1) You can tell it’s a bit of an exceptional year when a side starts the season with 18 undefeated games in all competitions but their manager is left asking for time to turn things around just a few weeks later; or when a club has the fifth-best ever start to an English top-flight season yet are left nervously watching the evening kick-off hoping their lunchtime win is enough to put them top.
Top-flight teams to have a better record than Liverpool this season after 16 games
Man City 2017-18
[probably Man City 2018-19 later]
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) December 8, 2018
The gap between the big five and the rest is getting bigger for a lot of unpalatable reasons (read: money), but so too have new standards been set over the last 18 months. The kind of football the big five has been playing would have meant a very serious title challenge in practically any other year, if not a runaway victory.
After starting the season by dropping just four of a possible 45 points, City came into this game knowing they must avoid defeat to knock Liverpool off the top of the table. That’s mental. But that’s where we are.
2) As such, this was the first time for a long time that we have seen City go into a game actually reasonably feeling a bit of pressure. Liverpool’s 4-0 victory at Bournemouth in the early kick-off – thanks to a hat-trick by our early winner Mo Salah – left City needing a win to restore the two-point gap they had enjoyed in recent weeks, at a ground that had witnessed just one defeat since January despite Chelsea’s struggles under Antonio Conte last season.
The positive for City was that Chelsea had looked badly out of sorts in two of their last three games, falling flat on their faces against both Tottenham and Wolverhampton Wanderers to push them from undefeated title contenders to fighting out fifth place in the space of just 12 days. Again: this season is really bloody stupid.
It’s easy in these circumstances, and in light of such a result, to retrospectively project feelings of nerviness into the defeated side. That would be mistaken here: City were up for it, and they put Chelsea to the test right up until the first goal went in just before the break. The truth is that Chelsea simply had the right answer to every question their Sky Blue visitors asked.
As Pep Guardiola later said: “Off day? We lost but if you think that, you didn’t see the game.”
3) Alvaro Morata’s struggles this season have been very well documented, and having played in six consecutive games for club and country without once completing 90 minutes in any of them, he was left out altogether for this game.
That was not so surprising, but the fact that Olivier Giroud was not the man to replace him was. Instead, Eden Hazard was flanked by Pedro on the right and Willian on the left of the Chelsea front three in the only personnel change from that terrible performance against Tottenham last month: Pedro was the only one of Chelsea’s XI here not to have also started at Wembley.
Like Arsene Wenger before him, Sarri evidently sees the Frenchman as more of an impact substitution than a viable starter, at least in games of this magnitude. Given the way those front three all played a part in the opening goal, it is hard to pick fault in Sarri’s decision.
4) City effectively matched this gambit, with birthday boy Raheem Sterling playing as the central striker in Sergio Aguero’s absence.
It’s not that Sterling especially did anything wrong, and indeed City’s best chance of the first half came through him, when he did well to keep the ball from running out for a goal kick wide of the post before delivering a ball across to the opposite side of the goal for Leroy Sane. Had it not been for Cesar Azpilicueta’s second timely intervention on the German in as many minutes, City would surely have been ahead.
But City did seem to lack a certain something throughout those opening 45 minutes. As we know by now, every Manchester City goal ends exactly the same way: with a square ball across goal for a simple finish. Too often here, when City did work the ball into good positions, they would look up and see nobody there to make that customary tap-in.
Pep Guardiola seemingly loves nothing more than to put winger-shaped pegs into square holes, and it is a testament to him that it works so surprisingly often; but Aguero’s injury was definitely a big miss for them here.
5) It’s worth saying, though, that the visitors’ failure to truly test Kepa was as much a result of Chelsea’s much-improved defending as it was any failing of City’s. Marcos Alonso had a couple of interesting moments, but by and large, the same back four that struggled so badly against Spurs – three of whom also conceded twice against Wolves, when Andreas Christensen came in for David Luiz – fared excellently here.
As has been noted, Azpilicueta was especially key to keeping out City during a first half that saw Chelsea not so much with their backs to the wall as mounted on top of it with machine guns, barbed wire, and an especially vicious dog called Dave.
Pound for pound, might Azpiliceuta be the best signing of the Abramovich era? They paid just £7million for a consistent performer who has done it at right-back, left-back and centre-back, which was a bargain even before transfer fees skyrocketed from ‘extortionate’ to ‘utterly insane’ a couple of years ago.
