Image from Metro.co.uk
It was the game of the weekend, but not in the way we expected it. When the 3 o’clock games ended on Saturday, the Premier League focus turned to Stamford Bridge for the first encounter between the so-called ‘Big Three’. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea dusted themselves down from an early season hiccup on the opening day against Burnley to gain a bit of momentum in the title race, while Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have been nothing short of superb so far this campaign, blowing away teams left, right and centre, leading many journalists to start comparing this current City side to Guardiola’s treble winning Barcelona team. In the end, Kevin De Bruyne’s superb strike gave City a morale boosting win, but there was a lot more to the game than the score-line suggested.
Guardiola’s Genius Game Plan
“We knew that when Cesc has the ball, in one second he is the most special player in the world for that ball in behind”. Those were Guardiola’s words after the game, and it sums up exactly what City’s game plan was from the first minute. A 3-5-2 formation, which is how Chelsea set up on Saturday evening, is heavily reliant on how composed the midfield are, and how quickly they can get the ball either out wide or to the strikers, so Pep counteracted by playing a very high-pressing game, which gave Fabregas and co. no time on the ball to create chances and move further up the pitch. How many times did we see teams just put 11 men behind the ball at Stamford Bridge last season, only to be picked off by a Fabregas pass over the top to Diego Costa and the Blues would go onto win? People were too scared to close down Conte’s men last year and that’s how Chelsea managed to win 30 out of 38 games in their title-winning campaign. Guardiola went against that trend and the fact that Gabriel Jesus attempted to close down a Thibaut Courtois clearance in the first half – and nearly scored in the process by blocking it – proves that point straight away, and is the main reason why City earned themselves 62% of the possession at Stamford Bridge, as well as 17 attempts at goal. Guardiola continued in his post-match press conference, saying “Chelsea want to play through the middle and attack with a lot of people. But we want to keep the ball as well as possible and regain possession as quickly as possible”. The Spaniard outclassed his counterpart Antonio Conte in a tactical point of view, in the same way he won the treble at Barcelona in 2011; by pressing high up the pitch to get the ball back and dominate possession.
Conte gambled – and got it horribly wrong
There were a few question marks when the Chelsea team sheet was announced ahead of this heavyweight clash, as Conte tried to be too clever, and try and catch City – and Guardiola – by surprise. The 3-4-3 formation that served them so well last year was scrapped for a 3-5-2 formation, in an attempt to have more men in midfield and have more possession against Guardiola’s men. This was the first big mistake. There’s only one way to beat this Manchester City side; by matching them with regards to their formation and hitting them on the counter whenever possible, which, ironically, Chelsea were very good at last season. But the extra man in midfield meant that the Blues were far too deep at times and the midfield of Fabregas, Tiemoune Bakayoko and N’Golo Kanté was far too slow to react on the break. And there lies Conte’s second big failure – a lack of pace due to unnecessary changes in personnel. Antonio Rudiger was brought into the back three and Cesar Azpilicueta was pushed forward to a right wing-back role, in place of last year’s ever-present wide man Victor Moses, and that change meant that Chelsea had very little response to their opponents on the counter attack. Moses was a big part of the ‘Conte Tactical Revolution’ last year, with his direct running and his huge strength of being able to carry the ball for long distances, but was surprisingly ditched at the weekend. The Blues were also dealt a damaging blow when Alvaro Morata was forced off in the first half due to injury, after looking very sharp in the opening half an hour, but Conte’s response to the loss of their top scorer was also baffling, as Willian came on in Morata’s place ahead of striker Michy Batshuayi. This meant that the Brazilian was playing up front along with Eden Hazard, leaving Chelsea with seven midfielders on the pitch, with no out-and-out striker for most of the game. The champions weren’t able to hold the ball up at the top of the pitch, meaning that City were able to create wave after wave of attack, particularly in the second half. It’s also no surprise that Chelsea only started to look dangerous when Batshuayi was introduced into the game at the 70 minute-mark, proving that Conte got it wrong, both before the game, and after the game. The Italian said that his side gave everything, but they could’ve done a lot more to counter the threat posed by Guardiola’s City side.
Forgotten man Delph part of Guardiola Masterstroke
When Benjamin Mendy suffered a long-term injury against Crystal Palace last week, many people started to revisit Guardiola and City’s achilles heel problem of last season; their depth in defence, especially considering Mendy was a major investment over the summer, and the Citizens sold Gael Clichy and Aleksandr Kolarov to accommodate this signing. However, the inclusion of Delph epitomises the philosophy of Pep Guardiola and may have changed the fortunes of a player deemed to have been branded as a forgotten man. Guardiola’s use of narrow full-backs means that the position of left back suits Delph perfectly, as he was practically playing in his more-suited role as a central midfielder at times. It’s still unclear as to whether Delph can survive this comfortably in that position over the course of a season, as, due to Chelsea’s tactical ineptness on Saturday evening, the Blues didn’t test him enough defensively. But for now, it looks like a masterstroke from Guardiola and is this a turning point for Delph in his City career?
Christensen the consolation for Conte – but is he enough?
Andreas Christensen has been used quite a few times in big situations for Chelsea already this season, so it was no surprise to see him included in the starting line-up at Stamford Bridge on the weekend. The 21-year-old’s performance was the only positive aspect of Chelsea’s play yesterday, as he made key interceptions and was excellent with regards to his positioning to almost keep a roaring City attack at bay. He may have been slightly at fault for City’s goal, as he didn’t quite get out to close down De Bruyne quickly enough, but the way in which Chelsea’s defence was used as a battering ram, you cannot be surprised that City found a way through eventually. However, there seems to be a slight leadership problem at Chelsea this season, as the Blues look a little lost without the off-field influence of former-captain John Terry. The players on the field looked a little bit lost against Arsenal two weeks ago and the same problems resurfaced against City. The Chelsea of four or five years ago may have managed to hold on for a point, or may have even nicked a 1-0 win, but there wasn’t a dominant figure there on Saturday evening to carry them through a difficult period of the game, and the Blues just folded.
KDB was OMG
I have to leave the last word to the man who made all the difference. His winning goal was superb and sums up the player he has become under Pep Guardiola. When you look at the City starting line-up, it looks a little bit imbalanced, with Fernandinho the only defensive minded player in that midfield alongside De Bruyne and David Silva, but the Belgian has shown how he can be an all-round midfielder so far this season and therefore, the most important player in that Manchester City side. He’s received a few critics so far this season, who mainly claim that he’s not scored enough goals during this campaign, but given he’s got far more defensive responsibilities this year compared to previous seasons, and still managed to contribute in big games such as these, I think he’s doing an extremely good job for City. He came back to haunt his former club, who said he wasn’t good enough for the Premier League, how wrong were they?