Manchester City 1-1 Chelsea | Most people’s predicted top two for the season met at the Etihad; two sides with arguably the best squads in the league with two of the best managers to handle them. Mourinho went with his tried and tested approach for these big games, Pellegrini responded by containing the most threatening duo of the away side.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Kolarov (Lampard 78’), Fernandinho (Navas 73’), Toure, Milner, Silva, Dzeko (Sagna 70’), Aguero
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, Matic, Fabregas, Ramires (Schurrle 63’), Willian (Mikel 63’), Hazard, Costa (Drogba 86’)
Goals: Schurrle 71’ // Lampard 85’
Space between the lines, full-backs stay deep & the role of Ramires
We’ve seen the usual narrative haven’t we? Big game, away, Mourinho sets up with an organized defence that keeps the opposition out for much of the game, sometimes desperate, often assured, before usually taking the slightest of chances and earning a vital three points. Mourinho usually gets it spot on, he did so in this fixture last season and at Anfield in that significant game right at the end. It isn’t pretty, nor beautiful, but it’s effective.
That gameplan was well in force at the Etihad as well and it made complete sense to take that approach. Mourinho’s primary idea with the set-up was to keep Manchester City as contained as possible in the final third of their pitch. The Blues set-up with the idea of cutting any supply and influence from the likes of David Silva and either one of the two forwards who would alternate and drop deep; having bodies cover the space between the lines was the primary objective in the defensive approach
As seen above, the Chelsea defence combined with the midfield to merge the two lines of defence and restrict Manchester City to as minimal effect from that zone as possible.
Chelsea were more comfortable with City attacking down the flanks with overlapping full-backs and runs into channels, rather than a direct central approach. Such is the quality in City’s side, that they always have different avenues to utilize, the full-backs though, seemingly were the more weaker ones in Mourinho’s eyes. His solution to contain their influence was the thought-process behind starting Ramires in that wider role. While the more central players contain that space between the two lines, Ramires would attempt to keep Aleksandr Kolarov’s influence under check, negating atleast one full-backs’ impact. Willianwas required to play a similar type of role, which he did to a certain extent but not as effectively while also failing to discharge his attacking duties.
What was significant about Chelsea’s set-up was the restricted use of their full-backs. Their role in the attacking third was negligible; this is obvious given the defensive approach employed but beyond that as well, they almost never joined into counters, which would have clearly put them at risk against a cross-counter from Man City. Even when Chelsea did win possession and the likes of Hazard, Costa & Willian got forward, they maintained their four man back line with Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic not joining in up ahead. It severely left them short in attack but had them more than compact in defence and prevented them from being susceptible to a typical quick City attack.
Narrow midfield set-up from the home side
Manchester City realized the impact Chelsea’s midfield has had on their opening games, beyond just Cesc Fabregas, and they realized the need to keep that completely in control. Their set-up was also favoured by Chelsea’s decision to keep the full-backs deep in defence even during counters. Thus, when without possession, City didn’t have a real need to cover the wide areas and could afford to keep a narrow approach.
This allowed the home side to regain control of the midfield area constantly when they didn’t have the ball, by having more numbers in the zone and during transitions of play. They were largely up against just 3-4 Chelsea players when Mourinho’s men did have possession, while also being backed up by their defence behind them.
As seen above, both Milner and Silva would move into a narrow position without the ball, while Fernandinho remained the deepest City midfield player, providing the last line of cover for the back four. Aguero & Dzeko too did a commendable job of helping out in defensive phases.
But above just the set-up in the midfield area that aided Manchester City, it was the intensity with which they set-out to play. Any second balls, any loose balls, any that squeezed through were almost always intercepted by one of City’s players with midfielders Fernandinho & James Milner particularly impressing in that regard, while Zabaleta too was putting in a similarly impressive shift.