Since December 2015, Azpilicueta has played the full 90 minutes in every single one of Chelsea’s league games except one: he took a well-earned rest against against Swansea in November 2017. And he’s still not even 30. There have been better full-backs and better centre-backs in the Premier League’s 27 seasons, but very few who can match the Spaniard for either consistency or versatility.
6) That Chelsea were quite so defensive was a bit of a surprise, given how adventurously and fearlessly they had approached Liverpool’s visit back in September, but in fairness it proved to be exactly what they needed after their chastening defeats to Tottenham and Wolves.
City swarmed Chelsea throughout the half and showed every bit of the quality that had allowed them to go unbeaten up to this point except for that aforementioned final ball. Chelsea barely had a touch outside their own half.
Until, what, three weeks ago, Chelsea were unbeaten in the league. They have probably the best individual player in England, and a squad full of PL title winners. Man City look about six levels above them.
— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) December 8, 2018
“If Mourinho had done that you’d all be going mad” has become exactly the kind of comment that makes your eyes roll with such ferocity that you collapse in a dizzy heap, but there is some truth to it here: Sarri’s gameplan was entirely “let’s ride out the initial pressure and see if we can snatch something at the the other end”.
However, given that they executed both elements to perfection and went on to inflict Manchester City’s first Premier League defeat of the season, criticising that lack of endeavour would be churlish.
A seasoned press officer at a Championship club once observed to me that the fans don’t care about negative football anywhere near as much as they care about results, and games like this – and the praise that Sarri will receive for so effectively neutralising City’s threat – bear that out.
7) Given how much we (I) laid into Luiz for his performance against Spurs, it is worth giving him some credit for his part in that Chelsea goal. His long ball out to Pedro was not a fortuitous clearance, but an intentional and impeccably-placed pass.
But it was still not even the best ball in the build-up to that goal, and nor was the cross-field ball Pedro played immediately and equally accurately to Willian after controlling Luiz’s pass. No: that distinction belongs to Hazard, who spotted Kante’s run through a crowded box and put exactly the right amount of weight on it to find the Frenchman, who powered it into the roof of the net past the despairing Ederson.
if Hazard means to find Kante, that is a special pass.
— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) December 8, 2018
At first watch it was unclear whether that was what Hazard had meant, but each replay made it clearer and clearer that it must have been, because there was nothing else he could possibly have intended unless you very ungenerously conclude he messed up a five-yard ball to Pedro.
Chelsea had not been in the first half at all – Kante’s finish was their first shot of the game despite coming just as the clock ticked into the final minute of the half – but after a move like that, it would be difficult to say they didn’t deserve it.
8) Much has been made of Sarri’s decision to move N’Golo Kante away from being a holding ball-winner and into more of a box-to-box midfielder who is expected to make a difference at both ends. Sarri will point at Kante’s run and finish just before the break and say “that’s why”.
Kante doesn’t score many goals – that finish took his tally to two goals in all competitions, which matches his best since he came to England in 2015 – but when he does, they tend to be pretty decent.
Kante, an 8
— NathanAClark (@NathanAClark) December 8, 2018
It shows how much tactical ground the general football-watching public has made up over the last decade or so that when Claude Makelele joined Chelsea in 2003, people questioned whether it was worth dedicating a midfielder to a holding role; now we question why you would take the best central midfielder in the country out of that role.
9) Having started more tentatively than John Tenta going on a camping trip at 9:50, Chelsea looked positively transformed after the break, keeping men forward more freely. Having fired just that one, fatal shot in the first half, they produced a further seven after the break.
Their reward was a second goal that underlined the latest mini-redemption story for the most frustratingly, brilliantly up-and-down defender of his generation.
Luiz’s movement in the box was superb, with the Brazilian moving from the furthest corner of the six-yard box to the optimal position for a near-post flick-on with all the craft, guile and timing of a seasoned festival-goer picking their way through the crowd just in time to plant themselves front-and-centre for the big headliner’s biggest song. His header looped up and landed in the City net via the crossbar.
10) With just 12 minutes on the clock, City were now two goals down; they would provide no response.
This was the first time City had lost a Premier League game by more than a single goal since losing 4-0 to Everton in January 2017; they had lost just three of the intervening 70 games.
