Even the usual positives in defeat were absent for City as Chelsea robbed them of their Quadruple dream…
No Quadruple for Manchester City. Not even a Treble – not a proper one, at least. Infuriatingly for Pep Guardiola, their prospects of making history disappeared all rather meekly.
It will be Chelsea who return to Wembley next month for the FA Cup final after Thomas Tuchel masterminded a hugely-impressive, richly-deserved victory to inflict upon City their second defeat in a week.
In between losing to Leeds and Chelsea, City finished the job of dispatching Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League which, of course, remains Guardiola’s overwhelming priority. But they could not disguise the hangover from a heavy night in Germany in time for what seemed to be the inconvenience of a domestic semi-final.
Guardiola tried to reinvigorate City with eight changes to his starting XI, but those who came in looked more rusty than fresh. The City boss also paid Chelsea, themselves back from a European jaunt, a huge compliment with the deployment of Fernandinho and Rodri together in an effort to gain control of the midfield.
It didn’t work. Fernandinho’s brief was to stop Mason Mount by any means necessary and while the Chelsea playmaker had one of his quieter games of late – he still played a huge role in the winning goal – what control City may have gained was ceded by their stodgy passing and lethargic pressing.
When City occasionally connected with their forward line, changed entirely from midweek, the trio of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres were shackled with ease by Tuchel’s first-choice back four. Perhaps not surprising since Leeds did the same last week while playing for half the match a man light without their dominant centre-back.
To fight on multiple fronts, Guardiola needs to feel able to trust his fringe players. Jesus and Sterling in particular will shun that status, but both have failed to make Guardiola reassess. The manager will certainly think long and hard about playing the same trio in his attack, at least whenever there is more at stake than simply fulfilling their Premier League fixtures once the title is secured.
Guardiola played his second-string keeper too. “Since the start of my career as a manager, I always play the second keeper in the cup. It is only fair,” he said to explain the absence of Ederson. What perhaps wasn’t fair was the criticism Zack Steffen received in the immediate aftermath of City’s winner.
The USA stopper initially came to compete for Mount’s pass around Ruben Dias into Timo Werner’s path before retreating once more. It left him on the edge of No-Man’s Land, but Ederson’s line has been similarly high this season and the City No.1 has made one-on-one’s easier for the opponent than perhaps they might have been had he remained deeper until later. That is the price for City’s back four pushing so high, one Guardiola is comfortable with, but his side have paid on consecutive Saturdays.
Stuart Dallas was the beneficiary last week, while Werner and Hakim Ziyech collected at Wembley. The offside flag denied them in the first half, but on the one occasion Chelsea’s pass and Werner’s run were compatible, Tuchel’s latest front line made the difference.
Werner’s fortunes will surely improve if Tuchel can prompt his midfielders to get their heads up a little earlier. For much of the season, the Germany star has made dangerous runs, just ill-timed for a pass too often delayed by an extra touch or an abundance of caution from those behind him.
Tuchel will have plenty of time to refine that aspect of his attack since, as the manager claimed before kick-off, he only spends 10 per cent of his time in training working on his defence. Chelsea’s resilience at the back suggests he’s either lying, or spectacularly good at getting his message across. The improvement we have seen from the Blues across the pitch suggests the latter to be true.
14 – Since Thomas Tuchel’s first game in charge of Chelsea in January, the Blues have kept more clean sheets in all competitions than any other side in the top five European leagues (14). Organised. #FACup pic.twitter.com/UYnsuRWSUm
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 17, 2021
This was Tuchel’s first victory over Guardiola at the sixth time of asking, and the Chelsea manager should take some of the credit for perhaps City’s worst performance of the season.
Guardiola and his men cannot even take solace from their usual positives in defeat. They neither dominated possession nor squandered big chances. And the ease with which opponents are hurting them on the break does not bode well while Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and PSG lie in wait.