16 Conclusions on Manchester City 1-1 Chelsea: Awful Haaland and Walker but Pochettino messes up

Matt Stead
Manchester City players Rodri, Ruben Dias and Erling Haaland react after drawing against Chelsea
A mixed evening for Rodri, Ruben Dias and Erling Haaland

Darwin Nunez got one over on Erling Haaland, Axel Disasi and Nicolas Jackson were superb for Chelsea and Kyle Walker was comically bad for Manchester City.

 

1) Pep Guardiola betrayed his true thoughts of Chelsea with the sort of head-patting pre-match praise he tends to reserve for those who tend to more readily accept their Manchester City punishment.

“It’s an exceptional team. Exceptional in all departments,” he said which, in all fairness, is incredible banter when those departments are governed by the actual Todd Boehly.

But it turns out Guardiola was perfectly reasonable in describing the visit of Chelsea as “one of the toughest games we have until the end of the season”. The extent to which that is only true only for self-inflicted reasons such as playing Manuel Akanji in midfield is worth exploring at some point. But across two games in which they have tested Manchester City as much as anyone recently, Chelsea have offered more than a tantalising glimpse of what they could achieve together.

 

2) Only Jurgen Klopp (18 games) and Jose Mourinho (13) have avoided defeat in more meetings with Guardiola than Mauricio Pochettino (11), who is alone in proving to be a thorn in the Spaniard’s side with so many different opponents. From Espanyol to Paris Saint-Germain, Spurs and now Chelsea, Pochettino cannot quite claim to have Guardiola’s number but he certainly has enough of the digits to make a calculated guess.

He will, however, attract as much criticism for his second-half strategy as he will garner praise for the wonderfully effective first-half tactic of reminding Manchester City they do have to defend sometimes.

Chelsea earned their lead and might well have extended it but the change of shape and subsequent surrender of possession, territory and any pretence of attacking threat perhaps came too early.

Chelsea forward Raheem Sterling after scoring against Manchester City.
Raheem Sterling after scoring against Manchester City.

They were giving at least as good as they got up until Trevoh Chalobah made his first appearance of the season in the 71st minute, replacing Cole Palmer and thus removing Chelsea’s link between defence and attack. The Blues had more shots on target than their hosts before that point, mustering one effort to eight thereafter.

That sort of pressure tends to tell eventually and while evaluating substitutions is pure outcome bias, hindsight is a wonderful thing and they might easily have lost 3-1 with a different outlook, it feels like Pochettino might regret not being a little braver when he had Guardiola staggering.

 

3) With that said, his players really ought to have helped him out. The goal Chelsea did score was delightfully crafted and perfectly executed, the precise sort of counter-attack they must have been working on tirelessly in training this week – because they fashioned about four more moves of similar incisive quality.

Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Jackson and Christopher Nkunku should all have done better when played through on goal at various points; plenty more attacks didn’t even make it that far due to a poor or delayed final pass, while Manchester City struggled with alien concepts such as defending attacks from wide and balls in behind the defence.

Score one of those – and the chances were certainly good enough to be expect them to be converted – and a flawed approach becomes a flawless game plan. Those are the margins, harsh as they seem.

 

4) The thing is, any argument that Chelsea’s need for a centre-forward was emphasised by their inability to capitalise on those opportunities was ever so slightly undermined by Erling Haaland habitually embarrassing himself across 90 quite dreadful minutes.

Two shots on target from nine attempts overall is laughable, the two free headers from six yards out in either half particularly so. It is great to see Darwin Nunez resurrect their war for the ages.

 

5) Those near-identical Chelsea chances shared one common theme: a phenomenal pass from Palmer to open things up.

One delightful line-breaking ball early on should have resulted in Jackson being found in the area, while Palmer picked out runs from Malo Gusto, Jackson and Conor Gallagher to create those aforementioned Jackson, Sterling and Nkunku chances.

Palmer ended the game with no shots taken, nor chances created. Yet he was comfortably the most effective attacking player on the pitch, the consummate clarity of his decisions on the ball matched only by exemplary application.

 

6) Sterling had already botched one chance when Jackson played him through down the left for another shortly before half-time. The first time, his run was picked out excellently by Enzo Fernandez’s ball over the top, but a shambolic first touch was smothered by Ederson. It seemed to be going a similar way when his control forced him wide from Jackson’s pass, another Chelsea move gone to waste.

Yet Sterling salvaged the situation by cutting inside, nutmegging Kyle Walker and curling past the Manchester City goalkeeper with all the confidence of a player who hadn’t just messed up shortly before.

The subsequent muted celebration was predictable. So, too, the booing he received from the fans for his first few touches and eventual substitution.

 

7) Walker’s defending for that goal was historically awful.

He started in a fine position, 10 yards ahead of Sterling and fairly central, thus able to monitor his England teammate’s run and snuff out the danger as Akanji went across to deal with Jackson. But Walker sprinted at full pelt over to that side before pointing to Jackson, seemingly under the impression he had to inform Akanji personally of the imminent threat, before glancing over his shoulder and realising someone should probably address the wide-open space Sterling suddenly enjoyed to himself.

