Manchester City were absolutely breathtaking and Chelsea looked so mortal. Imagine how good everyone would be if they were linked to Spurs.
1) Thomas Tuchel mentioned it in his press conference and reiterated the point a few minutes before the game: “I expect nothing else than a 50/50 match.”
There was talk of him holding the Indian sign over Pep Guardiola, a hex of sorts after beating the Manchester City manager three times in as many competitions at the end of last season. But he knew it could never be that simple and crude. “During the matches it could have been any outcome,” he noted, an apparent genius at his peak perennially aware of his own mortality. He was rent-free in Guardiola’s head, as many claimed, but realised the tenancy could expire at any moment.
On Saturday afternoon, Tuchel was subject to the other edge of the coin, the doomed end of that fine margin, the wrong 50. His bread landed butter-side down. His train left the platform 30 seconds early. He played the odds and knew his Chelsea players would have to be excellent. Some of them were for periods but not nearly enough. As it was, Manchester City played so well that the hosts actually needed to be perfect, including the manager. They were categorically not.
2) We know what comes next. It happens each time a coach of the established elite loses any game. Tuchel’s tactics will be scrutinised, pored over in minute detail on websites and touchscreens as if us punters noticed something a Champions League-winning coach didn’t from the bench. The German would have seen how isolated Romelu Lukaku was, how disconnected his partnership with Timo Werner seemed. He must have realised how effective Manchester City were pressing down their left-hand side, how every time Chelsea tried to play the ball out of defence they met a swarm of attackers buzzing around their feet.
It is all well and good suggesting they were too defensive, too deep, too conservative. The Blues were more adventurous and expansive after conceding, creating a greater volume of still relatively poor quality chances. Manchester City, in turn, looked infinitely more threatening and were it not for Edouard Mendy or Thiago Silva’s goal-line block, would have lost by a greater margin in terms of the scoreline.
Tuchel saw everything. He had the ideal vantage point from which to powerlessly watch Chelsea be thoroughly beaten, to see how ineffective his plan had been. Everyone has their off days. It just so happens that football managers have theirs prolonged in front of millions.
3) That is down more to how spectacular Manchester City were than how insipid Chelsea became. Guardiola’s flaws have been exposed in recent weeks but he remains a generational coach who can organise and orchestrate a quite breathtaking performance when required.
Manchester City learned from their past mistakes against Tuchel’s Chelsea, refining what has previously worked and revising what hadn’t. The wing-backs were nullified, a midfield three of N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho looked ideal in terms of retaining possession but were swamped and the front two fed off scraps. Chelsea have not looked so limited in quite some time.
None of us will ever learn from the folly of deciding title favourites in September but Manchester City made a mockery of anyone who doubted their retention of the crown after defeat to Spurs, a limp win against Leicester and that Southampton stalemate. They are the best team in the world when playing to their potential. Guardiola’s challenge is to ensure that is more often than not and this is the perfect week in which to master that.
4) Their brilliance on the ball is ubiquitous, if perhaps often taken for granted. But the most impressive aspect of this win was just how stellar Manchester City were off it. Their defensive work was sublime, requiring flawless and constant situational awareness, spacing, reactions and positioning. Up until the goal it felt as though Chelsea never had longer than five or so seconds on the ball, then the switch to a more counter-attacking approach immediately after was seamless.
The team’s structure was preposterous and must have been a nightmare to play against. Chelsea knew every pass, dribble or forward action had to be faultless on the odd occasion they retrieved the ball. It rarely was and that only increased the mental pressure alongside the almost permanent physical pressure Manchester City were applying throughout. It has taken five years of coaching but these games emphasise better than any other that Guardiola might be a chequebook manager, but boy can he cash them.
5) Laptop gurus and boffins call it ‘rest defence’, of course: a concept us tactical amateurs might be familiar with but were blissfully unaware was A Thing. There were countless examples in the first half particularly, the most notable of which came shortly before half-time.
Manchester City were trying everything at that stage, including an outside of the boot flick from Joao Cancelo to almost find Kevin De Bruyne’s arrowed run in behind. Mendy collected the ball and rolled it out to Jorginho, whose pass found Kante. The Frenchman, of all people, was almost immediately dispossessed by Rodri and after a clever ball from Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus volleyed just over. In a matter of no more than 15 seconds, Manchester City attacked, lost the ball, won it back from the main proponent of such an art and attacked again. The sustained barrage was quite something.
6) Rodri was indeed excellent defensively. There was mild anxiety at a starting line-up which featured him in central midfield behind any combination of De Bruyne, Bernardo, Jesus, Foden and Jack Grealish but the Spaniard patrolled the area masterfully and provided the foundation for a brilliant win.
The tackle on Kante. The interception of a dreadful Lukaku touch on the halfway line as Chelsea threatened to maybe possibly provide a fleeting moment of jeopardy. The block on Marcos Alonso and immediate recycle of possession to Grealish, helping create the Jesus chance which Silva stopped on the line.
His slip in first-half stoppage-time when Kante dropped him with a feint on the right wing was unflattering but Rodri was otherwise imperious. Rio Ferdinand was goaded before the game into some sort of apology to Jorginho for ever doubting the Chelsea midfielder’s defensive acumen. There is plenty to be said for the similar transformation of how Rodri is perceived. The metronomic passer is now an accomplished screen who might well have made a difference in Porto four months ago.
