Etihad battleground ready for the clash of the titans
Football brains as well as brawn will be tested as Pep and Conte lock horns for the first time as managers
For all the history between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the Manchester City manager always knew which Premier League coach he feared most this season, and who would give him the most testing title challenge: Antonio Conte's Chelsea, who visit the Etihad Stadium today.
Guardiola and Conte have never met as managers, and only once as players, when Brescia played Juventus in 2003. But the Catalan is in awe of what Conte achieved first with Juventus and then with the Italian national team. When asked in 2015 who the world's two most promising coaches were, Guardiola responded instantly: Conte and Thomas Tuchel.
The two men have plenty in common, beyond joining their clubs this summer. Guardiola and Conte are obsessive, driven workaholics with a religious zeal in their own 'idea' of football. They have dropped respected senior players they felt did not fit with their plans. They both hide away for hours watching DVDs of opponents, devising plans for every game, demanding the players execute them to the specific inch. Both men struggle to sleep before and after games.
But so far this season Conte has the edge. Chelsea are top, one point ahead of City. They have won seven games straight, since Conte found the right system for his team. In those games they have scored 19 and conceded just once. City, meanwhile, stumbled in October and are still finding their feet again.
The difference, in short, is that the Chelsea players have learned Conte's plans quicker than City have done with Guardiola. Conte has had the benefit of more time to coach his players, having played just 16 matches so far this season. City have played 22 games, and this week was the first full week they have had all season to train.
More important than that, though, is the fact that Guardiola's football is harder to learn that Conte's. There is a theoretical element to Guardiola football, the concept of 'positional play'. It is a framework, barely used in England before, demanding understanding the position of each player in relation to every team-mate and opponent. "The conceptual ideas are more important than the physical side of things," Guardiola said at Bayern. "We have to convince the players about the usefulness of the concepts they are practicing."
So when Guardiola started at City on July 5, he knew that he had to spend his first two weeks trying to teach the players these new concepts. The squad were given what was described as a 'total immersion' in the basics of Guardiola theory. But after that fortnight they were soon off to China, and the players involved in the Copa America and Euro 2016 did not join until then.
This meant that City's players are still trying to learn Guardiola concepts while competing twice every week. Guardiola did not feel his Bayern team was truly his until his second season. It will likely be the same at City.
Conte's football is less complex. It is about organisation, shape and hard work. While Guardiola changes almost every game between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, and 3-box-3, Conte waited until he found the right system - 3-4-3 - and is sticking to it. It is a formation that ensures defensive solidity and the threat of overlapping wing-backs, just like the 3-5-2 Conte took to Euro 2016.
In all that spare time that Chelsea have at Cobham, Conte drills the players on their shape. They play '11 v 0' games, where the first team play against 10 mannequins and a goalkeeper. If they lose their position, Conte will move them back into place. It bores the players, but it turns them into the "little war machine" he demands. Guardiola has 'positional play', Conte has 'memorised play'.
It is simpler to follow instructions than to understand them, which is why Chelsea players have picked up Conte's system so quickly. There was an old joke about Conte at Juventus, which was that he would love to be able to control his players as if they were in a Playstation game, rather than see them make their own decisions.
Now Guardiola has to find a way to stop the form-team in the country. City will want to dominate the ball and pass until they find the spare man. Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling will all press up high to stop Chelsea from playing out. But if Chelsea go long then they are likelier to win the ball than City. And if they play the ball out to Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso then City's slow full-backs could be in trouble.
Guardiola knows this. He has been thinking about this game all season. He just has to hope that his players are up to speed with what he asks them to do.
- Manchester City v Chelsea, Premier League: Etihad Stadium, Today, 12.30pm