Chelsea – Manchester City: Vintage City Patterns Blitz Through Chaotic Chelsea (1-3)

Flexibility, wide rotations, and false nine’s hit Chelsea with a flash of old Pep-fluency. Manchester City had the game wrapped up, with three goals before half-time, as they delivered a message for the rest of the league, whilst pressure continues to grow on Frank Lampard.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

A matchup between the blue halves of London and Manchester are often fueled with title talk, but towards the halfway point of the season, Chelsea and Man City find themselves within the scrap for European places.

Frank Lampard’s team entered the new year in bad form, just one victory in the last six games whilst looking unconvincing throughout. The experimental and awareness from Lampard appears to be fading, as his team seem set on a 4-3-3 formation, which has relied on Mason Mount for dynamism. Chelsea badly needed to get themselves back on track.

Recent news around Man City have focused more on COVID-19 than on football, with their game against Everton postponed because of a number of reported cases in Pep Guardiola’s camp. On the pitch, a resounding improvement in defense has overshadowed an inconsistent attack, at least for Man City standards. Though coming into this match in eighth place, a win would take them level on points with the top four, with still having a game in hand.

Lampard made five changes to the team that drew with Aston Villa; Timo Werner was recalled to the team as well as Hakim Ziyech who returned from injury. Thiago Silva, Kurt Zouma and Mateo Kovačić also made their returns. 

With a squad riddled with COVID-19 cases, Man City had a number of key players out of the matchday squad. Zack Steffen made his Premier League debut between the sticks, whilst Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden came in, to make it three changes from the win against Newcastle on Boxing Day.

Manipulating Chelsea’s disjointed press

One reoccurring issue under Lampard has been the disorganization within their press. Out of possession, Chelsea set in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with poor spacing and timing between players. As a result, the front five clustered into similar positions, with space behind them for the team in possession to easily bypass. Regardless of personnel, in the pressing structure, Chelsea are easy to play through, and although N’Golo Kanté can make up for these issues at times. Whenever he’s on fumes or not in the game, these issues are aggravated. 

Man City manipulated this high press in an interesting fashion. Both center-backs would position themselves down the same channel, with Rúben Dias across from Steffen inside the penalty area and John Stones positioned to the right of the box. Both fullbacks operated in different manners also, Zinchenko as part of the same line as the center-backs, whilst João Cancelo moved high up, often positioned on the shoulder of Mason Mount.

9th minute: Man City’s asymmetric setup on goal kicks enables John Stones to make a channel pass into the feet of Raheem Sterling.

This asymmetric setup created two different routes to bypass the press. With quick exchanges, the center-backs could either move the ball down the right and up towards an overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. of Man City players or play the ball back towards the left of the field, with Chelsea’s shape tilted towards the opposite direction.

The movements of Rodri and Bernardo Silva were pivotal to progressing through the high press. Rodri positioned himself between the lines, often directly in front of Steffen, whilst Silva would drop next to the single pivot, Teams vary in the number of midfielders they place in defensive positions during buildup. In systems like a 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2, usually a single midfielder plays closer to the defense, for protection, but also for buildup play in the center of the pitch. The player is called the ‘single pivot’, to contrast with the ‘double pivot’ in systems like a 4-2-3-1. whilst dragging a marker with him. Although Rodri had one or two shaky moments in possession, one in which involved Steffen picking up a backpass from Chelsea pressure in the first few minutes, Man City progressed the ball effectively and were able to make camp within the two-thirds up the field. 

Wide rotations access high quality areas

When defending from deep, Chelsea remained in their 4-1-4-1 shape in a 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. Although Chelsea’s team selection indicated a counterattacking game plan, with Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic making the front three, this wasn’t a team that made things difficult for opponents when out of possession.

Chelsea were not compact, did not close passing lanes well enough and were passive when trying to close down the ball carrier. They suffered similar issues to their press, when too many players clustered into one area, which enabled teams to pass round them. As a result, Chelsea conceded many one-versus-one’s between their fullback and the opposition winger, scenarios that Man City excel at creating.

It’s hard to call what shape Man City often resembled, out of their 4-3-3 shape when building from deep, because of the rotation and flexibility used by Guardiola’s men. They progressed the ball out wide, whilst the rotations between players got the ball into golden locations. 

Down the right channel, both Cancelo and Silva operated in similar positions, to pick up possession in the middle third. If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. With one picking up the ball, the other would make a passing lane by positioning themselves between the lines. In this phase, Raheem Sterling would either maintain the width and pin Ben Chilwell deep or join in this rotation when Man City built.

