Can Man City delay Liverpool's title party? Alex Keble talks tactics as Chelsea await at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea v Manchester City (2015, BT Sport)
Match Odds: Home 16/5 | Draw 29/10 | Away 5/6
Premier League football won’t be back to normal for quite some time. The general lethargy that permeated the (re)opening round of games last weekend is a mixture of accident and design, an inevitable side effect of a truncated pre-season and a deliberate tactical choice to limit injuries and feel out the opposition. It makes sense to be risk-averse both on and off the ball; there is more to lose from early humiliation than there is to gain from racing out of the blocks.
Unless you’re Manchester City, that is, whose carefree fluency since the restart reflects how small their stake is in the outcome of these matches. With nowhere to climb and no way of falling, Pep Guardiola’s side are looser than their rivals, adding to their already considerable advantages of having the deepest bench and being managed by a tactical genius who thrives in pre-season strategizing.
Chelsea will be alarmed by the fluency of their opponents, particularly in comparison to their own unconvincing display against a lacklustre Aston Villa on Sunday. The hosts sat woefully deep and failed to offer any kind of resistance, yet Chelsea moved sluggishly, unable to pull the defensive shell apart or pass with speed.
It was the exact opposite of how Man City started, and a similar tempo imbalance this Thursday will hand Guardiola a comfortable victory. Fitness issues throughout the Premier League have seen dribbling speed become a vital attacking resource, and energy – psychological as much as physical – is the most valuable commodity. Chelsea simply must up their game.
But more energy doesn’t mean engaging Man City in a territorial battle, and indeed Chelsea will most likely repeat the tactical model deployed in the 2-1 defeat at the Etihad earlier in the season. They sat off City, absorbed their opponents’ possession, and pierced through Guardiola’s soft central midfield on the counter-attack. Chelsea need to raise their tempo, but only in short, targeted bursts.
The battle plan worked for approximately half an hour in Manchester, at which point Kevin de Bruyne finished off City’s first real counter-attack of the game to equalise and the plan began to fall apart. But had Chelsea kept their early lead for a little longer, there was every chance Guardiola would have failed to find a solution as the visitors’ defensive blockade grew in confidence. They are the right tactics to exploit Man City’s weaknesses, and coincidently the only plausible option when fitness is the most pressing concern.
Assuming this pattern develops, Chelsea’s priority is ensuring N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, and Matteo Kovacic can remain compressed in central midfield to prevent Kevin de Bruyne from dominating this space. City’s rotation thus far suggests Ilkay Gundogan will start with Rodrigo in a 4-2-3-1, meaning the Belgian playmaker is Chelsea’s biggest threat in central areas.
That double axis at the base of the City midfield should limit Chelsea’s ability to counter-attack, particularly if Mason Mount is left on the bench. Consequently the likelihood is Lampard’s side will find themselves penned in for long periods by a confident City and unable to find the energy, or the space, to break through the middle - as Kante did so effectively in the early stages of the reverse fixture.
Then again, a more direct route to goal could prove effective for Chelsea. Guardiola made eight changes between the first two matches and should do something similar here, meaning a vulnerable Benjamin Mendy at left-back. Should Chelsea launch long balls into the right channel for Tammy Abraham and Willian – a tactic deployed venomously in their impressive 2-0 victory over Tottenham in February - then squaring up to Mendy could yield results.
At the other end, a refreshed Raheem Sterling will attack right-back Reece James in arguably the most eye-catching battle of the match, and while the young Chelsea defender has shown great promise he can be left wonting in his own third. Given that Riyad Mahrez has returned in excellent form and De Bruyne generally leans out to the right, Chelsea need to be careful of being pulled to that side of the pitch before the ball is switched to Sterling, allowing him to isolate James.
That is easier said than done, and with City’s bench considerably stronger than Chelsea’s it seems likely that Lampard’s side will eventually be ground into submission. There only real hope is the likes of Willian or Christian Pulisic finding an extra gear to emulate the impact players such as Adama Traore and Nathan Redmond have had since the league’s return; a turn of pace that leaves out-of-practice defenders in their trail.
The performance against Villa tells us that won’t happen, and even with Sergio Aguero out injured Man City have an extraordinary grace and fluidity in their tactical shape to overwhelm any opponent. That is perhaps more true than ever in the eerie quiet of empty stadiums, where – without fans’ emotional impact – the technically and tactically superior team can calmly, methodically dismantle the other.
Chelsea, in direct contrast, have relied on the buzzing optimism of youth throughout Lampard’s first season in charge. They are an emotional team playing at a time when cool heads triumph.
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