Fifteen months ago, a Manchester City-Chelsea clash thrilled like no other match in the Premier League that season. The host ended with nine men on the pitch at the Etihad Stadium as Antonio Conte’s men produced a counter-attacking display which stunned observers. Chelsea ran out a 3-1 winner, cementing its credentials as a title challenger; Pep Guardiola was left pondering all the repair work his City side required.
On Sunday, the mood was discernibly different. It was another grim afternoon in Manchester with rain lashing down. The atmosphere summed up Chelsea’s glum intent. Conte was willing to take blows as long as the scoreline did not show it. And still, there was to be no colour in Chelsea’s response. The performance was a reflection of the low esteem in which the Blues hold themselves now.
A moment sticks out in memory. With a quarter of an hour left and Chelsea trailing, David Silva won the ball in a tight space around the halfway line. But there was no pressure forthcoming. Just like they had been instructed, Chelsea’s five-man backline and four midfielders moved about 20 yards back to deny City space behind the line. However, Silva suddenly found himself free in front of the defence and he had all the time to pick a pass. The absence of Chelsea’s pressure was laid bare.
Perhaps, Conte was pleased with his players’ dedication to his plan but there were not many who shared his view. Chelsea’s display brought scathing remarks from pundits, who were ungratified by the rejection of adventure. Conte, though, was having none of it.
“You have to accept every criticism but I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0. If I remember well, Arsenal played twice against them and then you (media) criticise a lot (Arsène) Wenger because they concede three goals in only 30 minutes.”
But it is worth distinguishing Arsenal’s problems from Chelsea. Arsenal are not the side which won the league last season with a tactical shift which left others floundering. Arsenal are also not the side which flummoxed Barcelona only about a fortnight ago with a strategic setup which was not very different from what Conte put out on Sunday.
But against the Catalan side, Chelsea demonstrated intent to cause harm. There was barely a suggestion of threat against Manchester City. Conte had to make one change to the starting line-up from the Champions League encounter as N’Golo Kante missed out due to a virus. Daniel Drinkwater started in his place, offering a different skill set from the Frenchman. However, even if Kante had been around, it is difficult to imagine how he would have transformed Chelsea going forward.
A fear psychosis engulfed Conte’s men. In spite of having played their previous league game on Thursday, it was City which looked fresh and vibrant. Although the scoreline brought some respectability to the defending champions, it should be a trivial concern. City’s superiority did not require embellishments of the kind Chelsea seemed most happy to offer on Sunday. The respect shown by the visitors said more about Conte and his players than Guardiola’s side.
The goal in itself was an unremarkable moment. For the action which was witnessed before and after Bernardo Silva’s strike bore little difference. Like against Barcelona, Chelsea found out that Conte’s plan had to be performed perfectly for it to work. Andreas Christensen was the fall guy once again as it was his poor clearance which allowed City space to work the ball into the six-yard box. But Marcos Alonso was at fault too as Bernardo caught him unawares and the Portuguese wide man lunged forward to score.
Chelsea remained in a state of daze. In the first half, City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko accomplished 81 passes – one more than Christensen, Alonso, Drinkwater, Antonio Rudiger, Victor Moses, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard combined. Zinchenko continued to play as a quasi-midfielder in the second period as there was little fear of opponents running past him. Although Chelsea were unlikely to outdo the hosts in possession, arguably it was the lack of pace which hurt the visitors more. Hazard’s role only put this problem in broad daylight.
The Belgian can do a lot of wonderful things on the pitch but this season has shown that he is not comfortable in the false nine role. Hazard’s strength lies in driving forward, dribbling past opponents with consummate ease. It is counter-intuitive to ask your best player to recede from an advanced position in order to make space for his teammates. Even against Barcelona, he looked uncomfortable. Willian overshadowed his troubles that evening but there was to be no respite on Sunday until he was hooked in favour of Alvaro Morata in the dying minutes.
The arrival of substitutes Olivier Giroud and Emerson Palmieri did little to help Hazard. In fact, the decision to introduce them only revealed the fear of City which was very much alive in Conte’s mind. Emerson is a natural left-back but he found himself playing up front, presumably offering defensive security if City countered.
It was a procession by the end. Guardiola’s men comfortably outplayed Chelsea; with 902 passes, they set a Premier League record too (since the 2003-04 season, when the recording of such data became regular practice). City are only four wins away from the title now. The formalities should be completed soon.
Chelsea, though, are now five points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham. Champions League football may not arrive next season. The Blues, of course, have already conceded their Premier League trophy to City. One wishes they could have done that with a bit more fight and grace.