Chelsea – Manchester City: The Plan From Poch Forces Atypical Pep Performance (4-4)

Rarely do such high-scoring draws have such an even and competitive edge towards them, let alone involving Pep Guardiola. Mauricio Pochettino has troubled Pep’s ideas before, and once again, the crazy action did not stop right until the very end.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

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History tells us that when Manchester City lands a landmark performance at Chelsea, good things tend to follow. However, Pochettino has often been a source of interference in Guardiola’s plans for domination.

His scalps when under the helm at Spurs are a good example: most notably, the crazy Champions League tie at the Etihad in 2019. Even at PSG, Marco Verratti was key to evading the effective City press that they deployed, followed by Lionel Messi’s excellent goal in a 2-0 win. At least, Chelsea does not have players of this consistent caliber yet, but they do show signs of slowly starting to find life again under Pochettino – five wins in seven games, perhaps the consistency is starting to follow.

Having waltzed back to the top of the standings after last weekend, a whiff of inevitability surrounds Man City once more. In midweek, they comfortably smoked BSC Young Boys to qualify for the knockout stages – twenty-seven shots for, zero against and Rodri didn’t even leave the bench. As the story has gone on for so many years, Pep Guardiola is the benchmark for all coaches to try and reach. 

Levi Colwill was out of the Chelsea squad, which resulted in Pochettino making his only change from the bonkers game away to Tottenham Hotspur. With Ben Chilwell also out, Marc Cucurella was the starting left-back.

Man City lost John Stones due to injury in midweek, a huge presence in the middle of their buildup. Manuel Akanji returned from suspension to replace him, one of the five changes Guardiola made. Rodri and Bernardo Silva came back to the midfield, as well as Julián Álvarez and Jérémy Doku.

Rigid City creates a unique game state

From kick-off, this was a game with a very different feel. Within twenty seconds, Chelsea had already got the ball into City’s box through Robert Sánchez’s sweeping ball towards the left, Raheem Sterling knocking the ball back to Conor Gallagher and Enzo Fernández was able to carry the ball into the opposition half.

A fast start, the ball travelling through lines quickly from both sides and City should have settled the game down through oppressive possession control. The approach was the same as it has been, box midfield with flexible rotations pulls the space apart and the vertical stairs are built out to the left for Doku to dribble through.

However, City did not rule the game with an iron fist, due to these rotations not creating their usual fluency. Akanji was tasked with manoeuvring around the two lines, but the Swiss defender was more static than Rodri’s usual dance partner. When distributing the ball, Akanji also struggled to establish the tempo and from early on, both Bernardo Silva and Álvarez situationally dropped to assist with progression. This led to the next issue, Chelsea’s defensive block was not being manipulated centrally.

12th minute: Álvarez dropped to support deeper buildup, but outward pressing encouraged City to remain down the channel. Dias instructed Álvarez to spread the play towards Gvardiol but due to their slow circulation, Rodri remained part of the chain. Chelsea was able to reset and the attempted high ball towards Doku ran out of play.

Both Fernández and Moisés Caicedo could step up without their 4-4-2 medium block from being opened up. Even when Álvarez made a run into this space, the positioning of Cole Palmer and the outward pressing from both center-midfielders meant that the pass back inside was unavailable and City was encouraged to move the ball towards Joško Gvardiol. This resulted in riskier balls being played towards Doku, or across towards Phil Foden. Switches were difficult to execute and control, and being forced wide affected their approach towards the penalty box.

But Champions find a way and when Chelsea pressed in the final third with Palmer more central, and Caicedo further wide, City were able to attack their opponents at speed. Doku received earlier in the halfspace, with Silva further ahead. City would not open the scoring in open play, Erling Haaland was dragged down by Cucurella at the back post and converted the penalty.

