Tactical analysis Chelsea - Manchester City League Cup Final 0-0

Chelsea – Manchester City: Sarri’s adjustments almost work, yet City wins League Cup (0-0, 3-4 after pens)

It’s only February, but Manchester City have already won their second trophy of the season. However, winning this final was by no means a walk in a park. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s on-pitch antics and his refusal to be substituted will probably make the headlines, but whoever looks past that will see a decent performance by Chelsea. Playing a lot more defensively paid dividends, even though City took home the silverware due to better spot kicks.

Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.

In a time where the calendar for professional football players is chock-full already, the point of this tournament – which is basically an FA Cup for the top four levels of the English football league system – is debatable. Earlier this season, the quarter final of this season’s League Cup – or excuse me: Carabao Cup – between Leicester City and Manchester City exemplified this overall feeling of pointlessness. It was a game that was played out mostly between squad players who don’t see regular action in Premier League games.

On the other hand, a match between Chelsea and Manchester City, Maurizio Sarri versus Pep Guardiola, at Wembley, with a piece of silverware at stake for the winner. Add in some storylines about Guardiola often thinking up elaborate tactical plans in big games, the 6-0 drubbing when these two teams met earlier this month, Chelsea’s horrible form in recent weeks. Sounds a bit more fun already, right?

In former rounds, Maurizio Sarri also used the League Cup to rest some players, but make no mistake about it: he fielded the eleven players that he currently deems the best starting lineup. At left back, Marcos Alonso was benched for Emerson Palmieri, probably because of his horrid defensive contributions in recent weeks. In midfield, no Mateo Kovačić, as Sarri presumably thought the defensive balance would be better with Ross Barkley at left central midfield.

Up top, Eden Hazard took the role of striker, with Pedro and Willian as left and right wingers. It turned out Chelsea would play quite defensively out of possession, which explains why Hazard was tucked in the center, as Willian and Pedro often played as de facto fullbacks or extra defensive midfielders. There is a lot of positive still to be said about Gonzalo Higuaín, but not that he is a very good counterattacking striker.

Pep Guardiola has to bench at least one of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané every match, not to mention Riyad Mahrez. In this match, Sané found himself on the bench, as De Bruyne and David Silva played as central midfielders just in front of lone holding midfielder Fernandinho. Bernardo Silva acted as the right winger, Raheem Sterling as the left, with Kun Agüero leading the line.  

Chelsea are not losing this one 6-0

One of the storylines mentioned is Chelsea’s horrid form in recent weeks. Their worst match of the season was a couple of weeks ago, against Manchester City, when they were on the receiving end of a battering. It is however easily forgotten that in this 6-0 whipping, Chelsea actually had some phases in which they pressed successfully and prevented Manchester City from building up from the back. Due to the spaces yielded by Chelsea in defensive midfield, individual mistakes at the back and a majestic performance by Agüero, the scoreline ended up as big as it was.

For this match, Sarri instructed his team to position their defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. ten to fifteen yards deeper then they had done last time around. Willian and Pedro tracked all the way back and Chelsea formed a deep 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 formation.

Chelsea’s deep defensive stance, which Manchester City found hard to break through in the first half

Chelsea’s deep defensive stance, which Manchester City found hard to break through in the first half.

This defensive stance naturally went hand-in-hand with less pressing. The only pressing trigger A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. was a square ball from a fullback to Laporte. In those situations, Kanté would step out of midfield very cautiously, while Pedro tucked in to cover the space in his back.

The first half therefore was a very one-sided affair. Guardiola’s side produced some quite stale U-shape When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . football against this very defensive opponent, as Chelsea very effectively controlled the space. All in all, it meant the first half was quite a boring and passive ordeal.

Manchester City gobbled up nearly seventy percent possession, but only managed four shots, two of those coming from set-pieces. Chelsea only managed to enter Manchester City’s penalty area twice in the entire half: from a set-piece which was fruitlessly headed by Pedro, and the other time through a counterattack led by Hazard, which ended with a blocked shot.

Chelsea get better in possession

After Vincent Kompany was brought on for Nicolás Otamendi – would Guardiola have done that in, say, a knockout Champions League game? – the second half commenced more or less in the same fashion as the first, but Chelsea slowly managed to get a hold of it as the game progressed.

In the 52nd minute, a wave of excitement went through Wembley, as after an excellent counterattack that was led by Hazard, Chelsea actually managed to enter the box again! After that attack was blown off by City, an immediate counterattack was launched, making this final feel end-to-end and a bit up-tempo for the first time in the match.

At Manchester City, the most notable difference compared to the first half was that Kevin de Bruyne played five to ten yards deeper to collect the ball from his defenders in order to distribute the play. Guardiola’s side is of course quite flexible, but it seemed like a directed instruction for De Bruyne, in order to improve City’s vertical passing and chance creation.

It did not work that well however, and it was Chelsea who got back into the match. Still playing in a defensive low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. without the ball, their play in possession improved significantly after the interval, playing on City’s half for longer periods of time, and even attempting to counterpress when the ball was lost, which also pinned back City.

The biggest chance to score for Chelsea came in the 66th minute, as a long dribble by Hazard – who played wonderful on the day – was put into the path of a storming Kanté, who could not finish with his left foot.

The game wore on in a more balanced way. Apart from De Bruyne’s deeper position, City did not make any significant positional changes. Both managers used a lot of subs in the final fifteen minutes, which is never beneficial for the quality of the game, as the tempo is taken out and the new players have to adjust. As a total of five subs were made in the final eleven minutes, it is perhaps not strange that regular time ended in a 0-0 draw.

Every final needs some drama

Heading into overtime, Guardiola made one interesting tactical change, as he brought on Danilo for Fernandinho and switched the system to a 4-2-3-1 shape, with another substitute – İlkay Gündoğan – next to him in the double pivot. This gave back some control to City and there were some half-chances to win the game, albeit no obvious ones.

The most spectacular moment came just before the final whistle, as Sarri wanted to sub in second goalie Willy Caballero for Arrizabalaga, who had been treated twice in a short span of time for what seemed like cramp. The latter simply refused, truly acting like a very expensive starting goalkeeper that plays for a club with a transfer ban. As Arrizabalaga stayed on the pitch, Caballero went back onto the bench again, while Sarri was left in anger. After the match, both player and manager stated in several interviews that it all had been one big misunderstanding and that everything was fine between the two.

With Arrizabalaga in goal, Manchester City managed to win the penalty series, scoring four, whereas Chelsea had only scored three. Some penalties where brilliantly taken and others… a bit less. Not looking at you, Jorginho. Okay, maybe I am. At Between the Posts, we are firm believers that penalty shoot outs are not lotteries. They are quite random, a silly way to decide a match, but a skill nonetheless. City performed that skill a bit better, and thus won this season’s Carabao Cup.  


Sarri adjusted here, and it worked for large parts of the match. Had Arrizabalaga not put up a show to prevent his substitution, the headlines would be about Chelsea’s adjusted game plan and how it generated chances to hurt Manchester City. Instead, the focus will now be about how Sarri has potentially lost the dressing room and his authority as a manager.

Pep Guardiola will feel a bit concerned by the overall lack of attacking prowess displayed by his team in this match against one of the weaker defensive sides of the Premier League’s top six. It is always a bit hard to tell how much influence a manager has on penalty kicks, but fact of the matter is: this was Guardiola’s eleventh win in twelve finals. Apart from having fantastic players, the man does something right in his coaching.

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Erik Elias (27) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Videoscout at digital scouting consultancy 11tegen11. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]


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