Going into the game, City were on a 14-match unbeaten streak, ironically since losing to Chelsea last April. Antonio Conte’s Blues have always been far more disciplined, favouring studious shadow drills over complex positional play and last season’s champions went into the match full of optimism. They did the double over their adversaries last time around and ostensibly knew how to shut City out before putting together lightning-quick counter-attacks.
The home side deviated from their usual front three in favour of solidifying the midfield. Cesc Fabregas came in for Pedro and Andreas Christensen replaced the suspended David Luiz in the heart of defence. The other notable change was Cesar Azpilicueta’s move to right wing-back.
First, this pointed towards Conte’s defensive mindset ahead of the game and his awareness of the threat posed by City’s wide men, but it was perhaps also a nod towards the telepathic link-up play witnessed between Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata. The Spanish defender had directly assisted Morata four times in as many games going into the fixture and a more advanced role may have borne further fruit.
City lined-up in a 4-3-3 with Raheem Sterling getting a chance to start in the absence of Sergio Aguero as Fabian Delph continued at left-back in light of the news Benjamin Mendy could be out until April. A key component of City’s play this season has been to push their full-backs high up the pitch to stretch play which subsequently allows the wide forwards to tuck in and help support the lone striker.
Surprise switch from City
Despite Pep’s line-up and past performances indicating the full-backs would play high and wide, Guardiola utilised them as inverted midfielders. This isn’t new, it’s how he often used Philipp Lahm and David Alaba at Bayern and how Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta played last year, however, the purchases of Kyle Walker, Mendy and Danilo signalled a shift away from this tactic.
More surprising, though, was the roles of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Guardiola’s game model is to flood the middle of the pitch and dominate possession, yet once Delph and Walker moved inside, the advanced midfielders spilt to provide the width vacated by their counterparts. This allowed Leroy Sane and Sterling to come infield and support Gabriel Jesus.
These tactical tweaks inevitably gave Conte a headache. The three centre backs were all pressed high as they looked to play out from the back and it almost cost them the opening goal in the 12th minute. The was ball laid back to Thibaut Courtois who saw his clearance cannon back off Jesus and luckily fly over the bar.
Another problem was Fabregas’ marking of De Bruyne. The Belgian consistently found space on the right flank and wreaked havoc with low driven crosses. This forced Conte’s hand mid-way through the first half when he swapped Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko over. Bakayoko was originally intended to anchor the midfield and shield the defence but such was the width of City’s midfielders, he and N’Golo Kante were dragged out wide to help support the wing-backs who were consistently pinned in their own half.
The Blues misery was further compounded when Morata had to be substituted due to a tight hamstring. Conte opted for Willian to replace the star striker in the hope of gaining more control. Unfortunately, both he and Eden Hazard dropped deep attempting to link play, which cost Chelsea a focal point to play off on the counter.
The dominance paid off in the second half and City eventually made the breakthrough courtesy of De Bruyne. City’s locksmith drifted inside and started a surging run, playing a one-two off Jesus before unleashing a venomous left-footed strike from 20 yards which whistled past the helpless Courtois. The solitary strike was enough to earn the spoils on the day as the champions looked helplessly second best on their own patch.
This was a fascinating clash from a tactical standpoint as two of the English games greatest minds locked horns. Conte tried to nullify City’s threat with extra defensive cover and quick transitional play but alas, this was not enough. City pinned Chelsea in their own half and quickly shut down most counter-attacking opportunities.
The game was the first real sign of City’s title credentials and showed that maybe it is possible to win the Premier League playing the ‘Guardiola way’. Lambasted so often last season for adopting an overly gung-ho approach, this campaign has seen City offer the same attacking intent but with far more precision and quality. It may not be the customary way to defend in England, yet with only two league goals conceded thus far, who needs solid defenders when your attack’s that good?
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