To close that gap, Walker continued to bomb over to the other side, running so fast that when Sterling cut inside he couldn’t stop his momentum and ended up a couple of yards behind, thus creating the room for Sterling to shoot.

Only Bernardo Silva (244 games) and Ederson (239) have been Walker’s teammate more often than Sterling (228); you’d think he’d have an idea of the remarkably obvious route his old Manchester City and England training foe would take, considering he could hardly go anywhere else. And it’s not like Walker has a history of rushing into things without considering the wider consequences first.

 

8) Jackson’s assist was everything Gusto’s attempt at one for the Senegalese forward wasn’t 20 minutes prior: decisive, quick and accurate. The Chelsea striker’s flick to Palmer was sumptuous and his immediate run down the wing purposeful, before the first-time ball across for Sterling to eventually finish.

When presented with the same chance earlier, Gusto took a touch and then played the ball slightly behind Jackson, who was immediately thwarted by Ederson; the keeper was fairly attuned to Chelsea’s counters by that point, unlike those in front of him.

Jackson comes in for much more flak than most but he is what can only be described as A Real Handful, precisely the sort of player some elite defender will name as his most difficult opponent one day while everyone laughs. Some of his link-up play and lay-offs were superb and it needs reiterating just how inexperienced he is: this was his 34th top-flight league start and 26th such goal or assist. He is far better than Football Twitter would have you believe.

 

9) Shortly before half-time came one of the great periods of centre-halving/centre-halfment/centre-halfery, as the Etihad was treated to a Disasi-class in defending a lead.

If the Celebration Police monitor defenders exhibiting joy then Disasi toasting his own brilliant header from a Phil Foden cross when Haaland was lurking at the back post is a guaranteed conviction, but the Chelsea man was not done: his clever header away from goal from the ensuing corner was equally vital and a sliding block greeted Jeremy Doku’s driven cross to sum up his resistance.

Sixteen clearances is the second-most any player has made in a single Premier League game this season. A clean sheet, while not forthcoming, was the only thing missing from his performance.

 

10) Akanji was less good. Which is to say he was rather bad. The presence of John Stones on the bench only made an already awkward display in that hybrid midfield role more uncomfortable as he struggled with the constant transitions and insistence on one-v-one defending.

Ruben Dias hardly helped at times, the pair at one stage springing an offside trap which would have worked to perfection if there weren’t 10 yards between them. The Haaland and De Bruyne injuries have undoubtedly had a monumental impact on Manchester City’s season but the proper return of Stones to the starting XI is even more important for stability and control.

 

11) The continued deployment of Julian Alvarez in midfield isn’t helping; it feels like Guardiola would have preferred a handful of other players to be his only man to start every Premier League game so far.

As much as that says for Alvarez’s durability and availability, his apparent versatility is a crutch upon which Manchester City are leaning too often. A central hub including the Argentinean, De Bruyne, Rodri and Akanji stepping out hardly screams balance – and Foden being forced out to the wing does not help perceptions.

 

12) The pitch was inhabited by the two most expensive midfielders in the world, neither of whom could claim to be the most valuable.

Rodri is irreplaceable. The bloke cannot take any sort of setback and reaches for the referee or anti-football card far too easily in the aftermath of failing to win, but that becomes a little more understandable when you remember those instances of non-victory rarely come around.

He was far from the game’s best player, but even in his quieter games he has developed the uncanny knack of decisiveness. Between scoring winners against Aston Villa in April 2021, Arsenal in January 2022 and Sheffield United in August 2023, the equaliser in eventual victory on 2021/22’s final day and the clincher in last season’s Champions League final, he has become Guardiola’s safety net in more ways than one.

Rodri scores for Manchester City against Chelsea
Rodri scores Manchester City’s equaliser

 

13) Yet Gallagher’s man-marking job on the Spaniard was exceptional, further proof of just how ludicrous Chelsea must be if they feel it necessary to sell him for pure profit or other such nonsense.

The England international played a similar role to equally impressive effect in the 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge earlier this season and once again, running further than any player, underlined the sort of excellence Pochettino would be loathe to lose.

 

14) Gallagher perhaps should have scored – or at least done far better – with Chelsea’s first chance of the second half. His front-post run did make it difficult to put Jackson’s centre anywhere else, but still.

That move came about from a fine Levi Colwill pass to break the Manchester City press. Making his first Premier League start at centre-half since August, the England international was largely responsible for those two headers Haaland flubbed, but it was otherwise a fine show of his actual talents in a more suitable position. Perfect time to sell him for that sweet, sweet zero book value exploitation.

 

15) No player committed more fouls than Moises Caicedo, whose baiting of Andrew Madley to book him for a second time was great fun. The best bit was when he conceded a free-kick for upending Rodri on the edge of the area and the Spaniard and home supporters in unison – and with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever – screamed at the injustice of a red not being produced.

 

16) The sight of every Manchester City player and staff member basically queuing up to embrace Palmer in the tunnel was absolutely disgusting. Woke nonsense. Roy Keane would never. Game’s gone.