Manchester City – Chelsea: Agüero leads City to historic demolition against fragile Chelsea (6-0)
In a game that was essentially over after twenty-five minutes, Manchester City overwhelmed Chelsea in all phases of play. Agüero was key in overcoming Chelsea’s press, Jorginho was pressed out of the game, and City efficiently took advantage of Chelsea’s individual mistakes in defense. Despite Chelsea’s best efforts and a more relaxed City after the first half hour, the away side could not produce even one goal to save their face and ended the match with an embarrassing six-goal deficit.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.
Manchester City and Liverpool are involved in one of the most exciting title races in the history of the Premier League. Throughout January, City has been recovering from the short but painful December slump that saw Liverpool take a seven-point lead in the table. Even though City now look strong, their December downturn reminded everyone that they are still very much human. Their strikers can still miss big chances, their penalty area defending can still be shaky at times, and their defensive system depends heavily on Fernandinho.
Chelsea impressed early in the season by adapting quickly to the philosophy of coach Maurizio Sarri. However, since the end of November they have seen a slump in form. As the early season hot streak of Eden Hazard ended, offensive numbers have significantly declined for Chelsea, along with the results.
This slump – combined with the lucky streaks of rivals Manchester United and Tottenham – led to Chelsea slowly slipping away to fifth place in the league table. Many,including Sarri himself, have implied that Chelsea’s current players are not a great fit for Sarri’s philosophy and the team thus needs reinforcements. Following this logic, Chelsea let striker Álvaro Morata go in the winter transfer window and acquired Gonzalo Higuaín. One must wonder, however, how much of Chelsea’s woes are also a result of Sarri’s own tactical rigidity.
Manchester City lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape. In front of keeper Éderson, a back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko was fielded. The midfield was composed of Fernandinho as a holding midfield and the pair of Kevin De Bruyne and İlkay Gündoğan playing the number eight roles. Up front, striker Sergio Agüero was flanked by Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, who operated as inverted wingers.
While Guardiola made some slight adjustments, Chelsea stuck to their usual starting eleven. The goal of Kepa Arrizabalaga was defended by a back four of César Azpilicueta, Antonio Rüdiger, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso. Midfield featured the trio of Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Ross Barkley, and the forward line saw striker Gonzalo Higuaín flanked by Eden Hazard and Pedro as wingers.
A pressing cage for Jorginho
Since this game was essentially decided in the first twenty-five minutes, we will dedicate more paragraphs than usual to this initial part of the game.
Guardiola’s plan to disrupt Chelsea’s build-up phase aimed to place midfield director Jorginho in a “pressing cage” of sorts, in order to fully disconnect him from the rest of Chelsea. Agüero, De Bruyne and Gündoğan brilliantly coordinated to cut off any passing lanes between Jorginho and his defenders. On the other hand, Sterling and Silva tucked inside to press midfielders Kanté and Barkley and cut off Jorginho’s passing lanes to them. If a Chelsea fullback had the ball, Silva and Sterling left their assigned midfield mark to push up and press the ball carrier. In those cases, Fernandinho would cover and take the Chelsea midfielder who had been left unmarked.
This pressing setup mostly succeeded at disrupting Chelsea’s buildup phase. The only ways Chelsea could progress up the pitch was by playing on the wings or through long passes and through balls by David Luiz, who was not as closely marked as Jorginho.
Hazard and Higuaín try to lead, but Chelsea’s attack struggles
In this complicated context, Higuaín and Hazard stepped up to break City’s press and help Chelsea progress and create chances. Because the build-up was not functioning, Hazard dropped into deeper positions to pick up the ball from his defenders and midfielders and would then try to dribble past City’s pressing lines. Higuaín would come short and provide a good progressing passing option right behind City’s midfield.
It must be said that despite Chelsea’s struggles to play out from the back, the team operated well once they strung possessions in the opposition half. Hazard moved throughout the attacking front dribbling past defenders, Higuaín dragged defenders out of position, and Jorginho consistently found the two forwards with brilliant through balls that cut through City’s defense. However, since Chelsea likes to get players together to promote passing combinations, they often fail to occupy the entire width of the pitch optimally when attacking. This failure to stretch opponents means it was easier for City to close down spaces for Higuaín and Hazard and prevent them from getting into good scoring positions and shooting. The few times Chelsea did break through City’s defense (usually by means of great individual skill), Ederson made some outstanding saves to keep his clean sheet.
City exploits Chelsea’s defensive issues
Sarri’s Chelsea has become a solid defense thanks to their pressing system, but they have several issues when defending their own half. Chelsea often struggles a lot in tracking the overlapping runs of opposing fullbacks, who then partner up with the opposing winger to create a two-versus-one against the corresponding Chelsea fullback. Jorginho is great at organizing his team’s pressing, but he struggles when he has to stay back and defend the zones around the box. In these scenarios, he can often fail to discern when to chase an opponent and when to stay back to defend a space.
Apart from these structural defensive issues, Chelsea also suffered greatly from punctual defensive mistakes born out of poor individual concentration and composure. For example, City’s first and third goal came from several unforgivable mistakes in defending set pieces, such as Alonso and Pedro failing to track City attackers or Barkley somehow clearing the ball back into his own box. Chelsea were deservedly losing the game because they were tactically overwhelmed, but these mistakes were the ones that turned Chelsea’s loss into a historic demolition.
An unstoppable Agüero leads City’s attack
Sergio Agüero is the undisputed man of this match, not only because of his well-deserved hat trick, but also because of his brilliant contributions to City’s attacking buildup. Agüero provided a masterclass in how the modern center forward should move, always providing good passing outlets for his teammates and smartly attacking the right spaces. Agüero moved wherever his team’s buildup and chance creation mechanisms needed him. Sometimes he came short and in between Chelsea’s lines to provide a line-breaking passing option. Sometimes he would drift wide to provide a passing outlet or to create overloads or to run into the channel between Chelsea’s fullback and central defender.
Even after moving a lot in deeper zones to get his team into the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Agüero always had the energy to run into the channels between Chelsea defenders. This game was a reminder that, at 30 years of age, Agüero has become one of the most complete strikers in the world. He is both an outstanding goal-scorer and outstanding at linking up with his teammates.
Sarri’s substitutions fail to make an impact
There’s very little to talk about what happened in this game after the half-hour mark. City followed the same game plan but with decreased intensity, while Chelsea kept insisting through the same mechanisms that were described above, failing to score the entire match. During the second half, Sarri’s substitutions were anecdotal and failed to change the way Chelsea played. Barkley was replaced by Kovačić (a substitution made every match almost regardless of game state), and an increasingly underperforming Alonso was replaced by Emerson Palmieri. The tactical issues were still the same, as Guardiola and City had posed tactical questions that Sarri and Chelsea simply had no answer against.
For Manchester City, this victory is the end result of the month-long recovery process that followed their December crisis. Within the boundaries set by Guardiola’s philosophy and game plan, City have learned to overcome adversity and adjust to opponents. They have reduced the points gap with Liverpool and are now ready to face the home stretch of the season in their best form and confidence. That being said, if City want to win the Premier League and even get to the Champions League final, they will need Agüero – their most decisive player – to keep playing at his very best.
As for Sarri and Chelsea, this game serves as an incredibly painful reminder of all the deficits the team must still work on. Over half a year after Sarri took over, Chelsea are still a team who disorder opponents more through individual skill rather than collective mechanisms. The team’s buildup and chance creation depend too much on specific player – like Jorginho or Hazard – and if these individuals are nullified the entire team stops functioning well. And if Chelsea cannot attack as a unit, they will fail to defend as a unit, too, thus exposing the individual deficits of their defenders. That is exactly what led to their defeat in this game. Even though a style change from Conte and Mourinho to Sarri needs time to implement, every manager at the top level needs wins to keep his job. The next weeks therefore can be considered as crunch time.
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