Chelsea – Manchester City: Conservative Chelsea See Off Rigid City To Secure A Spot In The FA Cup Final (1-0)

In a slow and methodical FA Cup semi-final, deep buildups and counterpressing came to the forefront. Though neither team had dominated the shot count, Chelsea were more efficient in bypassing Manchester City’s pressure, to secure another trip to Wembley, thanks to the work of the front two. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

January’s meeting at Stamford Bridge had concluded two major talking points: Frank Lampard was incapable of sewing the Chelsea team together and Man City had the credentials to take the league by storm. 

A lot has happened within those four months. Chelsea have blossomed under Thomas Tuchel, while Man City have romped their way through in all available competitions. With both teams progressing through to the Champions League semi-finals, as well as the incredible runs of form since the new year, Tuchel feels like a genuine rival to the Pep machine, the potential to be the thorn in their side in two competitions. 

Both their routes to the FA Cup semi-finals had been relatively straightforward, only facing Premier League opposition in the last round and comfortably beating Sheffield United and Everton in the process. Nevertheless, the first meetup between the two head coaches since Der Klassiker was met with high expectations, especially with silverware on the line.

Kepa Arrizabalaga, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner all returned to the starting eleven, as Tuchel made three changes from the team that faced FC Porto in midweek. Edouard Mendy, Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz were replaced. 

Guardiola made a total of eight changes, from the team that beat Borussia Dortmund during the week. Only Rúben Dias, Rodri and Kevin de Bruyne retained their places, which involved the return of a double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. with Fernandinho and a striker with Gabriel Jesus.

Construction without the finished product

Just five low-level attempts would be distributed across the first forty-five minutes, as Chelsea and Man City exchanged even possession spells. In a game limited in transitions and final third action, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. the buildup from deep took center stage, as both attempted to play through and counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. their opponents off the ball. 

In possession, Chelsea’s positional play had superiority over a Man City pressing scheme, which prioritized on collapsing and overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. central spaces. They built in a 3-2-2-3/3-4-2-1 formation, the double pivot of Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté able to pull Man City’s wingers inside to support De Bruyne off the ball. As a result, Reece James and Ben Chilwell could receive the ball in more time and space to turn, while one of the Man City double pivots or fullbacks would move up to press the opposition wing-back. 

15th minute: As Ferran Torres marked Jorginho, Antonio Rüdiger had a passing lane open to Ben Chilwell. When he received, he had baited João Cancelo to press, Mason Mount moved into space behind and Chilwell was able to move the ball back inside. 

When pressing, Man City moved in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which aimed to congest the center. This led to a lot of collapsing from Guardiola’s team, orchestrated by De Bruyne, the ball-side winger and deeper midfielder. Though nullifying Jorginho and Kanté, a quick pass back would open corridors for the center-backs to exploit and Chelsea successfully bypassed their opponents throughout several sequences. 

In the first half, the small number of Chelsea attacks were developed from exchanges like these, with Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner able to turn in space. However, Chelsea attacks would only be led by one of the two attackers with very little support around them.

Man City also had their fair amount of buildup phases but operated without fluency and more rigidness. In possession, they resembled a 2-4-2-2 from deep, although the split between Rodri and Fernandinho, who both dropped in sequences, would result in their shape alternating amongst the backline. Both Benjamin Mendy and João Cancelo maintained the width, while Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne moved between the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and wider channels. 

Chelsea’s 5-2-3 defensive organization versus Man City’s 2-4-2-2 buildup structure.

Moving the ball out of their defensive third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the defensive third is the area closest to a team’s own goal. was not an issue for Guardiola’s team, up against a reactive Chelsea press who were quick to move back into the 5-2-3 medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Progressing the ball past the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. was where they came unstuck, Mason Mount’s deeper positioning, to mark Fernandinho, denied City center-back’s a vertical option, while neither of City’s fullbacks set up higher to pin a wing-back out wide. 

As a result, Man City couldn’t build the three-man combinations down the channels nor could they carve Chelsea open through the middle, because of the lack of central presence. Man City circulated the ball comfortably amongst the defensive lines, but moving the ball towards their two eights, or even Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres, who operated as strikers, proved very difficult. Chelsea were able to maintain their defensive shape and blunted the opposition attack effectively. 

A familiar second half, with more mess

Going into the second period, the game state continued in a similar fashion, without changes to either approach. Kevin de Bruyne was replaced by Phil Foden, due to injury, being parachuted into a similar role. Without the progressive routes being established behind them, neither could have a game-changing influence on their attack.

Ziyech and Werner had already showcased that their direct runs, behind the defensive line, could distort Man City’s defense, but it wasn’t until the second period that this came to the forefront. A long pass from César Azpilicueta to Chilwell dragged Cancelo out of position and opened the space for Mount to drop into and give Jorginho a passing lane. 

54th minute: Chilwell dragged Cancelo out of position, passed back to Jorginho (Grey ball: First pass.) Mount moved into the vacant space to open a passing lane for Jorginho (Black ball: Second pass.) 

Werner’s direct run, on Rúben Dias’ blind side, If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side. managed to free him from a runner and forced Aymeric Laporte to come across to cover. With Zack Steffen way out of position, Werner was able to square the ball into Ziyech’s path, for an easy finish from close range. 

From this point onwards, the game fell into an uglier fashion, as Chelsea remained in their conservative block while Man City faltered with fruitless control. After Ziyech had scored, Guardiola’s team experienced two-thirds of the possession, but without the change in mechanics, they mustered very few quality attempts.

What made their lack of offensive potency all the more curious is that lack of changes coming from Guardiola. İlkay Gündoğan replaced Torres just after an hour, which saw Sterling move onto the right of the front two and Gündoğan as an eight behind him. Without the ball flowing back into the wider positions, the German failed to move into the halfspace areas which have been so effective throughout the campaign. 

As Man City continued with the same approach, Chelsea’s 5-2-3 shape transitioned more into an asymmetric 5-3-2 formation, as Emerson Palmieri came off the bench to become the third center-midfielder. Chelsea were able to maintain their lead in more than comfortable fashion, ending Man City’s quadruple hopes and handing them a huge opportunity for silverware at the end of the season. 


If these two are to dance in Istanbul, it gave us a huge indicator on the type of game state the match may stumble into. Both Tuchel and Guardiola crave control, while having established two effective defensive organizations, capable of nullifying each other. 

This has set up a huge six weeks for Chelsea. The race for the top four is open, while having two strong shots at competition glory at the end of it. Chelsea’s defensive structure had already proven itself against most of the league, but now it is showcasing its strength against elite competition.

Having said that, this was also a Man City team who started and remained flat throughout the game. Not only did the buildup lack inventiveness, but the counterpressing was unable to paper over such cracks. With Timo Werner causing such problems behind the defensive line, perhaps a certain Kylian Mbappé would be licking his lips. 

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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