* You could see Antonio Conte’s point. Manchester City had scored 24 goals in their last six matches, and Chelsea had produced one of their greatest European performances in recent history against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, fighting until the final moments of that fixture. Energy levels were likely to be low, particularly in the second half.
Conte’s plan was to play the game against City like an away match, sitting deep and avoiding Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus or Raheem Sterling getting in behind the back three. The last thing Andreas Christensen or Gary Cahill wanted was to get pulled out wide, so Conte picked Cesar Azpilicueta over Victor Moses as a defensive right wing-back.
It is easy to see football as entertainment for us, but this is business and livelihood for those involved. The first half, or even the entire match, may not have been a particularly enticing spectacle, but there are no marks awarded for aesthetics. When we describe it as a “bad game”, we are not talking in terms of technical ability.
The first hour was technically excellent, but a stalemate between Chelsea’s fine defence and Manchester City’s fine attack. When we are asking for entertainment, we are either asking for a moment of attacking genius or a moment of defensive calamity. More on the former in a bit.
* City meanwhile, had a far less complicated assignment: break them down. Having dispatched Shakhtar Donetsk with a minimum of fuss and having enjoyed periods of rest in most of their recent league games, Pep Guardiola knew that he could afford to pick virtually all of his available attacking options.
Sane and Sterling stayed wider than they have previously, because Conte picked all three of N’Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko in midfield. That was to counteract Sane and Sterling drifting infield and creating the short passing triangles with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva that Guardiola has made a point of praising twice already this season. Against Crystal Palace, 33% of City’s attacks came from central areas, and 67% from wide positions. Against Chelsea, that ratio shifted to 24:76.
City also played at a frantic pace in the first 20 minutes, as if on double speed to try and tire their opponents before the final 30 minutes. They made 160 passes in the first quarter of the match compared to Chelsea’s 60, desperate to keep opposition players moving to cover runs and expand energy. That would lead to increased space for runners from attacking midfield in the final 25 minutes. Easy game, sometimes.
* Chelsea’s defensiveness only increased after Alvaro Morata was substituted with injury, and understandably so. Conte had instructed his defenders and defensive midfielders to play the ball long, either to Morata’s chest or head or down the channels for the Spaniard to run into. There are few better elite strikers in Europe when playing with back to goal.
Any attacking elements of Chelsea’s strategy were effectively foiled by Morata’s departure. His replacement was Willian, who was asked to carry out Eden Hazard’s role (don’t laugh) while Hazard played not as a false nine but as a centre-forward, asked to run the channels and hold up the ball. Okay, now you can laugh.
The theory was that Hazard and Willian could be a two-pronged counter-attack, but City still had five defensive outfield players to deal with that issue. With Hazard unsurprisingly far less of a presence up front than out wide, City were able to be more adventurous in possession. Fernandinho in particular pushed further forward than you might expect in a game of this magnitude, with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi also stepping up. City played with an incredibly high line.
The best way of describing Morata’s substitution is that it acted like a sending -off. With Willian and Hazard struggling and together just about making one man but nowhere near one capable centre-forward, Chelsea were down to ten.
* The only likely regret from Conte is that he opted for Willian over Michy Batshuayi in his snap decision over who should replace Morata. Partly for the match in question, for Batshuayi would surely have been more ideally suited to the role than Hazard, but also for the short-term future of this team.
Having scored the winner in the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday, Batshuayi must have been bitterly disappointed not to come on in the first half. He is, after all, supposed to be the back-up striker now Diego Costa has been sold. Penny for his thoughts on Saturday evening.
* Yet Chelsea were holding out until they didn’t, which might sound like a severe case of stating the bleeding obvious. City had 12 shots in the first 65 minutes of the match, but Fernandinho’s header from a set-piece was the only time that Thibaut Courtois was required to make a save that was anything beyond regulation. Even that came only a minute before half-time.
Further evidence for Chelsea’s relative comfort is found in City’s touches in the opposition box. City managed 35 against Chelsea, despite being invited to attack at will. They enjoyed 23 more against Crystal Palace the previous week. De Bruyne didn’t touch the ball once in the Chelsea penalty area.
Had Chelsea held out – and I am aware that I am placing a pair of balls square on the front of my dear Auntie – we would be rightly hailing an inspired defensive performance and the first team to stop Manchester City scoring in all competitions since April 27, and the only team to stop them scoring in a Premier League away game since Everton in January.
