There is no shame losing to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium; 13 of the 14 teams to have faced Pep Guardiola’s side before Chelsea’s visit had been beaten. But few have left so comprehensively humbled as the Blues despite the 1-0 scoreline.
From minute one to minute 90, the home side were in control. There was never a period in the game, or a fleeting moment, in which it looked like Antonio Conte’s men could stun the Premier League leaders.
And once Bernardo Silva struck just after the interval, Chelsea accepted their fate. It was game over, despite there being 44 minutes remaining on the clock. For the travelling supporters, and those Blues fans watching at home, it wasn’t acceptable.
For Manchester City it was the ideal way to round off a important week for Guardiola.
His side clinched the Carabao Cup last Sunday, brushed aside Arsenal for the second time in five days on Thursday, and then eased past the Blues. The Premier League may as well send the trophy to the engravers now; the Citizens will be champions and only need four more wins to guarantee it.
Chelsea will return to London on the back of a fourth consecutive away defeat, it’s their worst run of form on the road in the top flight in 15 years. Conte will take his share of the blame for that, but his players must too.
The Italian isn’t responsible for players’ actions on the pitch. Poor passes are beyond his control, as are incorrect decisions. But having just three touches in the opposition box suggests the tactics employed were wrong at the Etihad.
The defeat leaves Chelsea in a difficult position, and it’s with the Blues that we start the five things we learned from the game.
Chelsea Face Uphill Top Four Battle
With Tottenham Hotspur defeating Huddersfield Town at Wembley yesterday, the pressure was on Chelsea. The Blues knew defeat would leave them facing an uphill battle to finish in the Champions League places.
Perhaps that explains Conte’s negative approach – a draw at the Etihad wouldn’t have been a bad result with four home games in the next five.
But after City went in front, the lack of reaction from Conte was disappointing. The Italian didn’t make a change until the 77th minute, seemingly content with letting City dominate in hope of catching the hosts out on the counter. That outcome didn’t occur.
The loss at the Etihad leaves Chelsea five points behind an in-form Tottenham side with nine games to play. They may have favourable fixtures but the Blues will find it difficult to make up the points; they simply can’t afford to lose another game.
City Didn’t Have To Get Out Of Second Gear
Given they played Thursday night against Arsenal, it wasn’t surprising that City were not at their best in the opening 45 minutes. Guardiola’s men dominated possession – City had 76.4 percent off the ball in the first half – but failed to open up Chelsea’s defence.
But for a few seconds after the restart, City shifted up quickly through the gears, took advantage of a mistake from Andreas Christensen, and went ahead through Silva’s scruffy finish.
While the home side didn’t exactly cruise to the finish – their pressing remained relentless – they did ease off for the remainder of the second period. There wasn’t the usual verve to their passing, although there didn’t have to be with Chelsea sitting back and offering little.
But come full time the statistics told the story of City’s dominance. They ended with 71.1 percent possession, completed an astonishing 902 passes – a record since Opta started collecting Premier League data – and also had 13 shots to the Blues three.
It was the most one-sided 1-0 win there will ever be in the Premier League.
Conte Defensive Set-Up Was Right…
When the Chelsea side was announced at 3pm the instant reaction was to question the absence of N’Golo Kanté. The Blues soon confirmed the France international had an illness and was ruled out.
It was a huge blow for the visitors. The diminutive Frenchman is vital to how the Blues play; he often takes on the defensive burden of two players which allows Cesc Fábregas, in particular, to focus on starting and building attacks.
Without Kanté in the side Chelsea had a problem, and it perhaps explains the Blues set-up. From the first minute the visitors sat deep and had little interest in committing players forward – it was down to Willian, Pedro and Hazard to make something happen.
Danny Drinkwater and Fábregas were stationed in front of what was a Blues back five, they were there to restrict space rather than affect the City player in possession.
It’s why at half time the former hadn’t registered a tackle and the latter had managed just one. Combined the duo also racked up just two interceptions, but they had helped, alongside the narrow Willian and Pedro, Chelsea frustrate the home side.
It was much the same story in the second period and barring the opening minute in which the Blues conceded, City didn’t truly test Courtois, although as mentioned above they didn’t push particularly hard.
Conte will point to the lack of opportunities City manufactured and he may have a point, but the lack of ambition and desire from the Blues was damning. They never looked at any point like they wanted to win the game.
…But Hazard Had Little Impact As A False Nine
Using Hazard as the leader of Chelsea’s attack is an experiment that has had mixed results this season. Prior to the game at the Etihad, the Belgian had been used as a false nine in ten matches during the 2017/18 campaign; the Blues had won just three of those, drawn four and lost on three occasions.
Given Conte’s side were going to have to use the ball smartly to beat City’s high-press, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Chelsea line-up without either Álvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud in their starting XI.
It meant the Blues had no out ball, no focal point to hit to relieve pressure. They had to play their way out of danger very deliberately and, as has been proven on several occasions this term, that is not Conte’s side’s forte.
The limitations of of Hazard leading the line was apparent in the opening ten minutes, in which the Blues No.10 touched the ball just twice.
Chelsea attempted to play out from goal kicks, with the back three splitting across the edge of the penalty area. But City shutdown the avenues and Thibaut Courtois hooked the ball forward…straight to a Man City centre-back who started an attack.
After 25 minutes no Blues player had attempted more passes than Courtois’ 13. It was telling. Chelsea used the ball poorly, Hazard was starved of service, and the Belgian became visibly frustrated
At the break he had touched the ball the fewest times of any Chelsea player (12), yet Conte didn’t change the system after the interval, or immediately after the Blues fell behind.
There were flashes as to how Hazard could harm City on the counter, and Chelsea did have their moments when they pushed forward, but far too often the final pass was poor, with Pedro or Victor Moses the main culprits.
Giroud was introduced with 13 minutes to play and Hazard dropped into his favoured role off the striker. It made little difference. The game was gone and so was Hazard’s focus, he was replaced with three minutes to play by Álvaro Morata.
City’s Silva Service Proof They Never Needed Mahrez
On the final day of the January transfer window Manchester City launched a bid to sign Leicester City star Riyad Mahrez. The thought process was that with Sané injured City were one game-changer down and they wanted to correct that.
But the Foxes stood firm and the Algerian remained at the King Power. And that has turned out to be fortunate for City as in the last month, Bernardo Silva has grown into the side and affected games.
The Portuguese always had the talent, he proved that at Monaco, but there were question marks as to whether he truly fit into Guardiola’s system. He has proved those doubters wrong in style.
In his last four starts Silva has three goals, and they have all been important. There was the second against Basle in the Champions League, the opener against Arsenal on Thursday and now the winner against the Blues.
His tally for the campaign now stands at seven goals and ten assists in all competitions and is contributing to a City goal every 131 minutes.