Chelsea – Manchester City: Chelsea Survive City’s Intense High Press Before Striking Lethal Blows (2-0)
Manchester City started the game with their characteristic swagger and a fiery intensity that completely overwhelmed Chelsea. It seemed like a matter of when, not if, City would take the lead, until Chelsea struck on the break close to half-time. The complexion of the game instantly changed, allowing Sarri’s men to create more chances and secure the victory in the second half.
Tactical analysis and match report by Om Arvind.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had somehow improved from last season going into their encounter with Chelsea. Despite their record being marginally worse at the time, all their underlying numbers had improved, and they looked like they were way ahead of the pack despite the closeness of the title race. Their open play expected goal total The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. stood at a stunning 2.24 per game (close to double Liverpool’s 1.4), allowing for a league high 45 goals scored in 15 matches. You can explore these advanced statistics for all teams on our stats page.
Chelsea, who had initially started brightly under Maurizio Sarri, looked to be in a more worrying situation. They were rather convincingly beaten in two of their last three Premier League games, by Tottenham and Wolves. This created a maelstrom of doubts in the minds of pundits and supporters. Could Jorginho avoid being neutralized by man-marking? Was Kanté being wasted in a more advanced role? How long would it take before Sarri’s philosophy fully took hold?
Another question revolved around who the number one striker should be – Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud. Morata is the better scorer, even when taking into account his worrying finishing issues, while Giroud is significantly better at holding up the ball and bringing others into the game.
Seemingly unable to decide which of the two should start, Sarri benched both Morata and Giroud and deployed Hazard up top against City. Willian started on the left and Pedro on the right. The usual trio of Mateo Kovačić, Jorginho, and N’Golo Kanté sat below them and ahead of their strongest defense: Marcos Alonso, David Luiz, Antonio Rüdiger, and César Azpilicueta.
Pep also bypassed a striker in Gabriel Jesus, and went with a wide player up top – Raheem Sterling – in place of the injured Sergio Agüero, but, other than that, his lineup was standard.
Manchester City dominate Chelsea with intense pressing
There is a certain perception that complex positional play philosophies eliminate the nasty physicality of football and deal only in the technical and the beautiful. This could not be further from the truth, and this became readily apparent on Saturday, when two of the finest proponents of positional play – Guardiola and Sarri – went head-to-head.
Seeking to bend their respective wills on the game, both Manchester City and Chelsea pressed and passed the ball around in tight pockets of space, ironically reducing the game to what it was ages ago – chaotic fifty-fifty duels.
City, who are far more experienced with their system than Chelsea, unsurprisingly faired better in this environment.
Manchester City’s high press versus Chelsea’s buildup.
Whenever Chelsea tried to build out from the back, either Bernardo Silva or David Silva would initiate a high press by stepping out of midfield to close down the center-back on the ball. Bernardo did this more often than David due to Chelsea’s insistence on attacking down the left in the first half.
Sterling – and later Riyad Mahrez, as the two switched positions around the twentieth minute – would react to close off passing options back to the middle, while City’s wingers and fullbacks breathed down the necks of their counterparts.
Kovačić or Kanté, who had been left free by the aggressive Silva’s, would try to move wide to create a new passing lane. But it was to no avail. Bernardo was especially quick at jumping back onto Kovačić while Sterling moved further inward to compress the playing area. Even if Kovačić was free for a couple seconds, his teammates had no time and space to find him.
As a result, Chelsea didn’t complete a single final third pass in the first twenty minutes of the game. By contrast, City enjoyed much more time near the opposing box and created several half opportunities in transition by winning the ball high up the pitch. Had their attackers been sharper, they probably would have created more than their four shots in the first half.
An uncharacteristically high amount of passes among the center-backs serves as a testimony to Chelsea’s pressing game.
Chelsea switch up their pressing scheme
Chelsea also tried to press, though they were not nearly as effective as their opponents. Part of this had to do with their lesser intensity when compared to City. Though Chelsea pressed in the same way – the central midfielder stepping up to press the center-back on the ball – it was not done with the same speed and energy.
Sarri seemed more respectful of City’s buildup and did not appear to be too keen to over-commit his men. Nevertheless, he didn’t seem happy with what he was witnessing, as Bernardo Silva kept exploiting Kovačić’s pressing movements by dropping extremely deep to provide an extra outlet.
