Chelsea – Manchester City: Original Formula Bails City Out After Unsuccessful Experiment (0–1)

Pep Guardiola was at his experimental best as Manchester City visited Chelsea, as he set his side up in a very unique system in possession. After a goalless first half, though, he reverted to a more normal setup (by his standards) which enabled his side to come away with a one-goal win, with the decisive chance created and converted by substitutes.

Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.

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There was a lot of optimism when Graham Potter took over as Chelsea’s manager, and things did get off to a great start. The Englishman won five of his first six matches in charge in all competitions and was unbeaten in nine, but after he faced a heavy 4-1 defeat against his former club Brighton, things went downhill. Chelsea lost their last four domestic games before the World Cup break, prompting Potter to incessantly mull over tactics by his own admission. On the other side of it, his team shaped up in an interesting 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid system that blew Bournemouth away but was then held by Nottingham Forest. This was its first stress test.

Manchester City were not having the best of times either. They dropped points in two of their last three league matches, once on either side of the World Cup break. Pep Guardiola was playing with tactics board over the course of that month too, and the result was a new 3-2-4-1 structure in possession that we first saw against Liverpool in the League Cup. Even though this system had hardly been used for a few games, there already was talk about its effectiveness and whether it was too conservative.

Chelsea’s lineup seemed clear based on the teamsheet. Kepa Arrizabalaga started in goal behind César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Kalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella. Denis Zakaria partnered Mateo Kovačić in midfield, whilst Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic were on the flanks and Raheem Sterling operated behind Kai Havertz in the middle of the attack.

On the other hand, the only thing that could be certainly said of Manchester City’s team selection was that Ederson would play in goal and Erling Haaland was going to be the striker. Between them, John Stones and Nathan Aké were the two recognised center-backs on the pitch, and Kyle Walker and João Cancelo were the two recognised full-backs. Phil Foden seemed fairly certain to start out wide, but how Rodri, İlkay Gündoğan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were going to be crammed into one midfield was anybody’s guess.

Pep’s party tricks dazzle but don’t impress

The only way to understand how Manchester City were set up would be to complete separate their on-ball and off-ball shape. Out of possession, they maintained their usual 4-4-2 high press (which we will get onto later), but most interestingly, Rodri dropped into the left center-back position and Cancelo was on the right of midfield. With the ball, Cancelo remained high and wide on the right, but Rodri moved up into midfield in what proved to be a hybrid center-back/deep-lying midfielder role.

There was nothing new as far as Manchester City’s overall shape in possession was concerned, as we saw the 3-2-4-1 with a box structure in midfield again. Bernardo Silva was the second deep-lying midfielder alongside Rodri, whilst both fullbacks stayed deep in the back line.

2nd minute: Manchester City’s 3-2-4-1 structure in possession in action right from the start, with Rodri moving up into midfield.

As you can see in the above snapshot, Chelsea defended against this in a very compact and narrow 4-3-3 medium block. They left spaces open out wide, instead focusing on limiting the spaces available between the lines and preventing Manchester City from accessing the center or halfspaces. 

Indeed, the hosts were quite successful in defending this way. City did keep the comfortable majority of possession in the first half but they only managed to create five shooting opportunities, the majority of which were from outside the box.

Whilst it certainly was quite interesting and even entertaining to keep an eye on Rodri’s role, it was not very effective at the end of the day. Chelsea easily closed down the central region of the pitch, so the Spaniard found himself playing backward passes almost as often as he played forward.

City’s high press suffocates Chelsea

Whilst City’s possession-play was not the most effective, their high press worked a treat as it really suffocated Chelsea.

As usual, their basic structure could be described as a 4-4-2 shape as De Bruyne pushed up alongside Haaland. High up, the Norwegian striker guided Chelsea’s play in their own third towards their left. De Bruyne started just ahead of Kovačić to eliminate him as a passing option, but then stepped up to Koulibaly when he received the ball. He would then be forced to go to Cucurella, which would trigger the full press.

Cancelo would rush to close down the Spanish left back as the two central midfielders also stepped forward, whilst the back four would fully player-mark the Chelsea front four even into midfield with the fullbacks following the wingers, Stones tracking Havertz and Rodri keeping an eye on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

23rd minute: Manchester City’s high press is triggered after De Bruyne forces Koulibaly to go wide to Cucurella. Ultimately, Chelsea are forced to play an aimless long ball down the line.

Manchester City’s high press was successful enough for its effects to be visible in Chelsea’s passmap. The strongest link of passes was between Koulibaly and Cucurella who are both very deep on the left, whilst the midfield is much higher up as they could not receive passes in the buildup phase.

The original formula does the trick for City

Guardiola clearly did not need to do anything to his team’s structure out of possession, but he did make a couple of half-time changes that slightly altered the way they operated in possession. Walker and Cancelo were taken off for Manuel Akanji and Rico Lewis, so Rodri moved into midfield for good, Silva moved out to the right, and Lewis reprised his inverted right back role in possession to maintain the 3-2-4-1 structure.

The visitors did start to look a little better and managed to play through the centre more often early on in the second period. Lewis’ ability to operate in tight spaces and his tendency to push forward proved handy, whilst Rodri also seemed freer as he did not have to worry about dropping into the back line after a turnover. Further, with the left-footed Silva on the right, City also looked to access the centre by bypassing Chelsea’s first line through the wing and then moving the ball into the middle.

At the same time, cracks started to appear in Chelsea’s defensive block as their players began to tire. The decisive goal – created and scored by substitutes in the form of Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez – originated from a move that began with Ederson. Chelsea’s front three attempted a half-hearted press that was easily beaten, which left their team’s block very stretched. The away side used the open spaces between the lines to manipulate the ball from right to left, before breaking into the box and converting a cutback.

In a game of few chances and hardly any clear-cut ones, that proved to be the decisive moment. Manchester City will feel that this win was deserved given their overall domination of proceedings, but Chelsea will be disappointed to come away with nothing to show for what was a very disciplined defensive performance for the most part.


Chelsea’s rotten run continues as they have dropped points in five of their last six league matches, losing four. These results have left them way down in tenth place, ten points away from the Champions League spots and nineteen behind leaders Arsenal. They were set up and played like a team that knew it was second-best in this match, so there is a lot of work to be done for them to get back to the level expected by their supporters.

This was a crucial win for Manchester City, who have reduced their deficit to Arsenal back down to five points after Mikel Arteta’s team played a goalless draw against Newcastle United earlier this week. The 3-2-4-1 structure in possession fulfilled its function of controlling the match, but its chance creation questions still linger.

There is some great news for those that enjoyed the tactical battle in this match, because these two teams will be going at it again in the FA Cup this weekend.

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