Pep Guardiola vs. Thomas Tuchel: A tactical battle years in the making

Who will come out on top in what is sure to be a tactical battle? Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola or Bayern Munich’s Thomas Tuchel (l-r.)? – © DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Following Thomas Tuchel’s baptism of fire at Bayern Munich in Der Klassiker against Borussia Dortmund, another major challenge is in store for the coach when his side takes on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.

Given that the two managers used to animatedly discuss tactics using salt and pepper shakers in Munich restaurants while in charge of Dortmund and Bayern respectively, it is not overstating matters to say that a tactical battle is in store.

The two coaches have faced each other 10 times already, with Guardiola winning the first two in the 2013/14 season while he was in the Allianz Arena hot seat and Tuchel was at Mainz.

Guardiola had the upper hand in the 2015/16 campaign too, with his Bayern side beating Tuchel’s Dortmund 5-1 in the league and 4-3 in the DFB Cup final, as well as drawing 0-0 at the Signal Iduna Park.

It wasn’t until five years later that they locked horns again – and this time Tuchel finally got his way. Now at Chelsea, his Blues team overcame Guardiola’s City in the 2020/21 FA Cup semi-finals.

Image Credit (Alexander Hassenstein – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

The current Bayern boss went on to win the next two meetings as well, a 2-1 away success in the Premier League and a career-highlight 1-0 triumph in the 2021 UEFA Champions League final. Guardiola had his revenge in 2021/22, however, City won both Premier League encounters 1-0.

The most recent of those was in January 2022, so well over a year has passed since then, giving both times to hone, tweak and tinker with their methods.

Indeed, that is a stick Guardiola has been beaten with in recent years. Pundits and fans alike have accused the Catalan of overthinking his approach to key games and changing too much. As a result, the theory goes, City have been unable to win the Champions League trophy that he lifted twice with Barcelona.

Yet Guardiola’s roll of honours speaks for itself. In addition to those continental successes with Barcelona, he has won the FIFA Club World Cup three times, 10 national championships (the Premier League four times, the Bundesliga three times and La Liga another three), as well as 17 different cup competitions.

A reframing of social media’s pervading Guardiola narrative is that he is a coach who treats each match differently. Rather than over-tinkering, it is a case of developing a new game plan depending on the players he has available and those on the opposite side of the pitch. Given that he is almost expected to win every game, any defeat stands out all the more clearer.

The 52-year-old is also a tactical pioneer and many of the trends in modern football over the last 10 years can be traced back to him. Tiki-taka is perhaps the most well-known, but another is on display at Bayern currently. City loanee Joao Cancelo is nominally a full-back but he often shifts forward into central midfield, as he did in the second half of the DFB Cup quarter-final against Freiburg on Tuesday. This was a Guardiola idea originally, and he still employs the strategy today.

In his team’s last three competitive games (against RB Leipzig, Burnley and Liverpool), City has played with a three-man defence plus a fourth defender – either John Stones or Rico Lewis – operating in central midfield. When necessary, this extra midfielder can drop into a back four, while providing defensive cover for an extremely attack-minded four-man midfield and central striker.

Both renowned for their astute tactical minds, Tuchel and Guardiola (l-r.) love to talk tactics. – imago sportfotodienst/imago/Imaginechina

This 3-2-4-1 formation gave Guardiola’s side utter dominance on the pitch, allowing them to draw the opposition defenders out of position. Even against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, City had 68 per cent of possession, 17 shots at goal (to four against) and ran out deserved 4-1 victors. For Bayern to win, Tuchel will need a well-thought-out plan to combat City’s structure.

Luckily, that is where Tuchel excels. While his debut Klassiker win over Dortmund was rather more successful, the DFB Cup loss at home to Freiburg was a wake-up call. Bayern began with a flat-back four in that game Joshua Kimmich as the lone holding midfielder.

Against Dortmund, Leroy Sane played wide on the right but would often drift into the middle to support Leon Goretzka. Against Freiburg, however, Sane was tasked with providing width on the left, with Thomas Müller dropping deep into the centre instead. As Müller had played wide on the right against Dortmund, Kingsley Coman occupied that position on the flank against Freiburg.

It didn’t work. Christian Streich’s plan, which he announced before kick-off, nullified Bayern’s threat: “We’re playing with a 4-4-2 and want to try to close Kimmich down with our two strikers.”

Tuchel reacted to that and shifted Cancelo forward into central midfield – as he is familiar with from playing under Guardiola – giving Bayern a second player alongside Kimmich to help launch attacks from midfield in a 3-2 build-up formation.

Cancelo found plenty of space and the fact Bayern weren’t able to win the game is in large part due to Freiburg’s disciplined defending.

Guardiola and City will no doubt play differently, more on the front foot. Yet Tuchel has shown in the past that he can combat that. In the 2021 Champions League final, he sent his Chelsea side out with a 5-2-3 formation, preventing City from finding any space on the counter. A similar strategy could work again on Tuesday.

City’s five-pronged attack would be manageable with five in defence, but when in possession Bayern could revert to the familiar pattern with Cancelo moving forward into central midfield from right-back and Alphonso Davies bombing forward on the left. That would give Bayern a 3-2 build-up formation again. Alternatively, Cancelo could stay back and Bayern would have a 4-1 formation at the back when in possession; less attacking, but more defensively stable.

Both coaches are well known for devising specific plans for each match and continually adapting them. In the 2021 Champions League final, Guardiola deployed Ilkay Gündogan as a “false six” when in possession, a move that ultimately cost him the title. Tuchel played a deeper game that invited Guardiola’s team to come forward, before hitting them on the counter.

Thomas Tuchel claimed his first Champions League title, while Pep Guardiola’s wait for a third goes on. Image Credit (Getty Images)

It will be fascinating to see whether Manchester City line up in the 3-2-4-1 formation they have used of late, or whether Guardiola comes up with something special for this fixture. In the 2021/22 Premier League encounters against Chelsea, the former Bayern coach always went for a 4-3-3 formation.

Although Cancelo played as a left-back, he rarely ventured into the centre in both games. This was a clear tactical instruction from Guardiola to crack Tuchel’s code.

The outcome is likely to depend on who structures their team better defensively. In Tuchel’s three consecutive victories over Guardiola, one similarity was noticeable: City went on the front foot and Tuchel found tactical gaps for his team to exploit this game plan. The city may fancy themselves on home turf, but they will need to be wary: Tuchel knows how to beat Guardiola, and he will make sure his players know it too.