Les Anglais sont arrivés. Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The darling buds of May are, with all due sense of caution, beginning to bloom. And the Premier League is all set for its annual European away day.
First things first: the presence of two English clubs in the Champions League final is a source of huge pride and excitement for supporters of both teams. For Chelsea this is another high-water mark in the boom years, a season that has turned completely on its head after the rancour and impotence of midwinter. For longtime fans of Manchester City this represents a scarcely credible, beautifully executed journey’s end, more than a decade on from the complete making-over of the club.
There will be internal triumphalism for the Premier League and high fives in the committee rooms of the major UK rights holders. West London meets east Manchester in Istanbul – this is a bravura occasion for English sport, and reward for two genuinely captivating groups of players, brilliantly coached, and speckled with high-class homegrown product. Chelsea versus Manchester City, summer 2021, is all of these things. But it isn’t, in any sense, a surprise.
There are always phases in sport. The thing that is happening now is not the thing that will always happen. But the fact remains, right now, Premier League domination is the baseline. Five of the past eight Champions League finalists have been Premier League clubs.
And this is how it should be given the increasingly linear relationship between money and success. Five of the nine wealthiest clubs in the world operate in the Premier League. Two of those – Chelsea and City as it happens – are owned by sponsors with bottomless pockets, entities who aren’t in this business to make a profit, but for other, rather opaque and unexpressed reasons.
In a time of collapsing finances, City can comfortably maintain a £220m wage bill and pay Pep Guardiola £18m a year to apply his brilliance at the Eastlands campus. Where others feared financial collapse, Chelsea saw a sensible investment opportunity and gambled £200m on attacking talent, albeit much of it raked back in sales related to previous excess spending. lls sont les meilleurs! Sie sind die Besten! Yeah, well, all of that probably. But we’re back either way. And yet, this being football, the most gloriously resilient sporting substance, even this deeply familiar fixture looks fresh and moreish.
Istanbul will be the fourth time these teams have played each other in five months this calendar year. Both have evolved furiously in that time. City’s 3-1 win in January at Stamford Bridge was the launchpad for a shift towards the current pared-back winning machine, and a headline success for the false-nine system. Chelsea were in the process of ceasing to be Frank Lampard’s team. By the time these two met again in April for an FA Cup semi-final early Tuchel-ism had taken hold, that girdle of defensive strength strapped into place.
Victory on Saturday for City against Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium will seal the League title. But there are of course major subplots here now, a game of bluff and mental edge before that final in three weeks’ time. It is a good match-up, too. Both managers are drawn, as a first principle, towards keeping the ball. Both have experimented this season with deep, resilient defence. There is a narrative around both teams that their attacking patterns – intricate and technical versus high-speed transition – are let down by the lack of a classic rapier finisher.
1972 Uefa Cup: Tottenham 3-2 Wolves
The first all-English final was almost 50 years ago. Spurs won 2-1 at Molineux in the first leg, Martin Chivers scoring both goals. Alan Mullery put Tottenham further ahead in the second leg, and they held on despite Dave Wagstaffe's equaliser at White Hart Lane.
2008 Champions League: Man Utd 1-1 Chelsea (6-5 pens)
The slip seen around the world, as John Terry missed the chance to seal Chelsea's first Champions League title in the penalty shootout. Edwin van der Sar then saved Nicolas Anelka's penalty to seal United's third European Cup. The game finished 1-1 after 120 minutes in Moscow, Cristiano Ronaldo and Frank Lampard scoring the goals.
2019 Europa League: Chelsea 4-1 Arsenal
This London derby in Azerbaijan was won decisively by Chelsea, who took the lead through former Gunner Olivier Giroud. Eden Hazard scored twice and set up Pedro for Chelsea's fourth, with Alex Iwobi grabbing a consolation goal as Arsenal missed out on a Champions League place.
2019 Champions League: Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham
Another all-Premier League affair in 2019, as Liverpool won their sixth European Cup in Madrid, a year on from losing the final to Real Madrid. Mo Salah put Liverpool ahead from the penalty spot after two minutes, but it wasn't until Divock Origi (pictured) got a late second goal that Jürgen Klopp's side could celebrate. PA
This is a little old school in itself. Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel don’t set up without an orthodox centre‑forward because of some kind of oversight or failure of recruitment. They want to play this way, to score in this way, to prioritise other patterns. And for all the reservations (where is their Niall Quinn, their Kerry Dixon?) City are top scorers in the Premier League, while Chelsea have 14 in six Champions League away games. They missed a lot of chances against Paris Saint‑Germain and Real Madrid. But this also involved making a lot of chances.
The final will be fascinating for other reasons. Both managers are interventionists and details merchants. There will be a game of tactical feint and counter-feint. The assumption might be that this will suit Tuchel, who after all reached the Champions League final last year and who has a reputation for succeeding in these managerial two-handers.
But there is also a misconception about Guardiola, overthinking and the “bottling” of one-off games. It seems fair to suggest the reason Guardiola has been vulnerable on these occasions is systemic rather than a failing of personality. His style is a league style, not a knockout style. His methods are not geared towards one-off collisions, where intuitive moves, emotion, or being able to snatch the day can decide the contest.
Guardiola creates a system, a machine for winning, something that will over a season operate at a pitch that is impossible to match. This will occasionally be derailed by opponents who are equally able and who have a gameplan that can pick away at a Guardiola team’s strengths. Perhaps Tuchel will look to exploit João Cancelo’s tendency to roam inside, as he did in the FA Cup game. Perhaps Guardiola will counter, as he did against PSG, by rejigging his full-backs. It may or may not work. But this is not some fatal flaw, or evidence of bald fraudulism. Every way of winning has its weak point.
The base position remains the same, though. The Premier League is dominant because it is the richest football environment in the world. City are the best team in that league by some distance, an amalgam of squad depth, supreme organisation and the resources to make that vision work. They should be comfortable favourites to win this game.
After which, well, what exactly? Both of these teams occupy a strange space in the operatic wranglings of Big Football. Here we have two founder members of the Super League, a failed assassination of Uefa’s grand old show, now queuing up to waggle that cup around on top of a podium in era-defining glory.
Both were quick to backtrack when the whole thing fell apart – shocked to find this was, in fact, a terrible PR move. But then, joining it was always a weird personal choice given reputation, fame, soft blurry feelings of love – whatever – is the reason these owners are in the game in the first place, as opposed to making a few quid.
This is the broader, noisier subtext to an all-English final. The Super League was, above all, an attack on the Premier League’s primacy. It was an attack by billionaires on other, more powerful billionaires. This match-up, Istanbul 2021, England versus England, is another pointer to why it happened; and why it is almost certainly coming back.