Six games played. Five wins and one draw, still unbeaten. Twenty-one goals scored but only two conceded, one each in two separate games. Four clean sheets overall. Sixteen goals scored in their last three games against Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace, zero conceded. Manchester City were the undisputed goal kings of the EPL.
More importantly from their perspective, they were no longer conceding silly, morale-sapping goals and unnecessarily dropping points, like they were last season. And like Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola was enjoying the benefits of duplicating Chelsea’s stabilizing defensive tactic under Antonio Conte, defending and initiating play through three center backs, one of whom was a converted full back.
Chelsea hosted Pep and City at Stamford Bridge on Match Day 7 of the premier league season. As at start of play, City were top of the table on sixteen points. Chelsea had four wins and a draw from their first six fixtures, and were three points behind them on thirteen points. Chelsea had experienced a slightly more difficult schedule than their visitors midweek – they’d traveled to Spain to face Atletico Madrid Wednesday. City played Shakhtar Donetsk at home the day before, so they had no travel and an extra rest day on Chelsea.
They’d experienced some bad luck with injuries though. Sergio Aguero was reportedly injured in a car accident in the Netherlands Thursday night, and full back Benjamin Mendy was also out with a knee injury. Apart from Danny Drinkwater Chelsea had no injuries coming into this game, but David Luiz was unavailable through suspension.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 7, Alonso 6, Azpilicueta 6, Christensen 6, Cahill 6, Rudiger 7, Fabregas 5, Kante 6.5, Bakayoko 5.5 (Batshuayi 5.5), Hazard 6 (Pedro 5.5), Morata 6 (Willian 5.5)
Subs Caballero, Zappacosta, Kenedy, Moses, Willian, Pedro, Batshuayi
Ederson 8, Walker 7, Otamendi 7.5, Stones 7, Delph 7, Fernandinho 7.5, Silva 6 (Bernardo Silva 5.5), De Bruyne 8 (Danilo NR), Sterling 7.5, Sane 6 (Gundogan 6), Jesus 7.5
Subs Bravo, Mangala, Danilo, Toure, Zinchenko, Gundogan, Bernardo Silva
City started the game with a lot of verve and intent. At first Chelsea matched them, but they were not able to convert a couple of good early chances. Just a minute and a half in, Cesc Fabregas found Morata unmarked in the box with a quickly taken free kick. However while dribbling past Nico Otamendi’s tackle, Morata showed too much of the ball to John Stones, and he cleared the danger. Azpilicueta sent Kante down the right wing with a through pass a minute later, and Kante crossed, but even as the stadium roared expecting an early goal, Morata could not put his header on target.
Silva hit a shot wide on 11 minutes, and seconds later, Thibaut Courtois was a little bit too casual in possession on a goal kick, and Gabriel Jesus charged him down. Luckily for Courtois, the ball only ricocheted off the striker for a goal kick. From that point though, he started playing long goal kicks almost exclusively.
The problem with that change was that Chelsea were denied the use of their back-three engine, on a day in which City appeared to be playing with more speed and confidence than they’d shown since Pep Guardiola had taken over. Chelsea were also missing the attacking threat of Victor Moses on the right wing, which gave City further license to apply pressure without worrying about the consequences. Perhaps fearing City’s threat on the counter, Chelsea did not pressure City’s back three sufficiently in return, and this allowed them to comfortably build attack after attack.
Halfway through the first period, City had a really good opportunity off a quick throw out from Ederson. Sterling took the ball all the way down the right wing and flashed a cross across the goal, but neither Jesus nor Silva were fast enough to get to it. A few minutes later David Silva tested Courtois with a low shot, but the keeper made a great save to deny him.
On 33 minutes the moment many Chelsea fans had been worrying about arrived. The club had been playing a lot of football in the past few weeks, and there were concerns that some of their key players might get an injury. Morata raised his hand to stop play and asked to be substituted off – he appeared to be suffering some sort of groin injury. De Bruyne put the ball out, and Morata walked gingerly off the pitch.
Surprisingly though, Conte subbed on Willian in his place. Maybe he wanted better movement, a more pacy threat from the front two to force City back a little bit. The downside to the choice though, was that without a like-for-like replacement for Morata, Chelsea did not have the right player up front for some of the attacking methods they’d been using since the start of the season. They lacked a striker to engage the defence, a target man to play off of, a primary option for finishing crosses in the air. The substitution also played to City’s relative lack of height, and their preference for playing the ball on the ground.