The reason they were undone was not through defensive incompetence but brilliance from a former player. And so to…
* …the majestic De Bruyne.
In an interview with Graham Hunter a few years ago, Gary Neville described how he and Jamie Carragher make a conscious effort not to over-praise (or criticise) players, and you can see why. Neville was keen to move away from those in the industry who spoke only to be heard rather than impart wisdom, a world full of “disasters” and “geniuses”.
“The problem with calling someone a genius,” Neville said, “is that you’ve got nowhere to go from there. You can’t do any more. So Messi is a genius, but I try not to say that word too much.”
With the greatest of respect to Neville, I hope he would agree that De Bruyne is a genius. There may be precious little razzmatazz surrounding a quiet Belgian with magic in his feet, but there is no more complete footballer in the Premier League than he. Few work harder to hone their talent.
When De Bruyne ran on to Jesus’ lay-off, he knew that Chelsea’s defenders were expecting him to eventually hit a shot with his stronger right foot. They would probably have expected the curled effort to Courtois’ left, albeit one hit with power too. Yet De Bruyne realised that such a shot, in fact a shot of any kind with his right, would have required him to slow down his stride.
By surging off from his planted right foot and taking the ball left, De Bruyne took Andreas Christensen out of the game. The Dane had his weight on the wrong side, and De Bruyne left him. Christensen didn’t even arrive at the scene in time to dive and attempt a block on the shot, merely a limp leg left out in forlorn hope like a letter for Santa in mid-January.
* The other thing De Bruyne did was hit the ball bloody hard, particularly for a man using his weaker foot. Courtois has a habit of doing a tiny little jump before diving for a save, with both feet off the floor, and replicated this for De Bruyne’s shot. This allows the goalkeeper to ensure he has perfect balance and can push off in both directions.
Had De Bruyne’s shot been curled to Courtois’ right, he would have saved it. Yet De Bruyne again used the element of surprise to rifle it past his international teammate, and the tiny preparatory jump meant Courtois was too late. This is a player who knows De Bruyne incredibly well, and was still caught off guard.
This is the minutiae that you get from watching the goal ten or more times, but it is De Bruyne’s calmness under pressure not just to plan but execute that move that is most breathtaking. It was a goal worthy of winning any game between two elite teams.
* This was a winner not just for City but De Bruyne himself, sold by Chelsea without being given a chance to impress. Those who labelled him as the ‘£60m reject’ in order to create back-page controversy hopefully feel suitably foolish.
So too should Chelsea and Jose Mourinho. For all the obvious benefits to Chelsea’s farm model, it relies on proficient scouting of the talent within the club to distinguish whether a player is worth further faith and perseverance. De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah are three of the most exciting attacking players in the Premier League, and among the most valuable. This club and that manager sold all three.
* The problem with utilising such a defensive system, such as Chelsea’s, is what to do when disaster does strike. Conte had seven midfielders but no strikers, and had to suddenly instruct his team to search out an equaliser.
Conte will obviously have planned for such a scenario, it hardly being unlikely, but every one of those plans will surely have had Batshuayi and Morata working in tandem. Without his Spanish striker, Chelsea had no target man when knocking the ball long, had far less presence on attacking set-pieces and had no discernible plan. This was a match effectively won by its first goal.
City barely bothered to change the pattern of their play either. Guardiola reasonably assessed that if his team continued attacking then they were far more likely to score a second than Chelsea were to score an equaliser, given the players on display.
* Guardiola will be just as delighted with the result staying as it was. It was, incredibly, his first 1-0 league win as a manager since April 2, 2016, when Bayern Munich beat Eintracht Frankfurt by that scoreline. Who says 1-0 is a distinctly English result?
* Last week on Match of the Day 2, Danny Murphy said that Manchester United’s battling 1-0 win over Southampton proved why they will be champions, rather than swatting away a team 4-0 like Manchester City. You do wonder what Murphy made of City’s battling 1-0 win over Chelsea, shortly after United had swatted away a team 4-0. Funny how these things work out.
Perhaps more evidence for believing in City’s title challenge lies in the standard of opponents they have faced. Compare and contrast City with United, with current league position in brackets.
Manchester City: Brighton (14th), Everton (16th), Bournemouth (19th), Liverpool (6th), Watford (5th), Palace (20th), Chelsea (4th). Average – 12th.
Manchester United: West Ham (15th), Swansea (18th), Leicester (17th), Stoke (13th), Everton (16th), Southampton (12th), Palace (20th). Average: 15.8th.
I am not stupid enough to make conclusions on the season, only these 90 minutes. But there is no doubt that we witnessed City win a different type of fixture at Stamford Bridge to the ones United have played. It is in those crunch games that true strength is proven.
* This site has given John Stones plenty of stick over the last two years, none of us quite able to clamber aboard a bandwagon that was already comparing him to Bobby Moore or Franz Beckenbauer before he had even perfected John Stones.
With that in mind, it’s only fair to compliment the central defender for his excellent form over the first two months of this season. Had you been told that City would score 28 goals in their first nine league and Champions League games, there would hardly have been murmurs of surprise. Had you been told that City would concede only three times in those nine games, the murmurs might have begun in earnest.
There is a desire for Stones to be a wonderful ball-playing and dribbling central defender, stepping out of defence and into midfield like a proud general. Yet at City, the best central defenders are the ones that don’t get noticed, or at least their central defenders are playing at their best when they are not noticed. Here’s looking at you, Vincent.
Nicolas Otamendi still retains his penchant for diving into challenges, as evidenced by the dying minutes of Saturday’s match, but Stones was consummate and calm. Gone is the over-playing of last season, ending in a panicky clearance. Back is the central defender that we can truly believe in as England’s defensive future.
Also, can we have a minute for his passing? Stones has played 446 passes in the league this season, and 431 have found a teammate. Wow.
* One reason for that is the man behind him, so now is the perfect time to praise Ederson. After the palaver of Claudio Bravo, an experienced international goalkeeper who failed in the Premier League, do not overlook how well Ederson has adapted to life in a new club, league and country at the age of 24. That’s particularly relevant after the boot in the face he took from Sadio Mane. Goalkeepers have been spooked by less.
Ederson does not just save shots, although that would take his CV beyond his predecessor’s. Rather than play with ball at feet, Ederson’s trick is to is throw or roll the ball out and start a counter-attack. The sweeper keeper elements of the role remain, but the Brazilian did those expertly at Stamford Bridge. That was particularly important given City’s high defensive line.
The cliche is that defensive organisation and calm begins at the back and works forward. Bravo’s Manchester City and Ederson’s are world’s apart.
* Yet the last word of individual City praise can only go to Fabian Delph, criminally not mentioned until now. Picked at left-back against Shakhtar, Delph was picked in the same role against Chelsea and was the game’s second best player after De Bruyne. A truly astounding redemption is already complete.
Picking Delph in such a role has obvious benefits, particularly against a Chelsea side that had no obvious attacking threat on the right. With Kyle Walker tucking in and almost making a back three, Delph was allowed to push forward when City had the ball.
That made even more sense when Willian came on for Morata and Chelsea looked only to the counter attack as their hope of troubling City. Bringing Delph into midfield when De Bruyne and Silva roamed forward avoided City being caught in a 4-1-5 formation when possession was turned over, leaving Fernandinho in an impossible position on his own.
Delph gave Fernandinho support, and could move back to left-back when Chelsea had more measured possession. Yet asking a player – particularly one not used to first-team football – to play a dual role is fine in theory, but a lot harder in reality. Delph carried out his task to the letter.
“The last few games Fabian Delph has played and he had an outstanding performance,” Guardiola told BT Sport after the game. “He is a guy that doesn’t lose the ball he is aggressive and clever. I am so happy for him after the way he played last season.”
* Do not discount the bravery of Guardiola’s decision, either. It would have been easy and expected to pick Danilo and ask him to play as a more natural defensive left-back. Yet Guardiola’s reputation is not just as a manager who buys fine players, but as a coach who fine tunes the ones he has. Along with Fernandinho, Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne, Delph is another example of him doing just that.
* It would be wrong to be too hard on Chelsea, weary after a wonderful European performance. Defeat in Madrid may have been terminal to their chances of topping their Champions League group, but defeat on Saturday does not decimate their hopes of the title. After all, 13 points from seven games hardly ruined last season’s title push.
Yet Chelsea may have to improve even on last season’s record-breaking performance if they are to retain their crown. Conclusions on title challenges cannot be made in September, but statements of intent can. We knew that Manchester City could win first place in a beauty pageant, but there were reasonable concerns about their performances in the ring. The one lasting conclusion from this match between two of the last three Premier League champions is this: Guardiola and City mean business. This team can beat you in ones and twos as well as fours and fives.