Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 4th March 2018 8:01

* Not a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Not a single shot of any description in the first half. Not a single player completing more than 55 passes, when seven did so for Manchester City. Not a single player having more than 75 touches, when seven did so for Manchester City. Not a single moment of creativity, adventure or ambition.

Not a humiliation nor a disaster, but a reinforcement of where Chelsea stand in Antonio Conte’s second season: firmly the fifth-best club in the Premier League. Being below Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham and above Arsenal is hardly cause for concern, but this meek acceptance of inferiority was quite something.

City have failed to win six games this season. None of the clubs who thwarted them did so without showing at least a semblance of attacking intent. Everton took the lead against them in August before drawing, Crystal Palace missed a late penalty in their December stalemate, Burnley had eight shots in their 1-1 draw in February, and Shakhtar, Liverpool and Wigan all beat them by playing to their own strengths as opposed to trying to nullify City’s.

Chelsea tried to topple an all-conquering force with just over one-fifth of the ball. It would have been ballsy had they not used the exact same tactic against the exact same opponent for the exact same result at home in September. They threw in the towel even before Michael Oliver started the bout.

 

* While City’s last game came against Arsenal on Thursday, Chelsea had a full week to prepare for their visit to the Etihad Stadium. Perhaps their last match played on his mind, as Alvaro Morata’s ineffective performance against Manchester United was rewarded with a place on the bench.

Eden Hazard was entrusted as the central striker. The Belgian did well in the role against Barcelona, interchanging to great effect with Willian and Pedro. But his was a more fixed position on Sunday, staying central as opposed to drifting to the wings.

Olivier Giroud has now started one of a possible five Premier and Champions League games since joining, and he capped that sole opportunity by assisting Hazard’s opening goal in a 3-0 win over West Brom last month. If Conte has learned to distrust Morata through first-hand experience, what is his excuse for a player he signed in January?

 

* Asked post-match what Chelsea might have done differently, Pep Guardiola offered an interesting response:

“It’s a question for Antonio. Chelsea can do absolutely everything – build-up, long balls with Alonso, high press, when they defend deep they are masters of the counter-attack,” said the City manager, relishing a rare chance to display his in-depth knowledge of an opponent in a press conference as well as on the pitch.

“But we were better in every area…we made an amazing performance,” he finished, and therein lies the most prescient point. City have played three games against the clubs in fifth and sixth over the past seven days, and the aggregate score is 7-0. The gap between City and Chelsea was 15 last season; it is now 25, but in City’s favour. That truly is “amazing”.

 

* The conventional wisdom is that these Chelsea tactics can only thrive with a physical striker leading the line. It provides a focal point, a player capable of holding up the ball and bringing teammates into play. Hazard is a wonderful talent, but a target man he is not.

On that evidence, the decision to ostracise and sell Diego Costa was a mistake, or at least the inability to adequately replace him has cost Chelsea. Many felt that the Spaniard would have made a considerable difference to their approach on Sunday.

Yet over 1,000 miles away in Spain, Costa was failing miserably in having even the slightest of impacts for Atletico Madrid against Barcelona. He started as a lone striker against a home team dominant in possession, had no shots and completed just seven passes in the first half. Only when Atletico switched to a formation with two strikers did he show an improvement.

To say Chelsea are missing Costa feels too simplistic. Perhaps it is not the personnel that is the problem, but the approach.

 

* Besides, the departure of Costa was not Chelsea’s most costly this summer. Nemanja Matic has left a gaping hole in the midfield that is yet to be addressed.

With N’Golo Kante sidelined, the pressure was on Cesc Fabregas and Danny Drinkwater to perform. Without a natural defensive midfielder, both would have to shoulder that responsibility together. But they would also have to find a way to pass around the City press when in possession. This would be the foundation upon which Chelsea would build any sort of positive result, and two demands that Matic incorporates so well.

Not only did Fabregas and Drinkwater make a combined two tackles, two interceptions and two clearances compared to Ilkay Gundogan’s two tackles, two interceptions and one clearance, but their passing was not nearly good enough. Together, they completed 82% of their 91 passes: a solid amount, but nowhere near enough to land a telling blow.

 

* Such minimal resistance certainly helped Gundogan. Guardiola noted that the lack of a coherent Chelsea press made the German’s job more “comfortable”, and he again excelled at the base of the midfield.

Gundogan had 181 touches and completed 167 passes: both Premier League records, and both integral in helping City find a way through. With the hosts constantly searching for any potential gaps, the 27-year-old had to provide a passing option for every defender, every midfielder and all three forward players, endlessly switching from left to right and recycling possession. It requires supreme concentration and fitness, and he has stepped ably into the shoes of the also underrated Fernandinho.

Gundogan himself described it as ‘not a spectacular match’ on social media afterwards; City really have normalised their record-breaking brilliance.

 

* I made the point in 16 Conclusions in midweek, but it bears repetition: City are thriving without key players in every outfield position. John Stones was on the bench again, Fernandinho is still sidelined, Raheem Sterling did not even make the match-day squad, and Gabriel Jesus was afforded only a handful of minutes as he continues his return from injury. Benjamin Mendy is still out, and makeshift replacement Fabian Delph joined him on Sunday.