Just before halftime, Marcos Alonso fouled Sterling on the left, and got a warning, but fortunately no booking. Cesar Azpilicueta reacted quickly to block out the free kick… and City got their best chance of the first half from the resulting corner. De Bruyne whipped in a wicked corner at pace, and Fernandinho dived in past Alonso for a bullet header. Courtois somehow made an amazing, highlight reel save keep it goalless, and eventually they went in 0 – 0 at halftime. Manchester City were probably more satisfied with their performance though. They had dominated the first half, and once Morata went off were barely troubled by Chelsea at all in defence.
Something Had To Give
City continued to threaten early in the second half, and Chelsea had to withstand wave after wave of pressure. They dealt with a series of corners but didn’t create much of a threat on the counter, wasting possession through bad passes or poor decision-making. City also kept catching Chelsea’s attackers offside. Chelsea seemed to be unused to their current shape and setup up front. It was obvious that something would either give, or Conte would have to change the attacking personnel to change the flow of the game.
Chelsea at least managed to make one good attack in this period. Fernandinho fouled Hazard on the edge of the area, and Fabregas slipped a pass through to Hazard with the free kick. He took it forward, and tried a shot from the angle, but Ederson knocked back it out again.
Chelsea had barely managed to keep out two stinging shots from City, and Conte was preparing to sub Batshuayi on. Just before it happened though, Otamendi found himself free to make a long diagonal ground pass from his half to de Bruyne in City’s attacking midfield area. De Bruyne knocked it first time to Jesus, who played it back to him just outside the box.
Kevin de Bruyne has had a brilliant long range shot since he was a Chelsea player, and he used that skill against his former club today. He got away from Fabregas, advanced unmarked into the D and rocketed a shot right of Courtois for the first goal of the game. It had been a long time coming for Manchester City, but it was fully deserved the way they’d played all game.
Going For It
Chelsea had to go for it now, and they started to play higher up the pitch, but still without creating clear opportunities. On 72 minutes Conte made the sub the game had been begging for since Morata’s injury. Batshuayi came on for Bakayoko, and Pedro also replaced Hazard, who probably had to be rested out of caution. Azpilicueta tried a cross to Batshuayi soon afterwards, but Otamendi cut it out for a corner. Fabregas crossed from the corner, but neither Batshuayi nor Rudiger could get to it.
Chelsea were improved by Batshuayi’s introduction – they were finally putting coherent attacks together now. When there’s an insufficient threat from any team, the opposition can attack (and of course defend) better. But now with Batshuayi on as an attacking focus, and also Pedro’s fresh legs, City were pegged back in their own half for a while protecting the lead.
Alonso found space on the left to put another cross in along the ground, but Pedro for some unfathomable reason back-heeled it to no-one in particular. Cahill was fouled by Jesus just outside the center circle, and Fabregas took a long free kick up the pitch to Pedro, but he could not control the ball and it bounced to Ederson.
On another attempt Cahill received the ball high up the pitch on the left, and he made a great diagonal cross to Azpilicueta just right of the six-yard box, but Azpilicueta’s cross was too close to Ederson and he held it. The City keeper threw it out early, and it started off another period of possession and pressure from the visitors. Chelsea held firm, although they were almost caught out by another City counterattack at one point:
Ederson played a long ball up the pitch and Cahill headed it back, but it fell to Ilkay Gundogan, who’d come on in place of Leroy Sane. He put Sterling through on the right wing, and the winger lobbed a cross over the defence to Jesus, who was totally unmarked on the left side of the box. Jesus took the cross on the half volley, and it curled across Courtois and would have been City’s second, but Rudiger had gotten himself in position behind him, and headed it out for a corner. Rudiger and his teammates were working very hard but despite their efforts, it was looking more and more like a City win.
Otamendi got booked for a dangerous scissor tackle on Willian wide right. Fabregas crossed the free kick into the box, and Christensen got to it but could not keep his header down. Azpilicueta attempted one final cross in injury time, but it was hit too hard this time, and it evaded all of Chelsea’s players in the box.
OK. Chelsea benefited from a lack of European football last season. They weren’t the only big EPL club without European football, and they performed superlatively irrespective, but it definitely helped. Based on this loss, the leggy performance and the Morata injury, Conte’s side were experiencing the debilitating effects of heavy fixture congestion.
The initial choice of replacement striker probably also played a role; City’s defence were almost untroubled for about forty minutes of the match. It left them to build comfortably out from the back, play their own game without disruption. But these are the bridges you must cross if you want to win big trophies. City deserved their win, and Sterling, Jesus and de Bruyne were excellent today.
Final Score Chelsea 0 – 1 Manchester City
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Metro
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