Chelsea’s appointment of Maurizio Sarri has added yet another fantastic tactical skirmish to the Premier League.
Antonio Conte is by no means a novice when it comes to putting crosses and circles on the chalkboard, but his successor is so closely ideologically aligned with Pep Guardiola that any meeting between Chelsea and Manchester City this season should be a fascinating encounter, decided by not only thrilling football but also the cute ploys of the men in the dugouts.
Fortunately for us, their first meeting comes this Sunday in the Community Shield with last season’s FA Cup winners facing the reigning Premier League champions. So, where exactly will this game be lost and won? Football FanCast take a look…
After a disastrous second half to his debut season at Chelsea and at the end of a summer in which the west Londoners have been linked with a handful of potential upgrades, Alvaro Morata’s frustration really showed in the Blues’ last pre-season encounter, a 1-1 draw with Arsenal in which the Spain international missed a succession of chances and saw a penalty saved by Petr Cech.
With the transfer deadline looming and Morata suspiciously changing his kit number to 29, all eyes will be on Chelsea’s struggling centre-forward this weekend if not to dissect his performance then to simply gauge his body language.
Guardiola, though, could end up doing the former Real Madrid man a favour. 17-year-old Eric Garcia could start at the back on Sunday following an impressive tour of America and while the teenager is highly revered, Morata should be able to exploit his inexperience. And even if Garcia doesn’t start, Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Vincent Kompany have only just returned to training – so the Chelsea front-man should be sharper and fitter than them.
City’s midfield was nothing short of revolutionary last season, simply because it replaced the beastly and powerful core that practically every title-winning side in Premier League history has possessed with pure quality in possession.
That will be a huge part of their game-plan going forward too, but it remains to be seen if that setup can be so effective without its driving force and lynchpin, Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgium international is set to miss Sunday’s game and although City’s alternative options are certainly talented, it’s unlikely their engine room will function with the same fluidity and verve.
Especially considering Chelsea’s midfield, while adopting a similar philosophy in their pre-season clashes under Sarri, will include players with more minutes under their belts already this summer and likely greater natural energy.
We’re tipping last season’s perennial underachiever Tiemoue Bakayoko to start while Ruben Loftus-Cheek could be involved as well, and both have the power and industriousness to really run City’s midfield into the ground, with Fernandinho and David Silva only returning to training this week.
It’s already been alluded to but fitness will inevitably be a key factor on Sunday and Chelsea find themselves in a much stronger position on that front. Although they could be without Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante, probably their two most important players, far more City regulars are yet to feature in pre-season after reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup, so this will be a first involvement for some.
That includes the likes of Kyle Walker, Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Silva and Fernandinho who all returned to training over the course of the last week. Logic suggests they’ll struggle to last the full ninety minutes, and the more changes City make the stronger position Chelsea will find themselves in.
In contrast, while Sarri’s yet to put out his strongest XI yet because some key players have been unavailable, the team that faced Arsenal only included one youngster in Callum Hudson-Odoi and no players, excepting new signing Jorginho, who didn’t represent Chelsea in the Premier League at some point last season.
Both young strikers have been involved in pre-season and both will be desperate to prove they deserve to be part of their respective teams’ campaigns rather than going out on loan.
Tammy Abraham of course has the advantage of considerable Premier League experience after spending last season with Swansea City, but he’s got three more proven centre-forwards to contend with for a significant role under Sarri – Olivier Giroud, Michy Batshuayi and Morata. This will likely be the Englishman’s last chance to show he can be a better option.
Nmecha, meanwhile, has impressed Guardiola enough to already make his Premier League debut, and scored against Bayern last time out. But with Aguero and Jesus ahead of him in the pecking order, the 19-year-old will need to do something special to really muscle his way into the City gaffer’s thoughts for the campaign.
A chance from the bench seems more likely than from the opening whistle, but both young forwards will be hungry to make an impact at Wembley.