Let me start by saying that Bitter and Blue’s tactical coverage is going to slightly shift away from individual match breakdowns like this and focus on in-depth pieces of more general topics, similar to the article about Riyad Mahrez that recently published. That being said, there is still a place for game analyses in our coverage when, for example, Manchester City play another big club or Pep Guardiola introduces some new tactical wrinkle. In this circumstance, the former applies with this past Sunday’s match against Chelsea and I couldn’t help but want to look into this game further, because it was just too beautiful.
The narrative surrounding this match as soon as the final whistle blew concentrated on a Chelsea squad that appear to be in shambles right now. The 6-0 drubbing they took from Manchester City was clear evidence of that. The result was also helped along by some great individual moments from City (i.e. Sergio Aguero’s first goal) and some horrendous individual errors from Chelsea (looking at you Ross Barkley).
Both of those aspects, along with City’s insane quality, clearly had an overwhelming influence on the outcome, but the tactical strategy Pep Guardiola brought to the table should not be overlooked. It was his gameplan that put the players in a position to succeed and take advantage of Chelsea’s incompetence. Ultimately, this match was decided within the opening 25 minutes, and the tactical story can be fully explained within that time frame as well.
It is necessary to begin by looking at the starting eleven that Pep Guardiola put on the field, because there was one huge surprise inclusion. That would be Oleksandr Zinchenko, a player who was only made the team sheet in 11 Premier League matches this season, featuring in only 3 of them prior to Sunday. The Ukrainian, now playing out of position at left back, has been criticized by many, including myself, for his lack of defensive acumen. With that in mind, seeing his name within the starting eleven may have made more than a few hearts skip a beat.
His selection was, without a doubt, a massive defensive gamble, particularly against a club with the attacking talent that Chelsea possess. But the stakes seem less precarious when you consider Guardiola’s familiarity with Chelsea manager, Maurizio Sarri. The two seem to have a great respect for one another (ignored handshake aside) and Pep has discussed how much he enjoys the Italian’s style of play on numerous occasions.
You could assume then that Pep Guardiola is also innately familiar with Sarri’s weaknesses. The primary one being his tactical inflexibility.
One feature of the Italian’s strategy, now commonly referred to as “Sarri-ball”, is the concentration of the attack down the left. This is particularly true at Chelsea where the most dangerous players at each level (Hazard, Barkley, Alonso) operate naturally on that side of the pitch. Though Hazard has played centrally as a floating false nine much more this season, the recent addition of Gonzalo Higuain gives Sarri a more natural option down the middle and lets the Belgian move back to his standard position.
So by including Zinchenko, Guardiola was betting that Hazard would not only start on the left, but that he would stay over there and the attack would focus around him.
This would leave Zinchenko somewhat sheltered on the left wing with Ilkay Gundogan shaded his way for cover on one of Pedro or Willian. Furthermore, Sarri’s teams don’t often feature balls/switches over the top, the primary weakness Zinchenko has as a left back. With the defensive concerns on that side of the pitch somewhat eased, Pep could comfortably maximize the attacking capabilities at left back with the young Ukrainian, his best left-footed option going forward at that position.
He then shored up the right side of his defense by going with Bernardo Silva as the winger on that side of the pitch. Bernardo is City’s best defensive winger and his presence on the right allowed him to hound Hazard all match. In hindsight, it’s safe to say Guardiola’s expectations were spot on and the gamble was a clear success.
Manchester City’s ability to then breakdown the Chelsea defense came down to the ease with which they could bypass Sarri’s press. The London based squad regularly maintain a high press well into the opponent’s half and Sunday’s match was no different. The City coaching staff was able to identify the fatal flaw in Chelsea press, that being a fragile continuity between the midfield and backline.
There was a clear understanding from Guardiola that when the Chelsea front six step forward to press, the backline doesn’t always react to their movement accordingly. This often leads to a disjointed team with too much space between the midfield and defense. Pressing is a challenging thing to execute effectively, but most versions of it require the entire team to synchronize their pressure forward.
To take advantage of this, City tried to create vertical transitions from their backline to the area directly in front Chelsea’s defense, quickly bypassing two levels of the press in the process. The first goal of the match came off a free kick where Marcos Alonso had one of those horrendous individual errors mentioned earlier, but the foul that led to this is a clear example of City’s overall approach towards the press.
In the play above, Bernardo simply drops deep on the outskirts of Chelsea’s press where he can pick up possession directly from John Stones and play a first time pass to Kevin De Bruyne to turn. And just like that, the front three and midfield have been bypassed and De Bruyne can attack an exposed backline. The visual of Chelsea’s midfield scrambling to recover like this was very common throughout the match.
It was evident on City’s second goal as well, which was an incredible long distance strike from Sergio Aguero, but the ball progressed up the field in a similar quick, vertical buildup.
Aguero receives the ball from Fernandinho, once again cutting out the entire press and giving space to turn and run at the backline. The third and fourth goals share the same theme as well. Though each goal is unique, they all exhibit that fast vertical movement through multiple levels of the press. An initiative to stretch this press into City’s half was the foundation that made this approach work. The heat maps of center backs John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, shown below, highlight how their positioning contributed to this.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both player’s touches appear to hit a wall at the center line, especially when you consider that Manchester City’s center backs usually have a healthy quantity of touches in the opponent’s half. The defenders’ instructions seem clear: maintain a deep position in your own half to pull the press out and look for teammates flashing into space to bypass levels of the defense at pace.
The four goal lead City took after only 25 minutes is the perfect microcosm to describe this match in its entirety. The game was effectively over at this point and it seemed as if City took their foot off the gas a bit as a result. But the underlying numbers actually argue that Guardiola’s team were even better in the second half. According to UnderStat, City had 4.04 expected goals (xG) against Chelsea, but 2.58 xG (64%) of that came in the final 45 minutes. The fact that the chances actually increased after going up four goals is a true testament to this team’s ruthlessness.
It must be stated, however, that these tactics can never be analyzed in a vacuum. The tactical aspects of the match are highly influenced by the quality, fitness, and motivation of the players, and vice versa. That is to say, Sarri’s tactics can certainly work when executed the proper way but the players are responsible for doing their jobs within them in order to find success, something that obviously did not happen on Sunday. What you’ll notice from the clips above and any highlights you see, is that there is a distinct lack of urgency from the Chelsea players, even in stressful situations. Moreover, they are guilty of putting themselves in these stressful situations in the first place by robotically executing a press by marking space instead of marking a man or clogging a passing lane.
Manchester City faced a team on Sunday struggling in every aspect of the game. Sarri has publicly criticized his players for a lack of motivation yet deserves criticism of his own for being too rigid in his tactics. You can’t separate one from the other in diagnosing Chelsea’s problems as they are part of an interconnected blend. On the other hand, City are an example of a team where all the aspects of that blend integrate well together. Regardless of Chelsea’s problems, Pep Guardiola’s squad deserves a tremendous amount of credit. At the end of the day, for as bad as Chelsea were in this match, City were equally as good if not better.