City Chelsea tactics

Manchester City – Chelsea: City Win Narrowly In Free-Flowing Match (2-1)

Chelsea came to the Etihad with a positive attitude and looked to impose themselves on the game in a way that not too many teams do away at Manchester City. They were able to take the lead through N’Golo Kanté. City quickly replied through Kevin De Bruyne, and then began to find joy through De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez on Chelsea’s left side. Mahrez’ goal to make it 2-1 before half-time ultimately proved to be the winner, as Chelsea’s performance dropped somewhat in the second half.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley

Chelsea came into this game in third place in the Premier League, ahead of their opponents Manchester City, who sat fourth. This was a reflection of the strong form enjoyed by Frank Lampard’s team recently, as they were on a run of six consecutive league wins.

Before the international break City had just suffered their third defeat of the season, against title frontrunners Liverpool. This game was therefore hugely important for Pep Guardiola’s side,  as they simply cannot afford any more missteps because of the ruthless pace Liverpool have set. 

City started in their usual 4-3-3 formation. Fernandinho continued his run at center-back, lining up alongside John Stones, while Rodri occupied the number six position. João Cancelo was chosen at right back, with Riyad Mahrez ahead of him replacing the suspended Bernardo Silva. 

Lampard’s side also used a 4-3-3 system, as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been used in various games this season. Mason Mount was the player to miss out so that Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić could start as the midfield trio. Ahead of them, Willian and the in-form Christian Pulisic supported Tammy Abraham as the lone striker.

Chelsea’s general positioning and movements in their 4-2-3-1 formation in possession. 

Chelsea look confident in possession

Many teams who visit the Etihad Stadium acknowledge that the home side will dominate the ball, and that the away side will rarely be able to establish extended phases of possession against the Manchester City press. Chelsea rejected this idea though and looked to play out from the back and impose themselves on the game where possible. 

Whenever Chelsea were in possession, Jorginho and Kovačić were key in retaining and progressing the ball for Chelsea. Jorginho played his usual number six role, sitting centrally just ahead of the two center-backs. Kovačić would drop alongside him in the left 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. or drifting into the center. 

Kovačić’s dribbling and eye for combination play was useful in injecting tempo into Chelsea’s possession game, as well as retaining the ball against the City pressing. In accordance with Kovačić’s deeper positioning, left back Emerson would usually be quite advanced on the left side, while Pulisic often would drift between the lines into the left halfspace, where he was able to pick up the ball and dribble in some promising positions. 

The other winger, Willian, would usually start a bit wider, and his supporting fullback César Azpilicueta slightly deeper than Emerson. Meanwhile the central midfielder on this side, Kanté, had the freedom to roam further forward. On a few occasions – including Chelsea’s opening goal just after twenty minutes – the Frenchman would make runs from central midfield trying to get in behind the City defense. In this specific instance, he was fed by Kovačić, won the physical battle against Mendy and calmly finished with his left foot. 

City defended against Chelsea’s possession mostly in a 4-4-2 shape. This happened as David Silva would usually push up alongside or just behind Sergio Agüero when Chelsea had the ball, while De Bruyne would partner Rodri in central midfield. 

De Bruyne could still be seen pushing higher at times though, due to his direct opponent Kovačić dropping into deeper areas within Chelsea’s shape. At times, City’s pressing could resemble a 4-1-3-2 then. This shape could also occur occasionally through Mahrez pushing up to the front line to put pressure on Fikayo Tomori when Chelsea were building up. In these circumstances, Agüero would drop a bit deeper, so momentarily Silva and Mahrez would be the two most advanced players in a makeshift 4-1-3-2 system. 

City’s high pressing could sometimes force Chelsea into uncomfortable situations in deeper areas where they could get trapped when trying to play out from the back. The direct route was used on a few occasions by Chelsea; it actually ended up becoming fairly desirable for Chelsea to draw City onto them, in order to then play long balls to Abraham, as the Englishman was enjoying success in these aerial duels against City’s center-backs. He could then bring the likes of Pulisic and Willian into play to run at an exposed City backline. 

City exploit Chelsea’s right side

Chelsea defended by using a narrow 4-3-3 pressing scheme, with the wingers dropping slightly when the team got pushed deeper, to form a 4-5-1 shape. City were usually able to resolve high pressing of Chelsea by seeking out the fullbacks, as Willian and Pulisic would often try to step up onto the City center-backs, leaving Azpilicueta and Emerson to jump up and pressure Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy.

City’s vintage 4-3-3 shape in possession.

The roles of the midfield three within the pressing scheme were affected by the positioning of the City midfielders. As De Bruyne and Silva pushed into advanced positions in the halfspaces, Kanté and Kovačić would often end up dropping deeper to cover them.

This meant that sometimes Jorginho would be the one to push forward and pressure Rodri, as the Chelsea number eights had to stay deeper. Jorginho’s central midfield partners could still sometimes push out of midfield to press though. In these cases, Jorginho would shift across to try and cover the City midfielder who had been left free by his teammate, even though this left the center exposed. 

The main place where City were able to make inroads was down the right side, where they were able to establish a good synergy between Cancelo, De Bruyne and Mahrez. This was not only true in the case of Mahrez’ goal, where he was able to use his dribbling skills to get the better of the Chelsea Emerson and Kovačić, but also in terms of the movement they created.

For example, Mahrez’ wide positioning was sometimes able to draw Emerson out and weaken the defensive connection between him and Tomori. De Bruyne could then run into this channel and get in behind Emerson. 

Before Mahrez’ goal put City up, De Bruyne scored the equalizer with a deflected effort from distance. This goal did not come from an organized possession phase but instead originated from a transition situation. This was somewhat typical of the first half, as there was seemingly a fair amount of transition situations in quite an open game. 

City see out win as Chelsea’s level drops

The first half was an entertaining affair altogether, even if both teams were not perfect. The game flowed very well as both sides looked to play on the front foot, leading to an end-to-end game at times. 

The second half was not quite the same spectacle, and when it did become an open game like the first half, it was due to the teams dropping intensity towards the end of the game, rather than the tactical intentions previously seen. 

Guardiola was forced into an unwanted early substitute in the second half as Rodri had to be replaced due to injury. İlkay Gündoğan took his place and slotted into the number six role for the rest of the game. 

Lampard then made a change of his own, introducing Reece James in place of Emerson – who had an unimpressive game – unable to get the upper hand in his battles against the likes of Cancelo, De Bruyne and Mahrez on the wing. This substitution meant that Azpilicueta moved to left back, allowing James to play on his preferred right side. 

With fifteen minutes to go and with Chelsea still trailing by a single goal, Lampard went for a change of system, bringing Jorginho off to be replaced by Mason Mount. Mount would now play as the number ten in a 4-2-3-1, behind striker Michy Batshuayi, who had just replaced Abraham. 

The change of system did not do a great deal for Chelsea though. In fact, it arguably made their buildup a bit worse, as they now started to play out from the back without Jorginho. They now had a double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. of Kanté and Kovačić. This is fine in terms of personnel, but in practice, the receiving angles from the center-backs were not great, and Kovačić was the only real instrument to progress the ball forward from deep as Kanté was less keen to show for the ball in the number six position. 

In the end then, they were struggling to move the ball into the City 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. during organized possession, which they had been able to do earlier in the game. Guardiola’s substitutes also helped City’s cause here by injecting a bit more energy into the first pressing line, as Phil Foden replaced David Silva and later Gabriel Jesus replaced Agüero. 

City though they had made it 3-1 late on in the game but Raheem Sterling’s goal was ruled out for offside, meaning the scoreline remained the same as City walked away with a 2-1 win. 


Lampard is developing an interesting project at Chelsea and they again gave a good account of themselves, competing very well with Manchester City for much of the game. The relationship between the midfield three in the first half was impressive, and Pulisic looked dangerous as always. In the second half the team’s level dropped somewhat, but in the wider context of how this Chelsea side is developing, it was a respectable performance. 

It seemed as if this could be another slip up for City when Chelsea went ahead early on. But they recovered relatively well with two goals in the next fifteen minutes. It was still far from City’s best performance, and the two goals ultimately came from a deflected long range shot and a moment of magic from Mahrez. The usual City chance creation machine was not in full operation today, which was partly due to their own shortcomings on the day, but also due to a strong showing from Chelsea.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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