Manchester City v Chelsea Tactical Breakdown


Manchester City went into their clash against Chelsea needing a win to return to the top of the Premier League. But City would only climb above Liverpool on goal difference, something which Pep Guardiola stressed the importance of in this season’s title race.

Chelsea, recently buoyed by their 5-0 drubbing of Huddersfield, were looking to turn a corner in their somewhat stagnant season – especially with the introduction of Gonzalo Higuain – who accompanied his first PL start with a brace.

By avoiding a loss vs. City, Chelsea would remain in the top four. However, Chelsea also faced the risk of falling beneath both Manchester United and Arsenal if they suffered a loss by a 6-goal margin or greater.

Football can be a very cruel and uncanny game sometimes.

1st half:

Chelsea began the game by pressing City intensely with their midfielders and forward line all looking to capitalise with an early goal.

Right away City’s game plan became evident and the target was Jorginho. This was a recurring theme in the half as City deployed either Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan to man-mark Jorginho. This was to nullify a vital component of Sarri’s system and stifle Chelsea’s build-up.

City players strategically isolating Jorginho to win the ball back in the press.

Manchester City’s use of width with Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva caused Chelsea problems, which can be seen in City’s first goal. Marcos Alonso negligently delegated responsibility of marking Silva to Hazard, who only realises as De Bruyne plays Silva in. A remarkably inattentive error by Alonso who – as left back – would be most suited to marking Silva himself. Perhaps what was most alarming about Alonso’s blunder was its hopeless timing.

Immediately after City scored their first, they pressed Chelsea intensely in the restart. This was to capitalise on the depleted spirit of Chelsea players after conceding to settle the game as early as possible. This has proved to be an effective ploy for Guardiola as City have scored more than twice as many goals in the opening 15 minutes than the next best team.

Chelsea continued their press with their central midfielders pressing high as well. Despite this, City found minor difficulty in playing through Chelsea’s press, as Aleksander Zinchenko beat Cesar Azpilicueta to put City in an advantageous 4 v 3 situation. Chelsea survived for the time being.

This should have served as the first major warning sign for Sarri to tweak his game plan as his team’s ball-orientated press played directly into City’s hands.

Zinchenko beating Azpilicueta, leaving the pressing Chelsea midfielders behind and exposing their back line.

More panic for Chelsea as Jorginho was caught ball-watching, leaving De Bruyne to run into the box who was found by Sterling, leading to Aguero’s glaring miss. Another warning sign that Jorginho is struggling on his own at the base of Chelsea’s midfield, both defensively and in building out from the back.

Meanwhile, Fernandinho remained a viable passing option to City’s defence in commencing attacking phases. This was in stark contrast to Jorginho who had De Bruyne & co. for company. Also, Chelsea’s central midfielders opted to press high up into City’s half, which meant that City only had to play a sequence of quick passes to have the Chelsea back line at their mercy.

After Aguero’s stunning goal, City orchestrated another dogged press which exemplified the sheer gulf in efficacy between City’s and Chelsea’s respective presses.

City also repeatedly showed their ability to beat Chelsea’s press by their exceptional use of space of the entire pitch. John Stones and Aymeric Laporte dropped deep and wide, with Kyle Walker and Zinchenko on each touchline and Fernandinho dropping between the centre backs having either De Bruyne or Gundogan for support as well.

City’s excellent pressing capabilities should be of no surprise to those familiar with their PPDA (passes per defensive action). This metric measures how many passes the opposing team completes before a defensive action stops their attack.

The inverse of this stat – OPPDA – quantifies how many passes each team completes before the opposition intervenes. City’s abnormal PPDA and OPPDA numbers would suggest that Guardiola prides his teams in excelling on both sides of the press. For those unconvinced, I urge you to watch Guardiola’s exhilarating ‘Rondo’ training sessions with City and FC Bayern.

David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger were caught ball-watching and had their backs to the space which Aguero invaded, leading to Gundogan’s goal.

Chelsea’s ball-watching defence tactics proved a major weak point for them in this game.

This brings me back to Sarri’s quotes from earlier in the season when he was asked on the difficulties of his players transitioning to new defensive tactics. Sarri mentioned “I think it’s better [to defend looking at the ball]. I think, if you arrive to think in this way, then it’s very easy”.

Judging by Luiz and Rudiger’s lack of awareness in the above image and Jorginho’s perpetual plight in big games, it would be wise for Sarri to adopt a contingency plan. Alas, his stubbornness could still be interpreted as faith in his system and his player’s ability to adapt to said system.

4-0 to City as the first half ends and it could have been more. City exploiting Chelsea’s defensive tactics, being exceptional in the press and nullifying Jorginho’s presence have all played a major part in City’s first half dominance.

Perhaps the worst thing to do against City is begin with an intense ball-orientated press, as they have the frightening ability to play through effortlessly. It was as easy as Aguero dropping between the midfield and defensive lines to receive, laying it off to either winger and running into the six-yard box for a tap-in while the Chelsea defenders fail to pick City attackers up.

2nd half:

In the build-up to Azpilicueta’s foul on Sterling, the City players appear to be aimlessly passing the ball from side to side. But a closer look reveals that one of either Sterling or B. Silva is in space depending on which side Chelsea’s press is running towards.

As City build down the left, the Chelsea players seek to compress the space with a ball-oriented press. However, City’s width offers B. Silva space to penetrate.
Using Fernandinho to switch the play, City worked their way back to the left – where Sterling has picked up space out of picture behind an oblivious Azpilicueta.

Chelsea’s second half performance was more subdued than in the first half, as their press lost its intensity and they were unable to string many passes together in the final third. As the half went on, City’s attacking intensity dropped but their ability to hold possession remained at a high level. Chelsea looked languid and dejected which led to City’s sixth. The entire Chelsea team watched the ball and were blind to Zinchenko’s run who cut it back for Sterling. A carbon copy Manchester City goal. Sarri’s defensive tactics exploited once again.

Every Chelsea player caught ball-watching and unaware of Silva’s customary reverse pass.

Closing remarks:

The interchangeability of each City player was remarkable and a hallmark of an incredibly well-drilled team – with Fernandinho and Walker momentarily swapping positions at the start of the second half. Also, Riyad Mahrez’s replacement of De Bruyne meant that B. Silva would occupy De Bruyne’s position, while Mahrez operated on the right where Silva was. Each player’s understanding of every position and role on the pitch means that City are less likely to be caught out as the players can cover multiple positions.

On the other hand, Chelsea substitutions were indicative of a manager who was already defeated, seeking only to avoid more damage. If Sarri would rather field Ruben Loftus-Cheek (at right wing) and Emerson instead of Callum Hudson-Odoi, questions surely must be asked of the manager’s reluctance to play the latter – especially at 5 and 6-0.

With performances like that, it is no wonder why Sarri has said on multiple occasions that he finds it difficult to motivate his players. But I find it difficult to understand how Sarri expects his players to be motivated when he leaves them high and dry with no plan B. Further than that, I also find it difficult to understand how Chelsea – as a club – can expect Sarri to motivate his players when he has little say in the recruitment of his players.

Unfortunately for Chelsea, they could suffer the same fate when they face City in the Carabao Cup final on the 24th February. Only time will tell if Sarri bucks up his ideas and tries something different. Although, for a cup final, I’m quite certain Sarri will not be taking any risks.

Written by Ahmed Shooble (@AhmedShooble)

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