Premier League Revisited: Chelsea 0 – 1 Manchester City 2017/18
In recent weeks, there have been a spate of stories about City in crisis and Liverpool ascendant from writers previously on the record with, shall we say, different views.
I want to focus on City here, because I think Liverpool’s rise is largely covered by the signing of Van Dijk, a leader and big game presence who is not only an upgrade in his own right but has improved those around him.
Admittedly, I have the advantage of not being on the record previously. I can only promise to be honest about my opinion of City earlier in the season.
I thought they were brilliant going forward, especially against teams who sit deep and force them to break down a tightly packed defence. This is something Mourinho’s United, and to an extent Klopp’s post- Coutinho Liverpool, struggle with. (As an aside here, I think Liverpool miss, and might continue to miss even next season, Coutinho in the small games, not the big ones.)
However, I did also think there were weaknesses to exploit, not just in the defence, but in the team as a whole playing the way they do. I think these weaknesses were highlighted against Liverpool, from their inability to react to adversity and intensity they rarely face, to individual mistakes at the back compounded by a system which requires a high-line and football played out from the back.
Less importantly, it also showed up the lack of a midfielder who combines pace and power (à la Dembele) in a way that can drag a game back from the brink, rather than dominate it from the off. Fernandinho is great, but I think his 32 years can show at times. If recent transfer speculation is anything to go by, Pep feels the same way.
Of course, it’s really easy to say all of this now. So I want to try to prove my point by looking at a game earlier in the season. That game finished Chelsea 0 – 1 Manchester City.
I think it was a game that demonstrates the way in which City have, at times been aided by a fortunate incident against the bigger sides this season and then, after winning, been crowned worldbeaters. This isn’t to say City aren’t a good side. It’s not even to say they didn’t deserve to win the game. I just want to point out the disparity between the closeness of the game before these incidents and the way the game was reported afterwards.
Chelsea 0 – 1 Man City
The stats from the end of this game (with the exception of the scoreline) do point towards a rampant City.
63% possession. 17 shots (5 on target) to Chelsea’s 4 (2 on target). But those stats were taken at the end of the game. On 35 minutes Chelsea lost Álvaro Morata to injury. In my opinion, although City shaded that period, they were by no means dominant and that event changed the game. For example, here are some (admittedly selected) quotes from the Guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage before the 35th minute:
3 min: Fast start this! Azpilicueta slips Kante free down the right. He reaches the box and chips towards the near post, where Morata flashes a header off target. He should have worked Ederson at least. A let-off for City.
9 min: Fabregas has options: Morata on his left, Azpilicueta wide right. He gets caught in two minds, and plays an uncharacteristically witless ball down the middle. City mop up easily. City have seen more of the ball in these opening exchanges, but Chelsea will gain succour from that little half-chance of a dangerous attack, even if it wasn’t taken.
14 min: This is lovely end-to-end, ping-pong entertainment. Ping! Hazard nearly sets Azpilicueta free down the Chelsea right. Ping! De Bruyne tries a cross from the City right. Pong! Alonso looks to have set Morata clear past a rashly sliding Walker down the Chelsea left, but the flag goes up for offside. The correct decision, but that was poor from Walker, whose intercept-or-bust slide nearly cost City dear.
And, added for balance:
22 min: Chelsea are struggling to get out of their final third right now. City are closing the hosts down at great speed, and snapping into the tackles as well. They’ve made 161 passes to Chelsea’s 57 so far.
26 min: Azpilicueta crosses from the right looking for Morata. It’s half cleared. Azpilicueta picks it up again, and shoots from the right-hand corner of the area. Ederson half-saves, half-spills, and that’s a corner. He makes up for that slightly nervous moment by plucking the set piece out of the air with great confidence. City stream up the other end, through Sterling down the right. His low cross somehow evades Silva at the far post. Phew.
28 min: Morata spins and sashays his way down the inside-left channel, earning his side a corner. The set piece comes to nothing, but Chelsea are beginning to work their way back into this match after a slightly impotent spell.
Morata went off in the 35th minute with an injury. After that, City dominated the game. Even then, they only won thanks to a Kevin de Bruyne strike from 25 yards.
The Daily Star: Manchester City are a better team than Chelsea. It was one-way traffic at Stamford Bridge. Pep Guardiola’s side were slick and should have scored more but for Chelsea’s stubborn defence.
The Express: the dominant fashion in which City outplayed reigning champions Chelsea was their grandest statement of intent so far this season.
The Evening Standard: Pep Guardiola's men suffocated Chelsea with their intensity.
Where the loss of Morata is mentioned, it’s largely dismissed or used as a criticism of Chelsea:
The Daily Star: Alvaro Morata’s injury is a blow. Chelsea lacked a focal point in attack once the Spanish striker went off injured. Morata has been a class addition and the Blues will hope he is fit after the international break.
My point is not that at any point Chelsea were clearly the better side. It’s just that they weren’t absolutely the inferior side, and were creating chances. Once they lost Morata, they didn’t have an outlet ball, and City were just as dominant as all the reports told it afterwards.
This is not really a criticism of City or of Pep. It’s a criticism of the failure to put asterisks next to some big City wins and more broadly of the tendency in modern football to see results as everything. I don’t put this down to a media conspiracy to praise Pep and his side at all costs either, it happens with other teams, players and matches too.
Ultimately, it’s ironic that often those commenting on Pep and his side lack the trait they most praise him for; his refusal to ever accept a result as good enough. Pep knows football is played on a pitch, not a results page. That’s why he wanted first Sanchez and then Mahrez in January when City were still favourites for all four competitions they had entered. It’s why he wants significant reinforcements for next season now. Football isn’t black and white. We wouldn’t watch it if it was.