In their places, Aymeric Laporte, Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Aguero and Aleksandar Zinchenko have all thrived. It is easy to discredit the point by simply referencing the price tags of each replacement, but it rather ignores the fact that neither injuries nor suspensions have derailed City’s momentum. The machine keeps rolling, regardless of which part is used.

 

* Gary Neville likened the Chelsea players to “mannequins” at one point in the second half, but it should be said that in the first half the strategy was working. The Blues blocked five shots in the opening 45 minutes, while City missed the target with another three.

Thibaut Courtois may have had only two saves to make, both of which were in the second half, but City had three shots on target. Only the divine intervention of Cesar Azpilicueta after a divine piece of skill from Leroy Sane kept the scores level.

Sane dragged the ball down from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick in the 27th minute, turned, took a couple of touches then unleashed a shot. It was powerful, it was low, and it was almost impossible to save. But Azpilicueta managed to not only take the sting out of the shot, but clear it off the line and to safety. Chelsea’s best player can only rescue them so many times, however.

 

* While it was the first time since statistics began in 2003/04 that Chelsea failed to register a single shot in the first half of a Premier League game, Conte would have been content. The hosts were dominant in possession yet had only created one obvious opportunity.

The crucial defensive aspect of their first half was that any mistake Chelsea made came in a position where they could not be immediately punished. Any misplaced Fabregas pass was picked up by City in midfield, any poor Hazard touch simply ceded possession to an opposition centre-half. There was never any need for Chelsea’s defence to hastily regroup in the face of a lightning quick City attack or incisive City pass. None of the five visiting defenders were ever pulled out of position.

It took 33 second-half seconds for that hard work to be undone. Gundogan dropped deep and spotted Sergio Aguero’s run. The midfielder’s lofted pass failed to find the Argentinean, yet Andreas Christensen’s botched clearance played the ball into his path. Two passes later, City were ahead. The lion had waited patiently for the gazelle to let its guard down before pouncing. The opening might have been brief, but it was ruthlessly exposed.

 

* “I know I made a mistake, but there is not much else to do than to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Christensen made those comments after his misplaced pass handed Barcelona their equaliser last month; he has failed to learn his lesson. In his two appearances since, he has made high-profile errors leading to both of Manchester United’s goals in a 2-1 defeat and to City’s eventual winner at the Etihad Stadium. As harsh as it seems when discussing a 21-year-old essentially learning on the job, to make such costly mistakes in three crucial games might well cost him his place.

 

* It is only the third time in his entire career that Bernardo Silva has scored in consecutive games. As the season edges towards its climax, the Portuguese is entering by far the finest form of his Manchester City spell.

This has been a difficult first year for the forward. Guardiola’s first signing of the summer arrived for £43million from Monaco, but has had to earn his opportunities. Nine teammates have played more minutes in all competitions this season.

But Guardiola undeniably trusts the 23-year-old. He has played more games (43) for City than any other player this season, and has not missed a single match-day squad. The teacher’s pet is finally emerging from the shadows.

 

* An unheralded aspect of the goal was Aguero’s pass. The quickness of thought to acknowledge David Silva’s run behind him was excellent, and the blind pass directly into the Spaniard’s path was inch-perfect. It is the awareness, the composure and the execution we have come to expect from the forward, but this was to help create a goal instead of scoring it.

Aguero was substituted six minutes before time, with no player managing to create more chances (4). Guardiola has taught this old goalscoring dog some new all-round tricks.

 

* De Bruyne was the difference in the reverse fixture, his wonderful goal separating the two sides at Stamford Bridge in September. This was one of his quieter games, and yet he still created four goalscoring opportunities.

The Belgian has now failed to score or assist a goal in his last four appearances, however. When will Guardiola drop him?

 

* Alongside him, David Silva was once again majestic. His role in the goal was obvious, but the dummy to create an earlier shooting opportunity for Bernardo Silva was an understated moment of genius.

The 32-year-old has won 27 of his last 28 Premier League games. His last defeat in the competition came at Chelsea last April; revenge is a dish best served 11 months later in a bitterly cold March.

 

* As per the usual script when Chelsea are chasing a result, they entered the final minutes having not made a single substitution. Conte is undeniably a superb tactician, but his lack of proaction is starting to become a problem.

His first change was to bring on Giroud for Willian in the 77th minute. His second was to replace Pedro with Emerson Palmieri, a sixth defender. Morata was then given two minutes to make an impact, with Hazard removed once more. Courtois might have a few more words to say about that.

Those three players had six touches; Emerson did not have one. In a game where the opposition boasted 71% of the possession, that is little surprise. They were given 13 minutes not just to change the tide of the game, but to battle against the City tsunami.

 

* You learn plenty about a team through their reaction to setback or defeat, but the nature of City’s dominance this season means those lessons have been few and far between. As small as the sample size is however, it reveals plenty into the attitude and mentality of the league leaders.

After a 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in December, they beat Manchester United in their next game.

After a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool in January, they won six of their next seven games.

After a 1-0 defeat to Wigan in February, they have won three games against two supposed pre-season title rivals, not conceding a single goal, and winning a cup final in the process.

“It’s never good news to lose, but when you lose it’s important not to lose again. I’ve won a lot of titles and always I’ve dropped points on the way,” Guardiola said after the Liverpool loss two months ago. No team has ever dropped fewer at this stage of the season.

Matt Stead

 


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