This defensive set-up by Chelsea and narrow approach by Manchester City kept the influence of Fabregas under complete control, arguably his quietest game in a Chelsea shirt, while also preventing the dangerous combination of the Spaniard with his countrymen up ahead in Diego Costa. Breaking down play was proving to be far too simple for the home side.
It was indeed a tactical battle between Pellegrini & Mourinho for the midfield zone; both definitely deserve credit for both their initial implementation and reactive solutions as well. The City manager could have possibly predicted Chelsea’s defensive approach including the full-backs, thus deciding not to deploy a more traditional winger in Jesus Navas, but rather someone like James Milner who would be required to defend, press and recover possession in advanced areas.
City’s defensive line prevents Chelsea’s attacking penetration
Mourinho had resorted to taking a point, which would be a hugely positive result in this sort of fixture. His deep defensive approach became more so as the game wore on, attack being almost non-existent and the onus falling upon Manchester City to attempt for all three points.
Something that has become quite customary with Pellegrini’s tactical approach is the disciplined back-line, always in communication and staying organized. This, not only being done to create an offside trap, but also to ensure the opposition’s attack remains as far away from goal as possible; in this case, someone like Diego Costa would absolutely thrive if allowed into the Manchester City box.
It was thus crucial that not only was the Spaniard kept in control by an equally physical Kompany & Mangala so much so that he was forced to drift into wide areas, but also that Manchester City’s defensive line was ahead of/at the edge of their box. For all of Diego Costa’s well deserved praise, he isn’t one who is particularly supremely effective from outside the box, and neither does he need to be. His job is primed at being the receiver of the team’s creativity inside the penalty area. It’s not to say that he doesn’t put in an effort in defence, he does like he showed against Manchester City, but if you can restrain him to be outside your own box, then Costa isn’t the most terrifying player to compete with.
Chelsea’s defensive approach further helped keep Costa away from the Man City box, and Pellegrini ensured that remained the case even with the likes of Hazard and Willian not allowed to penetrate in.
As seen above, when Chelsea did attack, there was rarely much space to exploit into, Mangala & Kompnay held their lines, Fernandinho was excellent in providing cover, Milner tracked back and Chelsea as a whole rarely experienced any activity up into the most advanced area of the final third.
Zabaelta’s dismissal (could have been) the turning point
When a side is reduced to 10 men, the common and logical narrative is that the man advantage can see the opposition through and Zabaleta’s sending off had almost immediate impact as it changed the way the game functioned.
The Argentine was arguably City’s best player along with Milner & Mangala in both areas of the field. Defensively he was doing a superb job in containing Chelsea’s attack, while he himself got forward making unmarked runs as full-backs often do against a defensive side.
Chelsea took the lead just five minutes after Zabaleta was sent off, and it wasn’t a lucky break for the away team. The dismissal left a briefly disorganised Manchester City defence, that allowed Mourinho’s men to score the opener.
Andre Schurrle as seen above was able to get in behind the City back-line, something which they otherwise failed to do up until then, moving from one end to the other and receiving Hazard’s delightful ball at the far post. But given the way Zabaleta had things under control at his end, it may well be reasonable to consider that had he still been on the pitch, Schurrle wouldn’t have been left unmarked at that far post.
With the man advantage, Mourinho should have been able to see out the game or possibly even get another. They had managed to keep City from scoring for much of the game, even preventing any really opportunity to do so. With a man less for the home side, this should have been easier to do so.
A point is something Mourinho would take at the Etihad, but given the circumstances, he may well be bitterly disappointed in his side’s ability to hold out with that lead.
Where does this leave them?
Manchester City showed how containing the terrifying duo of Fabregas & Costa can dampen Chelsea’s chances, but it also showed how impressive Mourinho continues to be against the big sides. Although the headlines went to Frank Lampard, which formed quite a storyline, the game showed how Manchester City have developed into a sum of all parts. It wasn’t the Toure’s & Aguero’s of the World that impressed in the big game, it was the hardworking Milner, Mangala & Zabaleta that stood out.
Written by Sami Faizullah. Chief Editor of this website.