Chelsea have strong in-possession methods

One of the big questions that have circulated about Pochettino’s return to the Premier League has been whether his tactics would remain up to date. From early on, Chelsea attempted to put the ball towards Nicolas Jackson’s direct runs between the defenders, but Chelsea had a few routes that manipulated City’s defensive set-up.

Chelsea created danger when their two former City wingers, Raheem Sterling and Palmer, were able to receive outside of the block to carry the ball against a back-peddling defense. In the deep buildup, Reece James could move between Doku and Silva to destabilize the press, force Gvardiol to press centrally when Chelsea broke the lines and Palmer would free on the outside to take the ball further forward.

11th minute: Deep buildup pattern to manipulate City’s high press. James’ narrow position between Bernardo Silva and Doku formed the pattern and James made a third-man run after Thiago Silva broke the lines; Gvardiol stepped infield to leave Palmer free to receive.

On the left side, Cucurella moved as an additional center-back but as the half continued, both Fernández and Gallagher started to take up similar positions. This enabled Chelsea to move the ball more effectively out of the back, with Cucurella becoming the third-man runner and keeping Sterling more isolated with Kyle Walker.

Additionally, the rigid approach of City’s buildup put them in difficult positions during the transition. Chelsea where able to dribble the ball vertically towards the box and it was one of these moments that kept Chelsea in the opposition’s half for the first goal. Fernández took the ball off Silva, with the lane open from Gallagher to Sterling. The connection on the original pass was not perfect, but Chelsea retained the ball, won a free-kick that tested Ederson’s gloves and from the subsequent corner, the hosts equalized through Thiago Silva’s front post header.

City started to enter the final third with a bit more precision, less risky switches and Phil Foden causing more problems from the edge of the box; a cross that was slightly too acute of an angle for Haaland to finish and a few moments later, he nearly whipped the ball in himself. However, Chelsea responded with a strong plan from goal-kick situations by rotating into a box midfield, a move which gave them the lead.

36th minute: Buildup to Chelsea’s second goal. Box midfield made by Palmer tucking into a more central spot and Chelsea can smother towards the second ball with both him and Fernández, part of the same line, facing play.

The positioning amongst the central midfielders was different, by the asymmetry from the wingers. Palmer shuffled infield to complete the box midfield, whilst Sterling remained on the same line as Jackson and in a more central spot. The positioning of the wingers distorted the backline, Sterling’s run forced Walker to drop to create further disconnect on the second ball and both Fernández and Palmer could receive facing play. Palmer took the ball forward and was supported by James on the outside, a combination that also caused City problems in their half. James received inside of Gvardiol, the ball squared towards Sterling and Chelsea executed an excellent second goal.

Typical City move swings the tide

However, City were not finished before half-time. A corner taken short was put back into the box by Silva, perfect for Akanji who was separated from the Chelsea players in front of him as he evened the scores.

46th minute: Buildup to Man City’s third goal. Chelsea’s defensive throw-in tactics had Thiago Silva marking Rodri in the final third, whilst Caicedo had to challenge Haaland in the middle of the field. The Argentine internationals going their separate ways established the classic City pattern to be created on the opposite flank.

City continued to hold momentum at the start of the second period and once they were able to move into their classic attacking pattern, it’s very hard for anyone to stop. From a throw-in, Chelsea attempted to counterpress and keep City pinned, but it was Silva who fired the ball out of the pressing situation and Haaland turned Caicedo to build the tempo. With Chelsea tilted, Álvarez moved the ball up to Foden, overlapped the winger and squared the ball back towards Haaland. The finish was messy, but it was vintage City with Haaland at the back post, bullying his way through.

The wavering of the classic City script began to linger, even if City did not have the ball, the deeper block was not threatened by Chelsea and their shot activity started to dry up. In their deeper buildup, Silva appeared between Akanji and Gvardiol to alleviate pressure; moving Silva close to the center-backs is a classic Guardiola move when he wants to control games more. Taking off Doku and replacing him with Jack Grealish further solidified this theory, but Pep’s former players had other ideas.

