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Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

City made it clear who the best team in England is with a dominant performance.

Chelsea v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Manchester City are really, really, really ridiculously good at football. They’re as good at football as Derek Zoolander is good looking. They proved that again against Chelsea on Saturday night at Stamford Bridge.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch the game, don’t let the final score of 1-0 fool you. City absolutely dominated this game in every single way. Here’s some footage that may help you understand just how dominant City were.

Or maybe this is a better example.

Manchester City simply smashed the defending Premier League champions in what was the most impressive victory of any team in the league so far this season.


Leading up to this game, there had been a lot of discussion on how Antonio Conte had figured Pep Guardiola out and developed a tactical approach to thwart Pep’s gameplan. I think it’s safe to say that we can put that theory to bed, because Guardiola just reminded everyone why he’s considered one of the best, if not the best, managers in the world.

Despite not having Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Agüero, Pep Guardiola devised a gameplan that put his team in a great position to win. The lineup deployed was expected with the exception of Fabian Delph being selected as the starting left-back instead of Danilo, a player more familiar with the position. On top of that, Pep gave Delph specific instructions to play as a very unconventional left-back, and it was his positioning that created the structure City rode to victory.

On paper, City played in a 4-3-3 formation with Delph, Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones, and Kyle Walker forming the backline. However, the Citizens molded this formation to disrupt Chelsea’s strategy. Chelsea is a team that relies on their wing-backs (César Azpilicueta & Marcos Alonso) to get forward and provide width. They combine this with two active defensive midfielders (N’Golo Kante & Tiémoué Bakayoko) to control their respective sides of the midfield, allowing the wing-backs to release into the attack.

Guardiola counter Chelsea’s setup by playing a formation that could best be described as a 3-3-1-3, with Delph and Kevin De Bruyne joining Fernandinho as holding midfielders and Kyle Walker playing as the right-sided center back. The Blues then targeted the wing-backs in their attack, playing out wide to wingers Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling.

Sané and Sterling’s position forced Chelsea’s wing-backs to stay deep, inhibiting their ability to contribute to counter attacks. Furthermore, Chelsea were then forced to transition through the midfield without much width. The additional numbers in midfield with Delph pinching in made it difficult for Chelsea to operate in this space quickly and the City defense playing a high line was able to stop counters efficiently.

Chelsea’s best offense early in the game was playing balls over the top to Álvaro Morata, but once he went off with an injury they had a much more difficult time developing coherent buildup. With two attacking midfielders (Eden Hazard and Willian) moonlighting as a strike partnership, there was a disconnect between the attack and rest of team.

Hazard barely made an impact on this game and I can’t recall the commentators even mentioning Cesc Fàbregas more than a couple times. It was Pep’s approach that took these two dangerous players out of the game. City’s backline was immense in this game and the transitional defense was nearly flawless.

Chelsea v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

This strategy was strong in hindering Chelsea counters before they could develop, but wasn’t terribly effective in creating chances in the first half. With the ball often out on the wings, Gabriel Jesus was left as the single target in the box and was covered by two of Chelsea’s center-backs at all times. Despite creating space in wide areas, it rarely resulted in clear scoring chances. But as we have seen time and time again, Pep Guardiola is a manager that makes tremendous in-game adjustments.

City came out in the second half with the same breakdown and positional roles, but made one critical tweak. Gabriel Jesus, who was quiet in the first half, played in a role that resembled a false nine. He would drop into the midfield often to pick up a pass and drop it off to his teammate, who continued their run forward.

The lone goal in this game came about from exactly this. Kevin De Bruyne took a pass from Otamendi and turned to move the ball forward to Jesus. Jesus, with his back to goal, simply laid it off for De Bruyne. The return ball was received with the Belgian already at a full sprint and he carried directly through the center of defense. David Silva made a great run across that pulled two Chelsea defenders with him, leaving De Bruyne space to fire an incredible shot with his left foot.

This goal was so beautiful it literally brought a tear to my eye. Let’s take this opportunity to watch it one more time.

City were still able to maintain width with Sané and Sterling, but instead of forcing crosses into a crowded box, they would play one-twos with teammates making runs to the edge of the box. This opened up space for diagonal runs towards goal that stretched the Chelsea backline, leaving opportunities to find midfielders making late runs into the box.


Make no mistake, Chelsea were very lucky that City didn’t score more in this game. I can understand why so many teams try to rope-a-dope City, accepting attacking pressure in order to look for counter-attacking chances. But there is more risk in this gameplan than you would think, especially against a team in City’s form. Because as we saw in this game, sometimes when you try to pull off the rope-a-dope, you can’t even get off the ropes.

I’m hesitant to even give any one player Man of the Match for this game. Everyone played so well collectively and individually. The only time I actually got upset at a play City made was when Otamendi fouled Willian in a dangerous area for absolutely no reason.

Chelsea v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

I would like to say though, that Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League right now and it’s not very close. He is such an intelligent and skilled player that has a heavy impact on every single game he plays in. Anyone who argues he’s not the top player in England can go kick rocks.

Also, all those people who consistently claim that Pep Guardiola is overrated, they can go kick rocks too.

It is very rare to see the defending champions and a team of Chelsea’s quality get defeated in this fashion at home. This was a statement to the league and the rest of the world. I don’t want to hear about Manchester United until they beat someone in the top half of the table, City are the class of England right now.

Future opponents would be very wise to plan their strategies against City very carefully. Omar Little said it best.