Beating the Premier League’s top side is always going to be a cause for celebration, but there was an extra edge to the jumping and roaring that greeted the final whistle. It was the ultimate backhanded compliment to City, and will have given them no consolation whatsoever.
11) “I am very happy with the win because it is not very easy to win against Manchester City or Pep Guardiola. I am happy with the mentality of the team in this match.
“It is difficult for us to find motivation but when we are, we are a very strong team. Today we played with a very good level of application, determination and the right level of aggressiveness.”
Those were Sarri’s words after the game, and yet more support for the idea that they could not have found a more savvy or intuitive manager after dismissing Conte at the end of last season.
Complacency has indeed been Chelsea’s big problem on-and-off going back a decade or more: there are simply days when you feel like the players have decided they simply can’t be bothered, and while obviously we acknowledge that they won the title in 2016/17, this is what has held the club back from achieving quite as much as they could have done. Nobody has fewer excuses for failing to keep up with City’s standard than Chelsea.
A statement victory like this might help wake them up to the realisation that if they put the effort in, they are capable of beating anybody. We wouldn’t be too surprised if this marked the end of their mini dodgy spell and saw them return to their excellent autumn form.
12) This game marks the end of Chelsea’s games against the rest of the top five this side of Christmas, and their reward is a packed but relatively kind run of games that doesn’t even involve a huge amount of travel once they return from Europa League duty later this week.
Vidi (a), Brighton (a), Bournemouth (h, League Cup), Leicester (h), Watford (a) and Palace (a) are their opponents between now and the new year, which they will then begin with three successive home games against Southampton, Nottingham Forest (FA Cup) and Newcastle.
With respect to all those sides: do you see what we mean about expecting the good form to return?
13) “It is frustrating but that is the reality of playing these top teams in the Premier League. We did everything right up until the last minute [of the first half],” John Stones said after the defeat.
Even more frustrating for City is that, again, it is hard to argue that Chelsea didn’t deserve the win, and that victory was borne not out of a side matching them for sophistication and elaboration, but by keeping things simple, taking their chances, and resolutely refusing to make any mistakes of their own.
Of course, not making any errors at all is nigh-on impossible, but it does serve as a reminder to the rest of the league that City are not magical demi-god leds by an actual deity, but flesh and bone that can be outmuscled and outlasted, even if they can’t be out-thought. As bewitching as City can be, the fact that all of those aspects are pertinent is exactly why we watch football instead of giddily reading chess notations.
Again: putting that reminder into practice is another matter, but it’s nice to receive it, nonetheless – not least because of the implications for a title race we were beginning to worry might become another procession.
14) One advantage City hold over Liverpool in the immediate term is that they can go into their final Champions League game on Wednesday – when they host Hoffenheim – with qualification already assured, meaning Guardiola can either rest players or push for a confidence-boosting win ahead of Everton’s visit on Saturday.
They then take on Leicester in the League Cup, before games against Palace (h), Leicester again (a), and Southampton (a) take them up to the end of the year.
And then, shining out of the fixture list and driving us wild like a cat chasing after a laser pen, is their encounter with Liverpool on January 3. The reverse fixture earlier this season turned out to be something of a disappointment, but we’re still inclined to just sack Christmas off and pour all of our hopes, dreams and expectations into that game instead.
15) A quick few words on Liverpool, since this result suddenly makes them incredibly pertinent to telling the story of this game.
Liverpool have been here before: they were just two points behind Arsenal after 16 games in 2013/14 but finished second after that Steven Gerrard slip, and they were top of the table and five points ahead of eventual champions Manchester United after 16 games in 2008/09.
If they want to stand any chance at all of stopping their wait for a league title from entering a 3oth year, they really can’t afford to let anything f**king slip now of all years. If the pressure was on City today, then it has now transferred squarely onto Jurgen Klopp’s lofty shoulders.
Completely normal https://t.co/g1meCBt5So
— Ben McAleer (@BenMcAleer1) December 8, 2018
16) As a result, loyalties are all going to get a bit weird next week: Manchester City host Everton next Saturday lunchtime, and Manchester United will make the trip the opposite way along the M62 the following day.
Shut your eyes, screw up your fists, and just get through this week however you can, title race fans…it’ll be next weekend in no time. You know, unless you’re Liverpool. Then you just have the pesky matter of not going out of the Champions League to deal with on Tuesday…
Steven Chicken is on Twitter