Rodri was not Rodri-ing

City have been able to make the attacking gambles that they usually do, by being supported by football’s greatest firefighter. Risk another player forward and it’s fine because Rodri sweeps the field and kills an opponent’s momentum. Need a strong counterpress? Rodri is one of the best at single-handedly becoming his own counterpressing unit.

Without that effectiveness, it can cause City problems and Chelsea where able to do just that, even with Rodri on the pitch. The movements of the double pivot were able to evade the Spaniard when Chelsea connected on the deeper build, Fernández peeling out of the central space and Chelsea could take the ball up towards the halfway line. At half-time, Pochettino swapped Gallagher with Palmer and the effect of this move was felt when Palmer skipped past three City players (Rodri included), into the penalty area but Ederson moved out of his goal quick enough to deny a better shot at goal.

58th minute: Fernández peeling off Caicedo and moving further forward was able to disengage Rodri from City’s attempt to counterpress Chelse in the center of the field.

City continued to hold the ball up high, but in their defensive phase, they couldn’t stop their players being so attached to dribblers that opened up the spaces around them. Pochettino recognized this, James was replaced by Malo Gusto and at the same time, Fernández was swapped for Mykhaylo Mudryk. Now Gallagher was the central piece in front of the center-backs, with Caicedo peeling to the left and Palmer situationally dropped to become an additional midfielder, before moving into the right halfspace with Sterling on the same side of the field.

In one of his first interactions, Mudryk received the switch and took both Rodri and Walker down the left flank with him. Caicedo moved the ball inside to Gallagher and although his ranged shot was saved, Jackson was positioned perfectly for the rebound.

Throwing punches until the end

Chelsea and City kept things competitive right until the bitter end, as both teams had maximized their strengths. Chelsea struggled to play the ball past the halfway line, but they kept attacking momentum through their dribblers and more direct play putting City under pressure when dealing with high balls towards their backline.

Meanwhile, City were much more reliable in holding the ball in the final third – in fact, City did not have to engage in a deeper buildup as Chelsea’s midfield line began to drop. Chelsea couldn’t stop the classic City pattern, a pass towards the outside forward and overlapping into the space. However, this does not equate to shots inside the penalty area and it was actually Chelsea who had a massive chance to go back in front. A tame pass, from Rodri to the more central Grealish, was intercepted by Sterling and the English attacker drew attention away from Gusto. He slid the fullback through, but Gusto fired the ball over the crossbar.

When City can get the ball high in the final third, but not produce shots in the box, fortunately, they have another trick up their sleeve to create dilemmas. Rodri is often in the best position to drive a dangerous shot from the edge of the box; he may not have had the usual effect off the ball, but he is always in a position for another massive goal. This time, his shot took the cruellest of deflections off Thiago Silva’s boot and into the opposite corner to put City in the lead with five minutes left.

Pochettino made a gamble, off came Caicedo and on came Armando Broja. Palmer dropped to support Gallagher and Chelsea overloaded the central area with Sterling in the right halfspace and Gusto on the outside. Taking the ball over the halfway line, Axel Disasi put the ball into Sterling’s feet and the central overload came into effect. Jackson took Rúben Dias away from Broja and as the center-back recovered, he took Broja illegally off his feet and inside the box. The second penalty of the game, and what better narrative for Palmer to step up, score and shrug his shoulders in front of his boyhood club? Four goals apiece.


Almost nine hundred games in management and Pep Guardiola had never seen his team score and concede four goals in the same game. This was a unique game, with some solid signs that Chelsea can become a force to be reckoned with under Pochettino. A tough fixture list awaits them, going into December, but take the deeper buildup adaptations and effective dribbling into those games and Chelsea can continue to threaten.

This was an atypical City performance and the effectiveness of Chelsea’s attack played a big part. Games against Liverpool and Tottenham, two teams that are within two points of them, will play into huge effect on this year’s title race, even if we are only into a third of the season.  

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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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