Sunday the 14th of April was the date for the big second semi final of the FA Cup between Chelsea and Manchester City. Wembley stadium hosted the two giants of English football, as the players entered the arena to a deafening reception.
The defending champions Chelsea made 7 changes to the side after the trip to Russia. They started the game in their now standard 4-2-3-1, with Mikel returning to the starting line-up to partner Ramires in midfield. At the back, Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Luiz and Bertrand started. Demba Ba led the line, and behind him were the 3 Amigos- Mata, Hazard and Oscar.
Soon to be dethroned champions City also began the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Hart was left out for the giant Pantilimon. In defence, Zabaleta, Kompany Nastasic and Clichy were the chosen ones. The first choice midfield combo of Toure and Barry sat behind the creative forces of Nasri, Milner, Tevez and Aguero. David Silva missed out due to an injury.
Losing the midfield battle
While Chelsea made a spirited come back, and fought hard right to the bitter end, they lost the game in the first half, when Barry and Yaya Toure dominated the midfield, and bossed proceedings, playing the game at a pace that suited city. The Chelsea midfield couldn’t really keep up due to two reasons: 1) the lack of a genuine ball winner in midfield, and 2) the duo of Ramires and Mikel didn’t close down enough. As for point 1, the fact that Oscar, with 8 put in the most tackles for Chelsea is a stunning indictment of how poor the central duo was. They couldn’t really tackle, or even harass City because essentially, they didn’t get close to the ball. Even Ramires, who is usually so dynamic, was unable to make his presence felt in the defensive half because he wasn’t his usual energetic self. A lot of this can be attributed to the long journey to and from Russia, and a tiring game there, but the players, especially Mikel (a defensive midfielder who managed a measly 2 tackles and 1 interception in his 66 minutes on the pitch), who didn’t play on Thursday, have to be pulled up too. Point 1 basically stems from point 2, the fact that Chelsea didn’t close down enough meant that City could pick their passes at leisure. Toure especially benefited, creating a lot of chances in conjunction with Tevez and Aguero.
The young Spanish right back, Cesar Azpilicueta has been a good find for Chelsea this season. However, his inexperience, and exuberance often lead to positional errors. Manchester City looked to play mostly down their left for large parts of the opening period which they dominated, and exploit the errors that “Azpi” made. One such error was his anxiety to close wingers down. While one can understand this from a full back, this created space between the centre back and the full back, which City exploited, with Nasri drifting in, and Tevez and Aguero also using the channel during their inter-play. Azpilicueta was not helped by the fact that Eden Hazard, who started the game on the right, wasn’t tracking back so keenly. This left him a bit shorthanded at the back.
Distance from goal
The ‘3 Amigos’ are at their deadliest when they have space, and are well inside their opponents’ half. The secret to containing them is to keep them as far away from dangerous zones as possible. City did this effectively by keeping the game in midfield, and pressing the Chelsea players in their own half. There were a number of occasions where they aimed to keep the ball from the trio by getting it off Mikel and Ramires quickly. This also led to them picking up cards (Barry and Toure) but it was worth it, as Chelsea were kept far away from goal in the first half, barely working Pantilimon.
In the first half, Benitez kept his full backs behind the ball i.e. they were instructed not to go beyond the ball. This was a measure to stop City’s counter attacking play, and get a grip on their fast and creative forwards. However, things didn’t go according to plan, and Chelsea found themselves down by 2 goals, making it necessary for them to attack. At this juncture, Benitez changed his tactics, and freed his full backs. As Bertrand Azpilicueta started bombing down the flanks, the City wide men had to deal with them, and the midfielders. Consequently, they had a lot of space to play, and got in a lot of positions to deliver crosses into the box. Unfortunately for Chelsea, none of these were converted into goals. Azpilicueta in particular created a number of openings, with 7 crosses.
Not enough bodies in the box
As the game wore on, Chelsea kept searching for an elusive second goal. The fact that their full backs were in a lot of space meant that there were many opportunities to play crosses. Mancini reacted to this by bringing on Joleon Lescott later on, and having his defence play slightly deeper. In response, Chelsea needed to send players in to attack the crosses. They failed to do so effectively, with Benitez sticking to his 4-2-3-1 formation, where Fernando Torres stuck to the left wing. This was detrimental, and inexplicable, as bodies in the box had already got Chelsea a goal, with Torres distracting Kompany enough to allow Ba a chance to score.
Inter-play between front 2
Tevez and Aguero, the Argentine compatriots, are definitely the first choice strike combination for City, as their inter-play is just fantastic. Mancini hasn’t got too many opportunities this season to play the two in tandem, but they started today and wreaked havoc among the Chelsea back four. The constant one-twos and movement, where one dropped off, and the other moved into the area was hard to handle, as they played between the lines.
Possession based dominance
In the first half, City thoroughly dominated the game in midfield, as Barry and Toure were instrumental in controlling the game for the Citizens. It is no coincidence that both of them had played the highest number of passes in the game, with 68 and 62 passes respectively. The lack of pressure on them also meant that they could pick out their passes with ease, and a lot of balls were played into the feet of players like Tevez and Aguero, allowing them to turn. Barry and Toure played 3 and 2 key passes each. This was the joint highest and second highest total in the match. City were also very efficient in recycling the ball, with Nastasic and Kompany doing a fine job at the back on the ball as well. This ball possession allowed them to keep Chelsea out, and create chances of their own. As a result, they went into half time with a lead, after a very good first half.
Closing down in midfield
In order to stop the 3 Amigos, City chose to close down Chelsea at the source, and a lot of tackles and pressure were applied higher up the pitch. The idea was to stop the Chelsea defence and mdifielders from getting the ball to the front men. As a result of this tactic, City also had to execute a lot more tackles to stop counter attacks. Ramires and Mikel were both fouled by Toure and Barry as they tried to stop the ball getting to forward players and quick breaks. Both players received yellow cards for their trouble. All in all, they through in 11 tackles together, and City as a whole made 29 tackles, a rather large figure.
As mentioned earlier, Cesar Azpilicueta was found out of position on several occasions, and City tried to take advantage of the space thus created. They did so by making Nasri drift inside to the vacant space, and have Clichy run outside to draw Azpilicueta in. The tactic worked very well, as Nasri, working in tandem with the strikers, caused a lot of problems for the Chelsea defence. On the other side, Milner stayed out wide, and Pablo Zabaleta made his trademark angled runs into the box. However, City didn’t get much joy here, as Oscar tracked back regularly, and allowed Bertrand to get narrow, and cover the angle for the run.