Rotation was very effective down the right, but it was on the left where Guardiola’s team constantly played through the Chelsea block. Both Zinchenko and Phil Foden hugged the sideline when they were in the construction phase, with either man underlapping Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. or making a direct diagonal run into 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. Kevin de Bruyne often dropped out of the center-forward position, into the left halfspace, to create wall pass exchanges, A one-touch pass that quickly sends the ball back to sender. In the meantime the sender has quickly moved into free space, and he momentarily escapes pressure. whilst İlkay Gündoğan drove forward in the space created.

These factors linked in the goals that they scored. For the first, Rodri was able to receive, move the ball forwards and play a vertical pass out wide, in the space between Ziyech and Kovačić. De Bruyne’s dummy gave Zinchenko the space to drive the ball towards Foden in the halfspace. Gündoğan’s turn was excellent at creating separation from Thiago Silva, before arrowing the ball past Edouard Mendy, which capped off an excellent team build from Man City.

21st minute: Buildup to Man City’s second goal. İlkay Gündoğan creates the passing lane, whilst the rotation down the left channel between Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden pulls Chelsea apart.

Their second goal came moments after, with Man City working the ball back towards Steffen, to stretch Chelsea even more. Once again, the players down the left opened their opponents up; Gündoğan created the passing lane for Dias, whilst Zinchenko hugged the sideline and combined with De Bruyne in the halfspace. Foden motored from the sideline into the center, although Kurt Zouma stopped the first pass from reaching him, De Bruyne got a second bite of the cherry to feed Foden at the front post.

Man City’s third goal, just after the halfway mark, was less glamorous, but highlighted the terrible organization within the Chelsea defense. From an indirect Chelsea free kick, the second phase was cleared to Raheem Sterling with an acre of space to sprint in. Sterling held, turned, and smacked the post, but the retreating Chelsea defenders failed to clear and De Bruyne finished from close range.

Chelsea’s blunted buildup

As Man City raced three goals in, within a short period, the game’s intensity dropped during the second half. Chelsea’s issues out of possession had already been worsened, with their issues on the ball glaring in a similar manner, when up against Man City’s 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.

In possession, Chelsea resembled a 4-1-2-3/2-3-2-3 shape, in a fairly basic structure. Lampard’s passing scheme offers very little interchange and the disparity amongst the midfielders remains. Kanté, Kovačić and Mount either all position horizontally in the same line, with limited progressive options around them, or the two eights will be too far apart to connect with Kanté in the construction phase.

The disconnect in the midfield leaves Chelsea very limited when up against man-orientated schemes. With De Bruyne on Kanté, Sterling on Silva and Foden on Zouma, when building from goal kicks, Chelsea played into problems from the first pass. When De Bruyne or Sterling would press Mendy between the posts, one of City’s spare midfielders would step up to press either Kanté or Thiago Silva. 

Chelsea’s 4-3-3 buildup nullified by a compact and organized defensive block, with the spare midfielder pressing on the ball carrier, whilst potential receivers are occupied.

When the ball would reach the middle third, Man City’s 4-3-3/4-2-4 shape remained narrow and it heavily congested space for Chelsea’s three forwards. When passes were exchanged from deep, one of the Man City midfielders would press the opposition midfielder, whilst De Bruyne and Sterling closed the forward passing lanes.

From deep, Mount’s movements and versatility is their only consistent route for progression. With this in mind, both Rodri and Silva were tasked in tracking his lateral movements. This led to a couple of phases where Rodri would mistime the press, and Chelsea were capable of threading passes through.

Man City may have allowed a few passing sequences to run past their midfield line, but overall, they were not threatened by a flavorless Chelsea buildup. Guardiola’s men were quick to regroup in these scenarios, and deployed the usual pressing triggers, A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. from a receiver’s 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. to create turnovers and further congest the middle of the field.

Chelsea would deny their opponent’s a clean sheet, in the last minute of added time. Mount’s movement dragged John Stones out of position before a pass from Ben Chilwell met the run of substitute Kai Havertz. He found fellow replacement, Callum Hudson-Odoi, who finished at the back post. 


Pressure has been slowly increasing on Frank Lampard’s post, but the manner in defeat and the way they were totally outclassed, has pushed this to the next level. Considering the notoriety the Chelsea board has built, from making rash decisions on managers in the past, Lampard is certainly in danger if the ship isn’t turned soon.

After months of speculating where the former Man City had gone, this is the closest we’ve seen to vintage Guardiola action in quite some time. The rotations out wide tore through their opponent’s defense, in ways that hadn’t been seen for a while at Man City. With a game in hand and just four points away from the league leaders, they are now certainly back in the title talk.

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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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