Manchester City cannot and will not be stopped. Chelsea aren’t the first to run into problems at the Etihad, but could really do with some results from somewhere now…
1. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been a strange few years, hasn’t it? Lots going on. It’s led to many – often mischievous, always self-serving – claims about “asterisk seasons” that don’t really count or whose achievements are at least heftily caveated.
Turns out this season is the actual asterisk season. For all 2019/20’s covid break and Project Restart, for all last season’s largely crowdless eeriness, at least for the most part everyone was in the same boat at the same time. This year’s Premier League table is already a hot mess, and the fact one covid case can now be parlayed into a postponement if you have other players suspended or in Africa means it’s only going to get wonkier over the coming weeks.
After 22 rounds of matches, there are teams who will have four games in hand on others. The table already looks like some tier nine effort, where a couple of teams have embarked upon heroic cup runs and another’s pitch was frozen for a month. Those leagues tend to end with a heady period of Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday action, and this Premier League season could be going the same way. Even in May it may not be clear exactly how the stagger will unwind.
It’s immensely fortunate, then, that there need be no doubt about the identity of the champions. Much like two years ago, it’s pretty clear who the best team in the land are and no amount of New Normal chicanery is going to change that. Manchester City now sit 13 points clear at the top of the table having just held their supposed nearest challengers at arm’s length in a performance that rarely got out of second gear. They are brutally, demonstrably superior.
2. The speed with which that superiority has manifested itself is quite something, though. Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea today makes it a 14-point swing in the champions’ favour over the last eight games. As recently as December, Chelsea were above their “title” “rivals”.
Then they lost at West Ham, City won at Watford, and the direction of travel has been relentless ever since. I guess, in theory, Chelsea could take some heart from this. It shows just how quickly these kind of point swings can happen. In theory.
3. It was a long wait for the only goal, but worth it. It was a wonderful goal from a wonderful player. N’Golo Kante needed to bring Kevin De Bruyne down and cut it off at source but couldn’t. After that it was all about the Belgian. He’s a spectacular player is De Bruyne, but rarely can both his thought process and footballing quality been more apparent than here. He was desperately looking for a pass the whole time he was marauding forward towards the penalty area; only once he’d calculated that all possible passing avenues had been closed off did he decide instead to just effortlessly whip the ball round Thiago and into the bottom corner instead.
4. Possibly harsh, and it was an excellent finish, but could Kepa have done slightly better? De Bruyne’s shot had pace and curve, but it wasn’t precisely in the bottom corner and Chelsea’s stand-in keeper didn’t get anywhere near it. His first step was also to the right despite De Bruyne’s position and angle of run always making the keeper’s left the likelier destination for any shot on goal.
5. It was a slightly eccentric game for Kepa, keeping here because Edouard Mendy is on AFCON duty. He made a fine save to deny Jack Grealish after a Mateo Kovacic error in the first half and another from a De Bruyne free-kick in the second, but also appeared a bag of nerves early on and shinned one clearance straight into Cesar Azpilicueta and behind for a corner.
6. De Bruyne may have got the winning goal and been his usual showrunning self, but Raheem Sterling will take many of the plaudits for City’s display. We are unapologetically delighted to see him playing like this again, and he gave Marcos Alonso a deeply unpleasant afternoon here. Frankly, Alonso did well just to stay on the pitch until his 81st-minute substitution having been booked inside seven minutes for a desperate triple foul on Sterling as he weaved and jinked past him. The joy is back in Sterling’s football, and December’s player of the month has been a crucial figure in a winning run that now stands at 12 Premier League games for the defending and future champions.
7. It still isn’t quite happening for Jack Grealish in Manchester, though, is it? He’s not exactly playing badly, and certainly didn’t play badly today, but as the joy has flooded back into Sterling’s football it has ebbed away from Grealish’s. He still appears slightly caught between doing the often high-risk things that make him so thrilling at his best, and retaining possession for the team. This was all so much easier when he was the sole focal point of a team’s entire attacking game and knew the team danced to his tune. Brilliant as he is, that will never be the case at City and is a puzzle for which he has yet to find a solution.
8. But while Grealish has the luxury of solving that puzzle in a team that is dismantling every opponent placed in front of them and cruising to a fourth Premier League title in five years, an equally expensive new recruit in darker blue does not. Romelu Lukaku continues to struggle to find his place and purpose in this Chelsea side on both a mundane, real-world and also more philosophical level. They are just not set up to get the best out of him and they adopted a curious approach here of taking high-tariff options to play their way out of defence and through City’s initial press, only for the midfielders to then aim long. Could Lukaku have come deeper? Could someone have been stationed closer to him? Mason Mount did take on a No. 10 role for the final 10 minutes as Chelsea chased the game, but it was too little, too late. Lukaku is far from blameless for the way this move appears to be unravelling, but he was feeding on scraps today.
