1) After 13 Premier League games last season, Chelsea had 28 points and one defeat, with 28 goals and 11 conceded. They were fourth then and fourth now under Frank Lampard, on 26 points, three defeats, 28 goals and 19 conceded.
But their visits to Manchester City both this and last campaign bear far more relevance than such meaningless checkpoints. Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri were humbled by six goals at the Etihad in February. Nine months later, they became the first side to have more possession than a Pep Guardiola team in the Spaniard’s entire 381-game league career.
That will be scant consolation to Lampard, of course. But while every defeat is worth the same number of points, there are certain levels of loss. Failure to compete is different to an absence of fortune or killer instinct – albeit easier to solve through coaching. This was progress.
2) There are caveats. A third defeat in as many games to a member of the established but almost extinct Big Six should not be overlooked. Sarri and Guardiola broke that duck in their first such tests, Antonio Conte in his third, Jurgen Klopp in his second, and even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his first.
These are the managers that Lampard has to at least match, and this is the sort of position in which any potential weakness is highlighted. To his credit, he has made them instantly competitive after that opening-day aberration. But it will soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless that statement result is delivered.
3) For City, a crucial, albeit shaky and uncertain, step. This was less about ensuring Liverpool could not extend their gap, and more about the symbolic significance of cutting another challenger off at the knees.
They were better than Chelsea. It was marginal – perhaps more so than Guardiola would have liked – but they were worthy winners. And even a draw would have allowed that seed of doubt to grow. A win from behind against a team that started the day above them arguably does more to boost the confidence than a resounding, routine victory.
4) The opening 15 minutes saw six shots, none of which were on target. Tammy Abraham twice tried his luck to no avail, while Riyad Mahrez had an effort blocked by Emerson; that would not become a theme. Fikayo Tomori almost scored in the aftermath of the confusion created by a corner, while Kevin de Bruyne and Willian traded almost identical attempts: coming in from the right-hand side and driving the ball low, just beyond the far post.
This period included an instance where Chelsea were split wide open by an Ederson goal kick, only for Martin Atkinson to call play back as the ball was rolling, while the visitor’s best chance came after dispossessing Manchester City on the halfway line. It was a meeting between two elite sides only marginally more dangerous than they are eternally vulnerable. And it was bloody fun to watch.
5) The difference early on was N’Golo Kante. For Chelsea, Mateo Kovacic was their midfield fulcrum, misplacing one pass in the opening half an hour, and Jorginho their defensive screen, making three tackles in the same timeframe. Rodri and David Silva offered neither the same penetration nor protection, yet De Bruyne’s natural attacking instincts ensured the battle was even enough.
The Belgian was a constant but obvious threat. Kante was a more latent but potent danger. He took up a regular position just behind the attacking three, making perpetual runs in between an uncertain central defence. And it was such a move that led to the shattering of a deadlock that never looked entirely unbreakable.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) November 23, 2019
Watch the goal again. Kovacic plays the ball around Mahrez and into Jorginho. At almost the exact same time as the latter returns the pass and completes the one-two, Kante springs into life, vacating the centre circle and driving into the space between Benjamin Mendy and Fernandinho. The inexperience of the defensive partnership was exposed by the delightful lofted ball, and while Kante’s finish was somewhat fortunate, it was proof that you really do make your own luck.
6) Somewhere in a smoke-filled Turin apartment, the former banker must have been nodding sagely. Sarri saw what so few others could, and displayed immense courage in his convictions to act upon it while everyone accused him of footballing sacrilege. His reinvention of Kante from defensive midfielder to tireless box-to-box menace was a tactical masterstroke.
“The idea of N’Golo Kante when they say he is the best defensive midfielder in the world, I don’t think that’s the full story,” Lampard said earlier this month. “I don’t think it was right to say that even at Leicester. He gets all over the pitch. He can give you more.” The manager deserves credit for noticing the concealed improvement and building upon it; his predecessor is owed more than a few apologies for starting the process. Sarri’s part should not – but probably will – be forgotten.
7) But it was striking just how simple it was to play through City. Chelsea’s passing was crisp, Kovacic, Jorginho, Emerson and Christian Pulisic finding no trouble in bypassing a lackadaisical press. It was patient at a time when the game seemed to be slowly descending into end-to-end chaos. Yet a simple one-two and lofted ball should not be enough to render an entire defence and midfield obsolete.
Remember when Manchester City were hard to play against?
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) November 23, 2019
It was slack from Mendy, who had been caught out of position for a Chelsea chance minutes earlier. It was ineffective from Fernandinho, whose reinstatement to midfield cannot come soon enough. And that only stands true because Rodri has offered neither urgency nor intent in his passing, nor aggression and assurance in defence. These are issues helped by Aymeric Laporte’s eventual return, but most certainly not solved.
