. Felt very “stars and scrubs” against City, at least in the second leg.
cwick: And when one of your stars doesn’t even start, it’s a problem. Let’s turn to Real Madrid, which I believe Grace has called the most boring team on the planet or somesuch. Did we see any sparks of innovation or the future in this last round?
grace: This was exactly the game that’s been coming all season. A tired, old side out of ideas. Six outfield starters over the age of 30 says it all.
tchow: The age really showed for Real. I think the one good thing to come out of this season for them was Vinícius Júnior looking like he’s finally finding his way. And he’s only 20!
ryan: Just an awful performance. Real took seven shots in a game it knew it needed to win from the jump.
grace: More than half the starting 11 has been there since Zidane’s first Champions League win in 2016. It’s so stale. And with the debt issues, I don’t know how it gets better next season.
ryan: Eden Hazard … listen, it was a good run, man.
grace: Hazard’s just chilling. He’s enjoying his life. And sometimes he has to go to work.
tchow: Lay off Hazard! He was coming back from injury!!! (This Madrid fan says every couple of weeks.)
ryan: Real Madrid have a lot of good young players — whom it’s sold or loaned out to other teams.
grace: Madrid had chances to really overhaul the side post-CR7 and just didn’t take them.
tchow: Yeah, Ryan, the Achraf Hakimi sale was really confusing, especially considering how thin Real Madrid is at fullback.
ryan: Theo Hernández has been fantastic at AC Milan, too. Having those as your two fullbacks for a decade — in an era where fullback play is vital — would’ve been pretty good!
grace: It does seem like Zidane is very locked into “his guys,” and they’re getting pretty old now.
ryan: The scary thing for Madrid is that Karim Benzema, who is 33-years-old, is the team’s leading goal-scorer with 21 in La Liga. No one else has more than six. Last year, outside of Benzema and SeSergiorio Ramos, who is two years older than Benz, no one scored more than four goals. Like, what’s gonna happen when Benzema’s legs go?
tchow: Erling Haaland? Now we’re getting into fan fiction territory. Maybe time to close this chat.
grace: This is the moment when in previous years we’d see Mbappé or Haaland doing keepy-uppies for the press at the Bernabéu, but I just don’t know if they can make it happen financially.
cwick: So to recap, of our four Champions League semifinalists, two have deep flaws in how they’ve constructed their teams, one is an enigma whose stars haven’t scored goals, and the other purposefully plays a boring style in order to win. This is not exactly an endorsement of the modern beautiful game!
tchow: Maybe this is what Florentino Pérez meant when he wanted to save modern football? #BringbacktheSuperLeague?
grace: Exactly, time to form a breakaway closed league to fix these problems.
ryan: Playing awful soccer and letting your billion-dollar squad decay to own the haters.
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