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mind games How tactician Thomas Tuchel may prove a thorn in Pep Guardiola's side

Chelsea boss studied ‘Guardiola playbook’ to become City’s nemesis and now seems to have the upper hand


Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Photo: REUTERS/Pierre-Philippe Marcou

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Photo: REUTERS/Pierre-Philippe Marcou

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Photo: REUTERS/Pierre-Philippe Marcou

Thomas Tuchel laughs when asked whether Pep Guardiola may regret being so helpful to him earlier in his coaching career. “I am not a fanboy!” the Chelsea head coach says. “But I am absolutely impressed and it was like an honour to speak to him and have the chance to hear his beliefs.”

In fact, Tuchel has closely followed Guardiola’s career since the latter was appointed Barcelona coach in 2008. “It started in the very first weeks,”

Tuchel says. “You could feel there was something very different going on there.”

Tuchel, who was coaching the U-19s at Mainz at the time, was impressed and fascinated. Not only by Guardiola’s tactics but, more so, by “how deeply he believes in his beliefs”, and when he eventually began coaching in the Bundesliga, he jumped at the opportunity to speak to him.

Much is often made of an evening Guardiola and Tuchel spent together at Schumann’s American Bar in Odeonsplatz in Munich seven years ago. In fact, there were two meetings between the coaches at the famous gathering place for artists and actors in which they moved the wine glasses and pepper pots around and talked tactics.

What is discussed less often is a third meeting that occurred a couple of years later, the week after Guardiola’s Bayern Munich had overpowered Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund 5-1. Following the match, Tuchel asked to see Guardiola and arranged to meet him for dinner.

After that meal Guardiola, who had already named Tuchel and Antonio Conte as the coming forces in coaching, was convinced the German should be his successor at Bayern. So that is what he told the club’s then technical director, Michael Reschke - who had arranged the first meeting between the pair in the bar.

What this shows is not just Guardiola’s regard for Tuchel even after that heavy defeat he praised his football in the post-match press conference – but also Tuchel’s fierce desire to improve and to park his ego in that quest. Some managers’ pride would have been too wounded to request another meeting.

Six years later and Tuchel has been incredibly successful in closing the gap on the Manchester City manager and not just between their respective clubs.

“You instantly know, ‘OK this is now the highest level because I have never experienced a Pep team not being on the highest level’,” Tuchel says. “It was with Barcelona, it was with Bayern Munich, it’s now with City. So once you meet him in the stadium, you know this is going to be a tough one.”

Ahead of Premier League leaders Chelsea’s game against City at Stamford Bridge today, Tuchel has won the past three meetings between the pair. He beat City and Guardiola three times last season, in the FA Cup semi-final, the Premier League and, most importantly, the Champions League final.

What is so fascinating is that it was Guardiola, rather than Tuchel, who adapted his tactics. Tuchel called them all “50/50” games and they were, but it was not luck that he won them. There were mitigating circumstances for those first two games - and across all three encounters City’s best player, Kevin De Bruyne, played only 108 minutes - but it felt by the third that Tuchel had got inside Guardiola’s head, rather than vice versa.

His record before that had been played five, won none although that sequence is slightly distorted given he was coaching Mainz in the first two of those encounters – losing 4-1 and 2-0 – then, after that heavy defeat when he was in charge of Dortmund, there were two goalless draws. The latter was in the DFB-Pokal Cup final with Bayern winning on penalties – so technically another loss – but it showed the signs of improvement and it showed Tuchel is a quick learner.

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“I had to suffer,” Tuchel says. “He beat me I think four times so I had to also deal with it and come back from it . . . not so long ago there were a lot of voices who told me I don’t know how to beat Pep. Anyway it’s not between me and him; we don’t play a match of tennis or chess, but we play with our teams.”

There is a story about when Tuchel was at Mainz and returning from a match. A documentary was being shown on the coach about Guardiola which featured a map of the passing patterns made by his players in a game. The story goes that Tuchel studied it intently for two hours.

“If you are a coach at Mainz you cannot come up with the idea of, ‘Let’s play like Barcelona’,” Tuchel explains. “So it was more about understanding how he implements, how much of an influence [he had], what did he do, what changes did he do technically, how he implemented a counter-pressing. And then he did it again at Bayern and now again at City. It’s outstanding. Look at all the trophies.

“But [back then] it was so far out of reach to be able to even compete with him on the same level. So that’s why I am absolutely grateful now and, believe it or not, I’m happy that I arrived at a club and a team with confidence that, OK, if we play at our very best level we are a team that can compete with Pep.

“This is a good feeling because it means you are in a good place as a coach.”

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