Pep Guardiola just sacrificed an entire first half of Premier League football to stick it to Manchester City Twitter and still keep touch in the title race.
While Mikel Arteta is cracking under the pressure of a Premier League championship sprint and rampaging on the touchline, Pep Guardiola has opted for a more characteristically passive aggressive approach to the defence of Manchester City’s crown.
Why, Geoff Shreeves asked earnestly, had he picked this game to reintroduce World Cup alumni in Kyle Walker, Joao Cancelo and Phil Foden? Because “the fans want these players to play,” Guardiola replied, a smirk breaking out across his face. “That should be a good answer.”
The Spaniard entertains certain lines of questioning until the precise point he doesn’t. He chose a match at Chelsea to silently rage against the machine of coaches having to explain their team selections. After all, no-one ever asked Michelangelo why he was using that colour for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
“Before every game you guys ask me the reason why, sometimes is not a specific reason why,” Guardiola told an assortment of pundits fortunate enough to stand under his learning tree. “I want to rotate the team, get everyone involved.
“Sometimes I pay attention for the opponent, sometimes for the tactics or the quality of the players we have, I don’t care for the tactics today. Since I arrived, I’m not a guy who plays 11 players every time – you cannot handle the locker room. When the players don’t play they have to have the feeling they can play at a certain level. It’s not nice.”
Neither is the implication of a half-time substitution for Walker and Cancelo, nor the subtext of Foden’s removal on the hour mark. Manchester City won this game specifically without those three players, as if the galaxy brain of Guardiola can afford to sacrifice an entire first half just to prove a point and still emerge with all three.
The idea that Guardiola has any sort of eye or ear on Manchester City Twitter – a burner account would be absolutely incredible – is tantalising. But this was his apparent gift to them: the line-up that the vocal majority had been calling for. Ederson; Walker, Stones, Ake, Cancelo; De Bruyne, Rodri, Gundogan; Bernardo, Haaland, Foden.
There. You’ve got what you all wanted. Happy now?
But Guardiola introduced a caveat. He made the preposterous suggestion this was not his XI but instead one picked on some sort of public vote, then he absolutely Pep’d it. He overthought the ever-living shit out of that selection. Perhaps as some sort of tribute to the 2021 Champions League final. Same opponent and all that. Must be it.
For the first 45 minutes, Bernardo dropped back into defensive midfield, Rodri rotated between sitting alongside him in a double pivot or dipping further back into central defence, Nathan Ake was deployed at left-back and Cancelo operated on the right wing. Foden might as well have played on a different pitch, such was the extent of his isolation.
It was surely not a deliberate ploy to be so poor, so sloppy in the final third, so slow in progressing the ball, so ponderous as to give Chelsea a foothold. But everything with Guardiola feels intentional, calculated, carefully planned. So when Rico Lewis and Manuel Akanji emerged for the second half in place of Walker and Cancelo, it was like a tired parent letting a stubborn child try things their way to see the stupidity of it in action, before showing them what to actually do.
Within minutes of the restart, Erling Haaland shot just wide, Kevin de Bruyne forced a save and Ake hit the post. Soon after, De Bruyne missed a presentable chance from Bernardo’s cutback after the Portuguese turned Marc Cucurella inside out. Guardiola then instantly took Bernardo off in the same substitution as Foden; heads were scratched in unison. But Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez, their replacements, combined to score the winner. Because obviously.
Guardiola’s first four substitutions had one thing in common: control. That is what Manchester City wrestled back with those changes. They offered more balance, more rhythm, better structure. Bringing “so sexy” Kalvin Phillips on for Rodri was just the Spaniard taking the piss.
That rather underplays the role Chelsea had in this game. They were very good, much more positive and competent than in the draw against Nottingham Forest. Graham Potter lost Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic to early injuries but Carney Chukwuemeka was excellent and Mateo Kovacic thrived alongside the wonderful Denis Zakaria in midfield. The hosts had their chances but there remains no-one who can reliably take them. Particularly not when John Stones is about.
This was, in some ways, their most promising performance under Potter yet.
But Guardiola often operates in a different coaching stratosphere to his contemporaries and on Thursday evening he claimed both the moral and literal victory. It’ll be his way only from now on, which is no bad thing for a four-time champion in a title race.