Consequently, Sarri changed things up in the middle of the first half by having his wingers step up to press the center-back on the ball while his central midfielders protected the fullbacks.
Chelsea’s adapted pressing scheme versus Manchester City’s buildup.
It is not clear what the thinking was behind this change, since it made virtually no difference. Bernardo Silva still roamed as the free man and helped City work their way up the pitch.
Even in the second half – which saw a much more even game – Chelsea were still powerless to prevent City from moving upfield. The away side was just too smooth in possession.
Thus, given City’s superiority on both sides of the ball, it was rather shocking to see Sarri’s team take the lead. In the 44th minute, Chelsea broke through the press via a David Luiz long ball out to Pedro on the right-wing. The diminutive Spaniard switched play to Willian, whose cross was blocked before possession fell at the feet of Alonso and then Hazard. The Belgian squeezed a low cross into the box right before Kanté made a late run into the area and scored on Chelsea’s first shot of the game.
Manchester City’s intensity drops and Chelsea change focus
As one could have predicted, Manchester City were unable to maintain their same level of intensity from the first forty-five minutes. Pep Guardiola subbed on Gabriel Jesus for Leroy Sané in the 53rd minute to perhaps provide more energy up front – though it may just as well have been for another reason – but it made no difference.
Every player was a step slower in getting to their man and the buzzing Bernardo Silva was forced to tone down his extensive leg-work throughout the right-hand side of the pitch.
Whether in anticipation of this change in dynamic or not, Sarri asked his team to play though the right-wing more frequently in the second half. Pedro would drop extremely deep to aid Rüdiger and Azpilicueta, while Kanté burst into the space ahead of everyone to provide a vertical option to escape the press.
There could have been many reasons for this shift in strategy. It could have been as simple as Sarri being unhappy with Willian or Kovačić’s performance in possession down the left, or he may have simply wanted to avoid pesky Bernardo in favor of stretching the legs of the older Silva. Alternatively, he may also have thought it better for Azpilicueta – rather than Alonso – to be the one defending attacks in case Chelsea lost the ball near their own goal.
Whatever Sarri’s thinking, his half-time adjustment proved to be successful, though City’s drop-off in intensity was a major contributing factor. Chelsea managed seven shots in the second half, with decent chances falling to Willian and Pedro soon after the restart.
Chelsea’s passmap illustrates their preference for building through the right flank.
City’s long possession spells produce little
Chelsea’s two opportunities shortly after the break were followed by long spells of possession for the opposition. City, who as mentioned before, were still able to ease their way through Chelsea’s press in the second half, piled on the offensive pressure in response to going one goal down.
Sterling, who had moved to the left wing after Jesus’ substitution, was especially proactive and did his best to dribble at the defense and create instability. Azpilicueta held strong, however, and City had to make do with a series of corners.
Following the theme of the first half, Chelsea survived and ended up scoring off their first corner of the game in the 77th minute, when David Luiz headed a looping effort into the far reaches of Ederson’s goal.
City’s last attempts as Chelsea bunker down in their own half
Recognizing his superior position, Sarri immediately called off the press and asked his team to become ultra-compact and conservative.
As a result, City received even more of the ball and desperately tried to make it pay. Sterling continued to drive at the defense and managed to create one shot for himself and Gabriel Jesus.
Jesus managed to get in on the act one more time when substitute İlkay Gündoğan latched onto a late mistake by Kepa Arrizabalaga and fed the ball to the Brazilian striker. Jesus curled an effort towards the top corner, only for Kepa to redeem himself and secure the clean sheet.
Amazingly, the best version of Manchester City in history is now second in the league table thanks to this result. More than anything, that speaks to just how brilliant Jürgen Klopp has been at Liverpool. Nevertheless, there is little reason for City fans to panic. The game was far more even than the scoreline suggests, underlying numbers look great for City, and there is still plenty of time to get back on top.
Chelsea fans, obviously, have every reason to be delighted with their performance. Though they were easily second best for much of the first half, their side did what they could under the circumstances. With much less time to absorb Sarri’s philosophy, they held on, limited City to only a few chances, and took their big opportunity when it came. They then grew into the game as the opposition tired and secured the result.
For the sake of the neutral, let’s hope these types of games keep the title race close untill the very last day of the season.
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