8) A brief spell in the first half summed up the issue. From the 24th minute to the 29th City attempted just 11 passes and completed seven. Chelsea attempted 79 and completed 73. The hosts did not make a single tackle. It was jarring to see them held at arm’s length in their own stadium by a younger, more inexperienced side coached by a relative novice.
Yet all they need is one mistake, a single moment of indecision or fragility, to find their rhythm. The last of those six misplaced Chelsea passes in almost as many minutes was the most fatal, as Jorginho’s was intercepted and directed into the path of De Bruyne. He entrusted David Silva with leading the subsequent counter-attack. The Spaniard’s final pass was wayward, deflected by both Tomori and Kurt Zouma before De Bruyne took control, sent Jorginho towards the corner flag with a dummy and benefited from another Zouma touch as his shot was diverted past Kepa.
It was hardly deserved, but City were level. And Chelsea would not learn their lesson until it was too late…
9) By the 37th minute, City had their foothold. They were still struggling to create much beyond De Bruyne, but there would not be another such period where they were left chasing shadows.
Chelsea handled the first problem, this time Kovacic playing a pass to Abraham that never looked on. Within ten seconds of John Stones’ interception, Rodri had played Mahrez in to cut inside from the left, evade a conveniently placed mannequin of Emerson, and curl a low shot beyond Kepa.
City were drawing blanks, but Chelsea had again shot themselves in the foot. And that was the story of the game: they matched their opponents in terms of quality for most of it, but naivety and a lack of ruthlessness cost them.
10) A lesser team might have collapsed from that point. The mental cost of having played so well, only to gift wrap two goals and cede the initiative, was potentially catastrophic. It would have been even worse had Aguero not lifted his attempt onto the bar after Kepa’s poor clearance.
City had seven unanswered shots in the 20 minutes before half-time. It was there where the game was won – both literally with the two goals, and metaphorically through their resurgence after Chelsea failed to fully capitalise on their own dominance. Lampard rode the early wave but never came close to working out how to turn the tide. And of course, against this manager and this team in this stadium, that is far easier said than done.
11) His substitutions did not help. Hindsight suggests that Reece James should have started instead of replacing the fallible Emerson. Michy Batshuayi played 18 minutes and accounted for three of the game’s seven offsides, and Mason Mount should have been given longer. Jorginho’s poor display was an excusable exception to the rule, but Willian has been doing little to justify his place of late.
Whisper it, but it could be time for Olivier Giroud when Abraham is not quite working.
12) To say City saw the game out with with relative ease would be a lie. Guardiola could be seen at one point imploring his players to slow down from the touchline, while De Bruyne greeted Ederson’s kick out for a throw-in with a similar gesture. The goalkeeper then played a lazy ball out to Batshuayi with five minutes remaining, breathing a sigh of relief as it went out for a goal kick.
The nervousness from the crowd was palpable, particularly when Ilkay Gundogan tripped Kante 35 yards out in stoppage time. Mount’s free-kick was narrowly wide, and City held on. It was not quite for dear life, but Chelsea – and their own sloppiness – made them work for it.
13) It should have been more straightforward, of course, were it not for Zouma cleverly playing Sterling’s armpit offside with his arse.
I didn’t mind VAR. I was neither for nor against it. But come on…
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) November 23, 2019
14) The injury to Aguero, while unfortunate and unwelcome, could be an absence to make City hearts grow fonder. Chelsea largely thwarted the Argentinean, whose only real attempt was created by Kepa and really should have been converted.
After scoring or assisting ten of their first 21 Premier League goals of the season, the 31-year-old has directly contributed to just one of their subsequent 16 strikes. It’s enough to make you wonder why Gabriel Jesus hasn’t started more than two consecutive league games since May 2018.
15) Guardiola will note that Joao Cancelo offered the sort of quiet effectiveness City lacked from their full-backs against Liverpool. The standard of opposition was weaker but the objective of protecting that flank and offering some sort of attacking impetus remained much the same. There was considerable room for improvement but it was a start.
Mendy will – and unsurprisingly already has on social media – acknowledge that he has more work to do. A poor first half was followed up with a better second and a couple of crucial interjections, yet injuries have clearly taken their toll. He looked out of energy by the hour mark and a better player would surely have exposed him. City’s left-back spot remains up for grabs.
16) At least Guardiola has some discernible alternatives. Lampard has had to turn to Shay Given in an attempt to help Kepa.
The appointment of Henrique Hilario as Chelsea goalkeeping coach was always a peculiar one. A career back-up is not the master this apprentice needs, particularly when the club literally employ Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini in other roles.
Kepa has saved a quite dreadful 17 of 35 shots on target he has faced in the Premier League this season. His distribution remains erratic and his decision-making spreads panic. The 25-year-old has the tools to be excellent, but needs proper guidance.
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