7) Jorginho was actually very good, although it feels like the sort of game and performance he might be blamed for based on past misgivings. He was the only Chelsea player to complete more than 90 per cent of his passes and one of few who sought to play long to the two forwards when necessary. In terms of defensive work, there were a couple of understandable mistakes but also signs he has evolved in that area.
One awful pass led to a Grealish chance and he failed to track an early De Bruyne run which allowed Manchester City in behind for the first time, but an excellent headed block on Ruben Dias from a corner was followed soon after by his intervention on Foden’s cross as Jorginho kept his concentration. Shortly before half-time it was he who intercepted Joao Cancelo’s pass and set Lukaku away in a two-versus-two situation but, as with most Chelsea attacks, it was wasted. On an afternoon in which Kante notably struggled, Jorginho fared well enough.
8) Lukaku was the subject of predictable punditry and commentary outcries as Steve McManaman and Glenn Hoddle intermittently implored Chelsea to hit it long and have the Belgian hold the ball up to relieve pressure. It was fun listening to them, on the rare occasion the Blues tried it, then insist that “it has to stick” and he should do better when Lukaku’s first touch subsequently abandoned him and Manchester City instantly won the ball back. It’s almost as if that really isn’t his game and there are few career examples to suggest it ever has been. There is, in fact, a body of evidence to conclusively declare otherwise.
Exhibit A: his last few months under Jose Mourinho. Lukaku is not a target man who can be persistently relied upon to hold up the ball in a team seeking only to counter-attack. Case rested, your honour.
9) It worked approximately once, when Cesar Azpilicueta found him on the halfway line with a desperate clearance. Lukaku waited for Alonso’s run and sent the Spaniard on his way, continuing into the area to wait for a Werner cut-back that Cancelo managed to recover for and block.
In every other instance the ball bounced off Lukaku or a defender nipped in ahead of him to win it back. It was only when Chelsea supported him properly and had runners alongside and beyond him that the Belgian started to thrive, helping create a blocked Kovacic effort and winning a free-kick after cleverly pinning and then turning Aymeric Laporte. A striker having no shots and completing half of his 12 passes at home never reflects well on either player or team but Lukaku’s strife best summed up Manchester City’s dominance. He can be countered.
10) Five of the nine fouls Manchester City committed were on Lukaku and Werner, meaning whenever they did escape from their shackles for long enough to retain the ball, they were soon accosted on the run. Fernandinho must have been fuming that he only had four minutes to add to that total.
11) The most accurate depiction of the first half actually came at the start of the second when Chelsea lost the ball within six seconds and four passes of Lukaku’s kick-off to a ferocious, concentrated and mobilised Manchester City press. It is difficult to understate the psychological impact of that moment: Chelsea had a breathless 45 minutes, were given a quarter of an hour of respite and then the onslaught resumed as if it was a film that had simply been paused on the remote control.
12) As intricate as some of Manchester City’s play was, it seemed inevitable that the breakthrough would either be provided by a 30-yard scorcher from a Chelsea centre-half, or come from the sort of scrappy goal that is the antithesis of what Guardiola works towards. It was the latter as Jesus wriggled into a modicum of space to get a shot away that beat Mendy via a deflection.
It was the first short corner Manchester City had taken all game, following a slew of deliveries that Mendy had come to confidently collect or authoritatively punch. There was definite fortune involved, not only with Jorginho’s touch but in the way Cancelo’s effort from outside the area landed at the feet of Jesus. But you create your own luck. Chelsea packed the box with defenders and risked an errant shot going in off one of them. Manchester City realised one route wasn’t working and took another.
13) That undersells the goal somewhat. Jesus has established something of a reputation for this: manipulating and manoeuvring out of what seems to be an impossible position, an absolute dead-end, before somehow unleashing a shot. The footwork required was exquisite and only Thiago Silva prevented him from adding a second soon after. Sergio Aguero he is not, but Jesus makes up for that deficiency in his work-rate and adaptability. Manchester City need him and Guardiola trusts him.
14) Jesus and Bernardo might have been Manchester City’s most important players. Or Rodri. Or Dias. Or Cancelo. Grealish was pretty good. Foden was handy, too. And Laporte. Don’t forget Kyle Walker, whose positioning and pace was vital when Kovacic broke from defending a corner and tried to play in Werner or Kai Havertz behind.
Suppose the point is that Manchester City were outstanding almost to a man – with the possible weird exception of De Bruyne – but Jesus and Bernardo, two players whose futures were uncertain throughout the summer, who were being regarded as part-exchange pawns in a Harry Kane transfer, still stood out with their combination of defensive brilliance, tireless work and attacking impetus. It’s mad what some people will do just to stop being linked with Tottenham.
15) Dias seemed to take offence to this. He was absolutely astounding.
16) The enduring memory of this match might be when Werner received the ball wide on the right from Andreas Christensen a good ten or 20 yards inside his own half. Stamford Bridge roared in expectation. The German would have been forgiven for shrugging in confusion. He sprinted forward as no teammate was in the vicinity, found himself surrounded by Rodri, Laporte and Cancelo, looked up at one stage in forlorn search of the vaguest support to see Lukaku on the other side of the pitch, and eventually conceded a throw-in towards the Manchester City area to applause from the home fans.
The European champions had been reduced to cheering possession turnovers with no sign of threat, and then the mere futile gaining of ground, with 40 minutes left to play and the score still level. Manchester City can do that to you.