This was a top of the table clash between two of the game’s strongest tacticians. Despite a slow start, what unfolded after the break went beyond pre-match expectations.
Pep Guardiola was alleged to have matched Antonio Conte’s increasingly popular 3-4-2-1. However, this was actually the third time in the league that the Spaniard has used this formation at home, although the previous occasions only yielded two 1-1 draws against Everton and Southampton respectively.
Man City therefore had Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas in wide midfield positions as oppose to wing-backs which is more relevant to the positioning of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso for Chelsea.
Conte was forced to make one change to his side as they looked to extend their winning run to eight, with Cesc Fabregas replacing the injured Nemanja Matic.
Prior to kick-off, it was City’s wide players and Fabregas that could make the difference (positive or negative) aside from the obvious candidates of Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
The more offensive minded Sane and Navas were given the task to pinback their direct opponents, Moses and Alonso. This limited Chelsea’s width and allowed the outer centre-backs to provide City with wide support from deep when in possession.
For much of the game this worked and forced Chelsea to adapt by going forwards quicker than usual, utilising the passing range of both Fabregas and David Luiz.
Particularly during the second half, the home side regularly got in behind the wing-backs, especially down Alonso’s side as de Bruyne favoured penetrative runs into the channel down the right. This led to a number of crosses from Man City, but they often failed to find their target, who was normally an outnumbered Aguero.
City’s 37 crosses to Chelsea’s nine suggested that doubling up down the wing’s and taking initiative in the wide areas was part of the plan. And it was therefore unsurprising that City’s only goal came via a cross. Gary Cahill’s poor attempt at a clearance deflected Navas’ ball into his own net just before half-time.
Battle of the forwards
The league’s two top scorers lined-up in lone striker roles, but while one missed several chances, the other converted his.
Aguero was twice thwarted by goal-saving blocks, first by Cesar Azpilicueta following a neat lay-off by Sane in the first-half and then Cahill redeemed himself in the second period. The Argentinian forward – who also forced Thibaut Courtois into a few saves – was clearly frustrated by his failure to score from any of his six attempts, and went on to receive a straight red for an ugly lunge on Luiz in injury-time with the game all but lost.
At the other end, Diego Costa – a forward more commonly associated with disciplinary issues – proved that on his day, he’s as good a target man as any. The former Atletico Madrid player really came into his own after equalising superbly from Fabregas’ inch perfect ball over the top.
Costa was able to retain the ball as his teammates caught up to support. At times, he appeared to be bullying those around him and gave John Stones a difficult afternoon. His one goal from two attempts is a great return for any striker and his ruthlessness provided the trigger to Chelsea’s comeback – their second in a week following the home win against Tottenham.
Battle of the playmakers
De Bruyne and Hazard are amongst the world’s best in their position and proved why during different periods of the game.
Both Belgians did however squander great chances at key moments. First was Hazard, who failed to open the scoring after rounding a stranded Claudio Bravo. The rejuvenated attacker opted to square a ball across the box, which was easily cleared, instead of shooting at goal from the angle.
De Bruyne defied physics when he failed to keep down his effort from a few of yards following a drilled cross by Navas with the score at 1-0. Minutes later, Costa equalised.
That miss aside and the subsequent loss of concentration, which led to basic errors, de Bruyne performed very well. His consistent crossing regularly threatened to result in a goal while he often displayed great composure and awareness through some measured passing in tight spaces.
But it was Hazard, who’s involvement was sporadic due to City’s dominance of the ball, that had the final say and sealed a vital victory for his side. Capitalising on Guardiola’s side piling men forwards in search of a late equaliser, Hazard ran into the left-channel and was well found by Alonso’s long ball. He then breezed past Kolarov’s desperate attempt at tracking back before beating Bravo with a convincing finish.
Luiz escaped a red card in the first half when he barged Aguero over following Azpilicueta’s under hit back pass. The Brazilian defender didn’t play the ball and Aguero would have been through on goal had he not been impeded. Referee, Anthony Taylor, allowed play to go on despite clear protests from Aguero’s disgruntled teammates and fans.
Conte took just five minutes into the second half before deciding to introduce Willian for Pedro. Twenty-minutes later, the Brazilian broke clear as Chelsea turned a dangerous City attack into their second goal via a couple of passes and some impatient defending by Nicolas Otamendi.
Just a minute before Chelsea took the lead, Gael Clichy replaced Sane on the left, the same channel that Willian exploited to devastating effect.
Another of Guardiola’s subs, Kelechi Iheanacho, failed to have the desired impact as the Nigerian forward regularly conceded possession or failed to trouble Courtois in goal. One of the times he lost the ball led to Chelsea’s third and final goal.
If Chelsea were clinical, Man City were wasteful. The Citizens failed to score from any of their three big chances with Aguero and de Bruyne the biggest culprits while Chelsea converted both of theirs.
Guardiola wasn’t being blindly biased in the post-match interviews when he said how proud he was of his team’s performance. On another day, two of their star players would score a couple of their big chances and even Conte admitted his side were lucky on occasions prior to Costa’s equaliser in the 55th minute.
But from that moment on, Chelsea were far more dangerous in attack as they emphatically punished their opponents when the opportunities arose.
Now eight wins on the bounce having recently defeated both Tottenham and Man City, Chelsea will rightly be regarded as favourites based on their current form and the lack of European football.
Man City meanwhile, need to address their defensive issues having just kept two clean sheets in the league all season. They’ll also need to return to winning ways without Aguero (four games) and Fernandinho (three games) after both players received bans for their roles in the ugly scenes that tainted an entertaining game of football.
EPL Results (Gameweek 14):
Man City 1-3 Chelsea
Crystal Palace 3-0 Southampton
Stoke City 2-0 Burnley
Sunderland 2-1 Leicester
Tottenham 5-0 Swansea
West Brom 3-1 Watford
West Ham 1-5 Arsenal
Bournemouth 4-3 Liverpool
Everton 1-1 Man Utd
Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull