Manchester City got transfers & tactics right, Chelsea failed to do the same
There will be a transfer of ownership of the Premier League title in the next couple of weeks as the Blues of Chelsea make way for the Sky Blues of Manchester.
Last season, Antonio Conte was the darling of the English media as he led his team in a romp to the title eclipsing fellow debutants Pep Guardiola (Manchester City) & Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) who had been tipped as the winners before the season began.
Alongside Conte’s brilliant tactics, Chelsea also got it right when it came to transfers. The board led by then sporting director Mike Emenalo and Conte identified weaknesses in defence, the midfield and upfront and moved to plug those gaps.
In came Belgian international Michy Batshuayi from Marseille (£35.10m), N’Golo Kante joined from then defending Premier League champions Leicester City (£32.22m), David Luiz rejoined from PSG (£31.50m) & Marcos Alonso was signed from Fiorentina (£20.70m).
These transfers helped shore up the defensive side of things which gave the club a good platform to build on in its successful title chase. Kante’s presence added steel and energy to the midfield which freed up the creative midfielders; Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, and Eden Hazard to go forward more.
The signings more than delivered as Kante, Alonso & Luiz became mainstays in the squad with Kante even winning the Player of the Year Award for his performances while Batshuayi showed what he was capable of on the few occasions when he got playing time.
This was in contrast to Manchester City’s transfer policy which failed to address all of the team’s problems. The City squad which Guardiola inherited was an aging one and this was typified by the four fullbacks that were all above the age of 30.
This meant that the team was unable to play the quick passing, team pressing game that Guardiola preferred.
The signing of Claudio Bravo from Barcelona (£16.20m) was meant to provide a passing outlet as well as solid goalkeeping which Pep felt Joe Hart was unable to do. John Stones was brought in from Everton (£50.04m) to provide a youthful presence and passing nous in the centre of defence
Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund (£24.30m), Leroy Sane from Schalke 04 (£45m) & Nolito from Celta Vigo (£16.20m) were brought in for more attacking purposes and on paper, it looked a solid enough team.
The reliance on past-it or injury/error-prone players like Bacary Sagna, Yaya Toure, Aleksander Kolarov among others sank the Cityzens’ title hopes while of the new signings; only January signing Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras could be deemed as a success with goalie Bravo proving to be a spectacular failure.
2017/2018 and the reversal
It is not for nothing that Guardiola is regarded as one of the brightest minds in world football and the Catalan clearly identified his team’s deficiencies and set out to fix them in the summer transfer window of 2017.
The first thing he did was to ruthlessly discard some of the old players he had inherited from Manuel Pellegrini. Just days after the season ended, out went Pablo Zabaleta, Sagna, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas, Gael Clichy & Willy Caballero. Kolarov, Fernando, Nolito, Wilfred Bony and Samir Nasri were sold later on.
In came a brand new set of fullbacks: Kyle Walker from Tottenham (£45.90m), Bernard Mendy from AS Monaco (£51.75m) & Danilo from Real Madrid (£27m) while young Brazilian goalie Ederson was signed from SL Benfica (£36m) while further forward, Bernardo Silva joined from AS Monaco (£45m).
These new players coupled with Pep’s coaching of the existing players meant that City achieved the twin aims of reducing the average age of the squad while having a faster, fitter team.
Coupled with the form of improved players like Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho, Nicolas Otamendi among others, the Cityzens have been near peerless in the league and need 2 wins from the last 7 games to win its 3rd league title in 6 years.
The opposite has been true at Stamford Bridge as the defending champions had a chaotic summer transfer window with the manager Conte at loggerheads with the board over the calibre of players to be signed.
The Blues signed striker Alvaro Morata joined from Real Madrid (£70m), midfielders Tiemoue Bakayoko from AS Monaco (£34m) and Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City (£35m) while defenders Antonio Rudiger from AS Roma (£31.5m) and Davide Zappacosta from Torino (£25m) also joined.
Morata and Rudiger are the only players to have had some semblance of qualified success among the new buys while the others have struggled.
From his utterances, it was clear that some of these players were not Conte’s choice and the sales of first choice players Nemanja Matic & Diego Costa also affected the team.
The poor summer window was further compounded in January as some of the purchases like that of Ross Barkley from Everton left Chelsea fans and pundits bemused.
Credit must be given to Pep & the City board led by football director Txiki Begiristain for identifying loopholes in the team and doing what needed to be done to fix this.
Guardiola’s tactics and coaching has also gotten the best out of his players as of the new buys, only Mendy (who has been injured for months) has not yet proved to be a success.
Ederson, Walker & Danilo have been exceptional for the Cityzens, helping make a defence that conceded 39 goals last season tighter and better with a miserly 20 goals (best in the league) conceded so far in the 30 games played.
Chelsea has gone the other way though as a failure to build on the title win of last season means that there was never a semblance of a title challenge.
The sale of key players and the inability of the new ones to add value have weighed the team down. Conte has also not been blameless as while the quality of Pep’s coaching has been seen in the brilliance of certain players who underperformed last season: Sterling, Sane, Otamendi among others, the same cannot be said of the Chelsea players.
The Italian’s tactics have been easily figured out as the 3-5-2 formation which proved so successful last season has been breached by even the league’s smaller teams.
Some of the tweaks he has tried such as Hazard as a false 9 have also failed miserably while his man-management has left observers with more questions than answers.
Critics would seek to point hypocritical fingers at Manchester City’s net spend of £358.6m since Guardiola took over against Chelsea’s spend of £73.44m in the Conte era but that would be disingenuous.
Every team that wins titles spends money and given the Cityzens’ expected trophy haul this season and the quality of football they have played, it has been money well spent.