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Manchester City Tactics : Undefeated No More

City’s first Premier League loss in 8 months forced them off the top of the table.

Chelsea FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Manchester City and their fans woke up Sunday morning experiencing quite a weird feeling, something they haven’t felt in quite some time.


City haven’t lost in the Premier League since April 7, 2018, when United made that unforgettable comeback to win the Manchester Derby at the Etihad. In between that week (which also included two Champions League losses to Liverpool) and City’s 2 - 0 road defeat against Chelsea on Saturday, it is safe to say the Blues have been the best team on the pitch in every match they’ve played. Football has a fair degree of luck/variation to it, so it is possible for the better team to lose obviously. And this has been the silver lining whenever City dropped points previously this season. However, that silver lining just isn’t there for this Chelsea match.

Simply put, Manchester City got beat at their own game.

This match was like one of those comic book stories where the hero is up against the bizarro version of him/herself. Everyone knows how similar in philosophies Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri are, but City and Chelsea even used the same general tactics.

First off, both teams decided to forego starting a natural center forward, with Raheem Sterling and Eden Hazard occupying the central attacking positions. Defensively, Chelsea and City funneled the opposition possession outside, limiting the involvement of the deep midfielders, Jorginho and Fernandinho, respectively. As a result, the attacks direction were concentrated on the wings, with 79% coming down the flanks for both side. Overall though, this game was truly a defensive battle, with a combined total of 1.60 expected goals (xG). Only the Liverpool 0 - 0 draw had a lower collective number of 1.50 xG.

The primary difference between these two matches however, is that Manchester City were the team with less expected goals against Chelsea, finishing with 0.73 xG (!!!) compared to 0.87 for the London side.

Maurizio Sarri’s squad was so successful against City for a couple of reasons. They were very selective in applying pressure upfield, tending to drop into their defensive shape when City entered the middle third. If possession got pushed back to the feet of Ederson, Chelsea would press forward and encourage long balls wide that their own fullbacks, Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta to close down on with the ball mid-flight. When City stabilized possession (62%), Chelsea clogged the central channel in the midfield and pushed City wide. Their fullbacks were dedicated to stepping out on City’s wingers, providing no space to pick out a pass or get a full head of steam going. Sarri dropped a midfielder into the space the fullback vacated while also bringing a center back (Antonio Rüdiger and David Luiz) over, knowing City like to send multiple runners into those areas. The graph below shows the average position of each player and illustrates this defensive movement.

Average player positions throughout match (Chelsea : orange, City : blue)

What that map also shows is a large chunk of field right in between Chelsea’s center backs. With Raheem Sterling up top, there was an expectation that he would operate as a false nine. I’m not entirely sure if I agree with this, simply based on the fact that Pep has liked to use him in central attacking positions in the past. However, Guardiola moved Riyad Mahrez central, pushing Sterling wide right, and the Algerian was most certainly playing as a false nine. Sarri clearly acknowledged this and was comfortable sacrificing that central space in the box with a collection of City players natural to wide positions. Pep recognized this adjustment as well, bringing on Gabriel Jesus early in the second half for Leroy Sane, returning City to a more traditional lineup.

This move did pay immediate dividends, especially when you consider that the first 10 minutes of the second half were Chelsea’s most effective of the match. City looked more coherent with this lineup, not to mention, their strikers have a tendency to bring some elements of the false nine role in the standard framework of the offense anyway. Regardless, Gabriel Jesus was unable to make a definitive impact, his continued goal scoring struggles really highlight how much City missed Sergio Aguero in this one.

Defensively, Manchester City were actually strong throughout this match, despite conceding twice. It was truly unfortunate, because both of Chelsea’s goal were entirely preventable. Sarri’s two primary attacking strategies were to counter or invite City’s pressure and break them down.

The first goal initiated with Chelsea possession deep down the left side of their own half. City pressed forward, looking to suffocate Chelsea into the corners and generate a turnover. All passing options upfield were cut off, with Kyle Walker tracking Willian all the way as he tried to provide another passing option. The ball got back to the feet of David Luiz, who, despite all the criticism he may receive, is a very good passer for a center back. He had enough time to spray a perfect diagonal long ball to Pedro on the opposite wing, and just like that the City press was broken.

With Walker so far upfield, Willian was able to read the play and get in behind him. Pedro played him in down the left side of the box, and a better touch by the Brazilian would have given him time and space for a shot on goal of his own. But his touch was heavy and forced him wide, allowing City to recover quite well. The ensuing cross was cleared, but not far enough, and it ended up with Eden Hazard left of goal. Hazard is obviously a player who have to be careful putting in a tackle against in the box considering his quickness and dribbling ability. Because of his, he had time to make a move and cut it back on the floor. Now here comes the preventable part. Leroy Sane simply switched off for just a second.

Chelsea attack as Hazard cuts the ball across to Kante for the first goal.
NBC Sports

This let N’Golo Kante get in front of him (you can see him break to the ball before Sane in the image above) to get on the end of Hazard’s ball and put it in the roof of the net. We’ve talked about the concern that comes with these mental lapses City have a tendency of having. This was just another example of that and it unfortunately cost them on Saturday.

Chelsea’s second came off a corner late in the second half. Pep Guardiola was upset that the corner was given, as the contact off a City player from Ross Barkley’s shot was somewhat questionable. Because of this, Ederson watched it out of play for what he presumed would be a goal kick when he could have easily collected it. Hard to blame on Ederson on this, but the circumstances are frustrating in their own right. Anyway, defending a corner is usually just a matter of executing and winning an aerial duel. The argument between zonal or man marking does play a part, but both should work if executed properly. On this play, Chelsea’s only corner of the match, it looked like Guardiola implemented a combination of the two.

Stones and Laporte had zonal positions while the remaining City players were picking up an individual man. It looks as if Ilkay Gundogan was responsible for checking David Luiz, who starting on the periphery of the cluster of players. He got Gundogan on his backside too easily and made a run down the far post, almost to the goal line, before circling around in behind John Stones. The ball was placed right into this space and Gundogan couldn’t recover while Stones didn’t realize he was there. Luiz flicked it into the side netting and you have another Chelsea goal that leaves City fans shaking their heads.

All in all, Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea deserves a tremendous amount of credit. They had more quality chances, more shots on goal, and more expected goals. The statistics don’t always tell the whole story of a football match but they are accurate here. The margin was very small but Chelsea deserved these 3 points in my opinion. As for Manchester City, this is just additional proof that the gap between them and the rest of the league is narrowing. I consider this to be more of a blip in the radar, but we knew City were not invincible and we knew this title defense would not be easy. This is the first time in I don’t even know how long that Pep Guardiola’s team hasn’t been on top of the table. It’s another weird feeling to have but the race is going to be so exciting to witness. So everyone buckle up, it looks like it’s going to be a battle all the way to the end.