City are left to rue missed chances as the profligate nature of their attacking contingent continues. Despite having multiple opportunities to kill the game they couldn’t capitalise on their early second half momentum and Chelsea punished them in devastating fashion, claiming all three points from this top of the table clash.
Chelsea made a solitary change to the team that had so impressively won seven straight league games, as the influential Nemanja Matić was absent due to injury. Former Guardiola player Cesc Fàbregas took his place and lined up alongside N’Golo Kanté at the heart of the midfield.
If Conte is consistent in his selection, then Pep is the polar opposite. Yet again he fielded a team that caught many fans and pundits by surprise. Following the example of old team mate Ronald Koeman, Pep looked to match Chelsea’s 3-4-3 with one of his own. Stones returned in defence alongside Kolarov and Otamendi; whilst De Bruyne, Silva and Gündogan also returned. Navas and Sané manned the flanks with Agüero leading the attack.
Kevin De Bruyne’s Horizontal Focus
Kevin De Bruyne appearing in a wide area and playing a splitting pass into a central one is becoming a constant feature of City under Guardiola. Time and time again De Bruyne would drop into a deep, wide position. More often than not this would also trigger a forward run from Jesús Navas who would head further up the line or move diagonally towards the inside of Marcos Alonso (albeit the latter occurred much less than it should have). One of David Silva or Sergio Agüero would rotate over to the right half space to fill the position that De Bruyne had left.
The effect of this movement is twofold. Firstly, due to Alonso man marking Navas the forward runs of the latter mean that De Bruyne is able to receive the ball free from pressure and use his superior passing vision to identify potential possibilities to advance the ball or create a chance. Secondly, by De Bruyne moving wide and Silva/Agüero also moving to a position closer to him, it forces the Chelsea defenders to become overly compact. What I mean by this, is that they become condensed into a very small area of the pitch. This is a key component of what Pep is trying to implement, because if his players can move the ball into the more advantageous free space left by the defence then more passing lanes and space between the lines will be available.
The sequence of images shown above shows this concept in action. De Bruyne moves wide and you can see the Chelsea defence shifting towards the ball in numbers and keeping the space between their players to a minimum. City manage to circulate the ball backwards after sucking Chelsea towards them even more and find Kolarov with a massive amount of space to carry the ball into. The space between Chelsea’s players is also larger as they cannot maintain the same compactness due to having to shift back across to the other side of the pitch. As a result of this, Kolarov is able to play a sharp pass against the movements of the defenders to Agüero between the Chelsea lines. He is able to turn and test Courtois from the edge of the box with a fierce drive.
City Struggle to Maintain Access to the Ball in Advanced Areas
Particularly in the first half, City struggled to disrupt Chelsea in their own half. A big factor in this was the relative passivity of Jesús Navas and Leroy Sané. Instead of engaging Alonso and Moses higher up the pitch, both were keen to fall back and protect deeper space, possibly due to the threat of Hazard and Pedro moving into the spaces they would vacate.
The problem this created was that Chelsea always had an escape pass to their wing backs and thus could advance their play relatively easily. Whilst having the ball in a deep and wide area isn’t particularly threatening, it meant that City had to defend much deeper than I’m sure Pep would have wanted. Instead of displaying the 3-4-2-1 structure we are used to seeing against the ball with this kind of line up, City more often than not found themselves in a 5-4-1 structure. This has negative implications for the attacking functions of the team as well. Much more ground must be covered by the attackers in order to transition to a suitable attacking structure, whilst the defenders must try to build play with restricted space due to an increased number of bodies in this third of the pitch.
Pep changed this at half time and the pay off was immediate. City looked far more dangerous as they were winning the ball in more advantageous areas of the pitch. An example of this can be seen in the 53rd minute:
Here we can see Navas is sprinting to engage Alonso and not giving him a chance to turn and carry the ball. What isn’t captured in the picture is just before this he initially makes a movement to drop back, before remembering his role has changed. He immediately charges towards the defender whilst De Bruyne also moves into the vicinity. This forces an error from Alonso and Agüero reads the play fantastically to generate an opportunity to score that he really should have taken.
Whilst the wing backs improved their contribution to the pressing in advanced areas it was once again poor access to the ball in an advanced area that lead to the Chelsea equaliser and the subsequent comeback that they launched.
As the above image shows, Fabregas is able to receive the ball completely free from any kind of pressure before playing the pass to assist Diego Costa’s goal. Letting him have the ball in this area is not necessarily a bad thing to do, as long as the height of your defensive line changes accordingly. This wasn’t the case as City were still looking to squeeze as high up the pitch as they could. Thus, the responsibility lands at the feet of one of the midfielders closest to Fàbregas. If they expend the energy to get close to him before he can scan the pitch then there is no way he can play that (sublime) pass to Costa for the equaliser. Instead, he was able to scan the field and wait for Costa to make his run all before a midfielder even began to get close to him.
Whilst you may hear or read some less than complimentary opinions about City and Guardiola being espoused by pundits and the unhappy masses over social media, you should not be discouraged. Had chances been converted then the game would have been dead before Chelsea even scored once. All teams experience periods where the ball just won’t go into the net and periods where everything they touch flies in. This trend will be arrested by time and by further coaching. Until then, at least the football is easy on the eye.