Manchester City visited Stamford Bridge on Saturday in a mouth-watering clash between the two heavyweights of the Premier League. The stakes were high as Manchester City needed to win to regain their top position on the table and Chelsea needed a win to bounce back from their loss against Wolves midweek.
The match wasn't just a big game for the two clubs and the players but also for the managers. Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola are rated as two of the finest managers in the world and two managers who have established fluid, attacking the football in the clubs they have managed. Although Sarri claimed that he didn't know how to beat Pep, seeing his track record against the Catalan manager, he had a bag of tactical masterstrokes up his sleeve and beat the favourites 2-0.
Sarri started with his usual 4-3-3 formation. However, with the misfiring Morata, Sarri decided to play Hazard in the no.9 position. While Hazard was expected to play a false 9 role, he played more of a traditional no.9 role which we will see later in this article. The remainder of the team remained the same and the question looming over everybody's head was "Will David Luiz and Marcos Alonso be able to deal with the quick attack of Manchester City?"
Manchester City was unbeaten in the league and looked to continue their dominance. With Liverpool going ahead with their win against Bournemouth, the pressure was now on the sky blues to pick up three vital points from the Bridge.
Manchester City started with an aggressive and well-organized press. With Sterling playing centrally as a false 9, he was able to utilize his pace to ensure the City press and keep the ball in Chelsea's half. Overloads on one side of the pitch cut down passing options and Chelsea lost the balls more time than they were able to hold on to it. This organized press kept Chelsea on the back foot for the majority of the first half.
This high press meant City got more attacking opportunities. They attacked Chelsea in different ways. One approach was the use of the central midfielders, namely, Bernardo Silva and David Silva, who operated in the half-spaces of the pitch. As the wingers occupied the full backs, these two midfielders were able to find space on the wider sides of the pitch and cut back the ball to create chances. Another approach was the use of Raheem Sterling and his sheer pace. Sarri's full-backs like to push up during Chelsea's aggressive press. This leaves only the two centre-backs to deal with acres of space. Raheem Sterling was able to use his pace to get in behind into these spaces and exploit his pace to win 1-on-1s against David Luiz.
Overall, Manchester City had complete control of the game for the first 30-40 minutes. But they were unable to produce magic in the final third with the absence of club hero, Sergio Aguero and a defensively solid tactic put forward by Sarri
Chelsea did not have much of the ball in the first half, to say the least. The continuous press of Manchester City made it hard for Chelsea to play out the ball intricately and play 'Sarri ball'. The defending champions enjoyed a 61% possession throughout the game and didn't give Chelsea any space to work with.
However, Chelsea were the ones to draw first blood with N'Golo Kante's goal in the dying seconds of the first half. But with a press so well-organized and much control of the game, how was City unable to score first?
Sarri recognized the threat of David Silva and Bernardo Silva, both of whom occupied half spaces, either just behind or on the two sides of Jorginho. While Jorginho is known for his ball playing skills and his ability to weave the team together with his accurate and precise passing, he is not known for the defensive side of the game. Sarri deployed Kante and Kovacic alongside Jorginho to deal with this attack of City. The two midfielders were able to track back and cover the spaces left by the full backs.
So Chelsea essentially shifted into a 4-5-1 shape to deal with the energetic and dangerous attack City put forth. By congesting the midfield they were able to cut down the passing lanes and also get men in their own box for cutbacks, something Chelsea has struggled against this whole season. This shift into a more defensive mode also countered Manchester City's second approach of attack.
When interviewed after the game on the idea behind Sterling's role as a false 9, Guardiola said that he felt he could exploit Sterling's pace to get behind and into the box. Thereafter, he would be in a 1-on-1 position which would always favour him given his superior pace and dribbling ability. Manchester City invited Chelsea to press on the back line. With the quick passing that has been instilled in them, they were able to get past the press relatively easily. However, in playing from the back and inviting the press, Manchester City was able to 'bait' in all Chelsea players except the two centre-backs. Sterling stayed up front. This meant Sterling could play in spaces next Luiz and Rudiger and run in behind them. All City had to do was play one long ball forward and Sterling had opportunities to win the ball and take it into Chelsea's final third. But when Chelsea dropped into a 4-5-1, these spaces were no longer available for Sterling to run into and Chelsea had effectively countered another attacking threat.
Chelsea's rise in the second half
Maurizio Sarri went into the break 1-0 up but knew that the scoreline wouldn't remain the same. He knew that Manchester City still carried a very dangerous threat and there was a need to change the attacking approach. He had to implement an approach to overcome the City press and present attacking opportunities for Eden Hazard. The Belgian had been relatively quiet in the first half but when he got involved he was able to assist Kante's opener. So it was inevitable that Chelsea needed more of Hazard on the ball.
In the second half, the change in tactics was clear. It was no longer playing the ball long and forcing Hazard into aerial duels which he would always be second in. Now the wingers dropped in to build the attack. By dropping in, the wingers were able to attract City's full-backs which meant Kante and Kovacic could run into those spaces. The explosive pace of Kante met with precise balls into space could now lead to the ball played into Hazard's feet where he is the most dangerous.
David Luiz has been criticized the whole season for his defensive incapabilities, but during this game, he was pivotal to starting the Chelsea attack. With his skill to play accurate long balls, Luiz was able to overcome the City press and play longballs into space. The approach to goal kicks changed as well. Instead of using Kepa's long distribution to sky the ball towards the rushing fullbacks, Chelsea now dropped back as a unit and played out from the back. The quick build up was essential in creating spaces further up from where they attacked. Furthermore, the tight marking on Hazard meant Kante had acres of space to run into which was seen time and time again from the Frenchman.
So Chelsea was able to hit Manchester City where they were the weakest - on the transition. But the main reason Chelsea won was an organized defence. A congested midfield didn't allow any real ball movement from Manchester City. It was a wonderful team performance and there was no one hero to pick out for Chelsea as they defended as an intelligent, organized unit and didn't allow Manchester City to interchange positions and attack as they so often do.
Overall, Chelsea was the second best team in the first half but Manchester City could now capitalize on the chances they created. But the tactical changes by Sarri and the introduction of Ross Barkley turned the game to Chelsea's favour and they were able to gain the three points courtesy of a David Luiz header.