Champions League final: Kai Havertz & N’Golo Kante key for Chelsea against Man City

Every Manchester City fan I spoke to outside the pitch in Porto after their Champions League final loss has asked me the same thing: “Why didn’t he play against Fernandinho? “

But I can see why City boss Pep Guardiola left his captain aside, and I can understand why Rodri didn’t start either.

Pep thought, ‘I don’t need a center midfielder’ because Chelsea are playing with two away men at Mason Mount and Kai Havertz behind Timo Werner.

Graphic showing heat maps of Mason Mount (left) and Kai Havertz (right)
Heat maps of Mason Mount (left) and Kai Havertz (right) vs. City show how they mostly hit the ball off

Pep believed that by going with Ilkay Gundogan instead, City could be more creative – but he had to know that would leave them much more open than usual.

Chelsea was smart, of course. While they kept their defensive form extremely well, they weren’t passive about it – they were trying things out as well.

They knew City wanted to push them high, so they pulled Havertz on Oleksandr Zinchenko to stop him from pushing Reece James to their right side. It worked both defensively and defensively.

Graphic showing Man City's starting XI vs Chelsea: Ederson, Walker, Stones, Dias, Zinchenko, De Bruyne, Gundogan, Silva, Mahrez, Sterling, Foden
Sterling played on the left, De Bruyne running like a false nine. Phil Foden fell back to midfield. It was only the second time in 61 appearances this season that neither Rodri nor Fernandinho have entered a game

Havertz was constantly playing on Zinchenko’s shoulder, but the only time he ran inside him was for the Chelsea winner, when Ruben Dias was coached by Werner and that left that big gap in the middle.

Meanwhile, James just had Raheem Sterling to deal with rather than worry about Zinchenko coming to him as well, and he dealt with Sterling brilliantly.

Graphic showing Chelsea's starting XI: Mendy, James, Thiago Silva, Rudiger, Azpilicueta, Kante, Jorginho, Chilwell, Mount, Havertz, Werer
Havertz and Mount stayed tall and wide and occupied City full-backs even when Chelsea were out of possession

It was the same on the opposite flank, where Mount pushed Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell kept Riyad Mahrez silent.

So, outside, Chelsea were in the lead. When City’s wingers found themselves in one-on-one situations, they rarely passed James or Chilwell, whether they went inside or outside.

In the middle, N’Golo Kante was breaking play so well too, pinching things off and preventing City from building momentum with their passing.

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In the end, City will be disappointed that they haven’t moved Chelsea further, but you have to thank Thomas Tuchel for the way he has organized Chelsea.

With five in the back and two in the front, there was no way through.

Kante was supposed to be a fitness doubt with a hamstring injury, but he absolutely led the midfielder.

I could tell there was no problem with him when he rushed into City’s box to score a cross in the opening minutes. You don’t do races like that if you’re just trying to finish a match, and he ended up playing a vital role.

Graphic showing where Chilwell, Kante and James got the ball for Chelsea
No player recovered the ball more times in the final than Chelsea’s Kante with 10 (middle chart) while Reece James (right) made the most tackles (7) and Ben Chilwell (left ) has made the most clearances (6). Green triangles show successful tackles, yellow are blocks, blue are interceptions, purples are clearances and orange shows possession has been won

City’s roster was bold, but Kante was one of the reasons they ended up barely registering a shot on target.

Officially they had one, when Edouard Mendy blocked a shot from Sterling early on, but James had already set a foot and the opportunity was pretty much gone.

It was the only time Mendy had to make a save – other than that there were a few dangerous bullets through his area and a Mahrez shot in the timeout that flew just above.

That was it, as Chelsea continued to get behind City and had plenty of other opportunities before and after their goal.

“Totally different from City’s usual approach”

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The lack of an offensive threat wasn’t the only reason it was totally different from the kind of display we’re used to seeing from City this season.

Pep changed things around a few games in the campaign and basically said his team are now going to stay tight and allow fewer counterattacks against them.

City have focused on holding the ball and crushing teams from there, and we’ve seen countless masterclasses from them over the past few months.

This time, however, it was as if Pep thought he had to open the game, because otherwise Chelsea would have just sat down.

I’m sure he understood the risks involved in doing this. I’d be amazed if he didn’t – but for various reasons his plan didn’t work.

He will now receive criticism of the winning style change because City lost and are still awaiting their first Champions League triumph.

But let’s take a step back. City have come a long way and it was their first Champions League final. It happened in a season where they played twice a week, every week, and ended up with the Premier League title.

Losing will hurt Pep and his players, as much as it will be an incredible experience for Chelsea. who have deserved their victory.

But it’s always been a great season for City – a frustrating night doesn’t change that.

Michael Brown was speaking to Chris Bevan of BBC Sport.

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