The European club season came to an end this weekend, with Chelsea beating Manchester City 1-0 on Saturday to win the UEFA Champions League. We will remember this as the most disjointed, surreal, fixture-congested, logistically challenged campaign barring those seasons played in wartime. When we look back in a decade or two, we’ll tell tales of two-legged knockout rounds in neutral venues, PCR swabs up our noses, containment bubbles, fake crowd noises and empty stands.
But Saturday was about celebration, starting with the fact that we even got a Champions League final, and one in front of real, live fans as well. Now, for a breather — so to speak, as we still have the interminable Spanish second division and the U-21 Euros (Stream LIVE on ESPN+ in the U.S.) to keep us busy — and then off to Euro 2020 (in 2021… there’s another thing we’ll need to explain to our kids).
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on how Saturday night in Porto leaves the two finalists, as well as UEFA.
Thomas Tuchel joked that, having met Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich for the first time on the pitch after winning the final, “from now on, things can only get worse!”
He was kidding, of course, but it did feel a bit like the new signing who scores a hat trick on his debut and has to remind everyone he won’t be doing this every week. And yet, it does feel like we haven’t even seen the real Tuchel yet — just the emergency, “take an ax to break down the door to put out the fire” version, rather than the “build the house out of stone so it won’t be flammable” version.
Lest we forget, Tuchel had no preseason training (not with Chelsea, anyway) and no transfer window to work with. Excluding the international break and the five days ahead of the final, the most time he had between games was four days; often, he had just two. For a guy with a reputation as a tactical savant who relishes work on the training pitch above all else, that’s no time at all to do what he’s actually paid for. Not when you factor in travel, days off and warm-downs.
So in many ways, the fact that he got Chelsea back into the top four and delivered the second Champions League in their history doesn’t mean he’ll get a pass. If anything, expectations will be higher because he’ll finally have the time to do what he does best: teach and coach football. Saturday — and this season’s results in general — only burnish his reputation and ensure he’ll get even more buy-in from his players.
Beyond that, notwithstanding last summer’s spending spree made before Tuchel arrived, there are some huge calls ahead.
The club has to figure out a succession plan for defenders Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta. Maybe the solution is in-house — Chelsea can still call on Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma — maybe it isn’t. There’s a glut of attacking midfielder/winger types (Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi) to address too, plus more on loan (Ross Barkley, Ruben Loftus-Cheek). Rotation is fine and all, but at some point, you need a hierarchy. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz showed glimpses of their impressive skill sets and you obviously stick with them, but there’s still a clear need for a genuine center-forward (and, apparently it won’t be Tammy Abraham).
These are big calls to make. Given it’s Chelsea, you suspect Tuchel will be part of the conversation, but not necessarily driving it. Which is fine. After all, it’s worked for them in the past.
Pep Guardiola put together the best team in Europe for the past six months, won the Premier League and League Cup, and lost the final because of that old pernicious habit of his: overthinking. That’s the popular narrative, and because we’ve seen it before, especially in the Champions League — Aymeric Laporte at left-back against Liverpool in 2017-18, Kevin De Bruyne benched against Tottenham in 2018-19, the weird setup against Lyon last year — this weekend’s “Raheem Sterling for a defensive midfielder” switch will get lumped into that same category.
There’s some truth to it, but it’s far too simplistic to say it cost City the Treble. More of a concern is how this side paid a price for (essentially) 3½ weeks of being present in body but not in mind, playing out four effectively meaningless (for them) games between the PSG semifinal, second leg and the final.
There was an (understandable) drop in intensity and focus that they didn’t regain in time for Porto. That should be as much of a concern for Guardiola than his supposed over-thinking, which is a bit of a tired trope: after all, we’re talking about the most successful manager of his era, who knows his players best because he sees them every day, making an extra tweak to gain an edge against an opponent … precisely what he gets paid the big bucks to do.
Craig Burley questions Pep Guardiola’s personnel decisions for Manchester City in the Champions League final.
Perhaps the most interesting question Guardiola will answer — via his actions, more than his words — is whether he sees the “striker-less” formation that cued up City’s winning streak as his base XI — in which case there’s no need to add an A-list center-forward, as Gabriel Jesus and another energy guy off the bench will suffice — or whether he’ll change things again, acquiring a big-name central striker to replace Sergio Aguero. The latter would feel a little bit like change for the sake of change, unless, of course, he secures a transformational player like Harry Kane or Erling Haaland.
The disappointment of getting this far and falling at the final hurdle may linger for some time, but the truth is that 2020-21 was a success for City, whichever way you spin it. They are one of the few sides in Europe with genuine economic clout in what promises to be a depressed transfer market, and with few immediate needs, they have the luxury to put their resources towards the best player available, regardless of position.
And they have Guardiola: still one of the single biggest non-economic draws in the game.
Having staved off the Super League, having managed to complete the Champions League season, having reached — however tortuously and imperfectly — a deal for a new format in the next TV rights cycle, having found a new venue for the final in double-quick time after Istanbul had to be ruled out, they can be happy with how things turned out. They even managed to deliver fans for the final.
But they too have challenges ahead. The lawsuit filed by what’s left of the Super League clubs (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus) rumbles on. Should it ever make it to court and should we ever get to a verdict, the risk is that it will be binary: either the ruling will be that UEFA as a governing body is free to be both regulator and competition organiser (in which case, it’s business as usual), or that it’s a monopolistic entity (which would effectively blow up the game as we know it).
UEFA’s decision to pursue disciplinary proceedings against the three rebel clubs is also a risk. It’s not entirely clear on what basis they would be disciplined and, as ever, the risk of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturn is ever-present.
The Champions League reform — with its “Swiss Model” — like many products of compromise risks displeasing everyone. There’s a desire (real or perceived) for innovation and change: the away goals rule is set to be scrapped, there’s talk of a “Final Four” in one venue to replace the current home-and-away semifinals and UEFA have convened a huge stakeholder convention – but you wonder if, post-pandemic, this is the time to do it.
Having done comparatively little in the first few years of the Aleksander Ceferin era, it now feels as if, perhaps emboldened by the Super League fiasco, they’re ready for radical change when, maybe, it might be best to let things get back to normal first.