9. And, inevitably, when the chance to do something did come Lukaku’s way he lacked the confidence to take it, searching for an almost impossibly difficult pass to Hakim Ziyech – who was offside anyway – rather than powering through and going for goal himself. Impossible to consider Lukaku at his best would even have considered the option he took here.
10. That said, Lukaku was facing one of the most thankless tasks in football today: finding a way through Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. It may not be City’s first-choice central defensive pairing, but in 13 games starting together stretching back almost three years they have now conceded one goal – amusingly scored by Stones himself for Club Brugge last year. City have won all 13 by an aggregate score of 41-1. On that basis, Chelsea and Lukaku did quite well.
11. For all Manchester City’s control, for all their innate superiority over one of the nearest (if still distant challengers) this for long periods did look like one of those games where actually a striker might not be a bad idea for Pep Guardiola. Even if only as a Plan B. Call me a PFM if you must, but even for teams from the future like this one, who have evolved well beyond such archaic concepts, there are still times when it would be nice to have a Harry Kane or an Erling Haaland in there to add something to the overall aesthetic.
There were two specific moments in this game when the absence of a Recognised Striker was most glaring. The first came when Phil Foden, lovely footballer and today’s designated central striker, made his way menacingly down the left and then arrowed a wicked cross along the six-yard line for… absolutely nobody. The second came when Grealish did something similar after half-time, only for Foden to show a midfielder’s rather than a striker’s instinct as the ball whistled past him in the penalty area. It is, as it can only ever be about a team that has just beaten a very, very good side to make it 12 wins in a row, the most minor of quibbles. But also a reminder that there is quite an obvious way City can be even better, or at least even more versatile. Not fun for anyone who fancies beating them either in a one-off match or across a whole season any time soon.
12. If it hadn’t already (it had) the league table has split into some pretty identifiable strata now. Manchester City will win the league. Liverpool and Chelsea will finish second and third (although a byproduct of the current fixture situation is the faintly unsettling notion that should Spurs win all their games in hand they would in fact leapfrog Chelsea) while Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and maybe Manchester United duke it out for the remaining European spots. There are four rubbish teams at the bottom, and then a mid-table morass ranging from good (Wolves, Brighton) to pretty crap (Everton, Leeds) absolutely none of whom have any real prospect of Europe or relegation. It will at least make things easier to sort things out should the season have to be cut short.
But it was also quite alarming to once again be reminded just how wide the gulf is between those layers. City were never really out of second gear here in holding Chelsea comfortably at bay, while Chelsea were just as comfortable in both legs of their Carabao semi-final against level-three Spurs in midweek.
13. Chelsea really do need to buck their ideas up, though. While City are unstoppable, their theoretical pursuers have drifted away quite meekly. That’s now two wins in eight Premier League games for Chelsea. Brighton away in midweek looks a sub-optimal fixture for Thomas Tuchel’s men on current form, so they must be thrilled to see that it is Tottenham once again visiting Stamford Bridge the following weekend, given the ease with which Spurs have been thrice dispatched by Chelsea already this season – 3-0 in the league at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the Nuno Days, and in both legs of the Carabao semi-final this month.
14. As for City, with the Premier League title looking ever more secure with each passing result, thoughts turn inevitably to the records they might send tumbling this year. Most consecutive Premier League wins is looking under serious threat, with the current streak now standing at two-thirds of the way to the record of 18. Covid or other fixture chicanery notwithstanding, City in current form should be able to ease closer to that record without much fuss now. Wins over Southampton, Brentford and Norwich would take them to 15 before Tottenham’s visit here in February. Spurs have burgled some infamous results on this ground over the years, but it would be a major surprise to see another such outcome this season. Then it’s Everton to make it 17 – a formality, bless their little Toffee socks – before a nice quiet Manchester derby to equal the record. Then in another nice touch from the ever-mischievous fixture computer it’s Crystal Palace – the last team to halt the City juggernaut with a 2-0 win in October – to break the record. It’s a nice run of games for the pursuit and breaking of such a record, here’s hoping no external factors scupper it.
15. We’ve sadly been unable to uncover any distance covered stats for Tuchel today. In their absence, we can sadly only speculate on just how many of his players he outran with his frequent wide-eyed, gesture-filled forays up and down the Etihad technical area. At a guess? Seven.
16. So what do we think of Manchester City’s double-decker advertising hoardings? Not for me, Clive.