If last week’s match against Swansea was a matchup of the top two teams in the table at that point in the season, Sunday’s match between Manchester City and Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium is the actual matchup of the top two teams in the Premier League, potentially.
Most observers won’t argue that City and Chelsea are the two teams with the fewest question marks in their squad, but their starts to the season have been markedly different. City come into this match having not won in their last two league fixtures, a loss to Stoke City at home and a draw to Arsenal away, and are coming off a last-minute defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Chelsea, meanwhile, have started the season unbeaten in the Premier League and are coming off the back of a disappointing draw against FC Schalke 04 in the Champions League.
Regardless, both teams will know how important a result in this match, particularly for Manchester City. City currently sit 5 points behind Chelsea, and while it’s still early in the season, a defeat at home to Chelsea would leave them trailing by 8 points. Regardless of the time of the year, that’s an ominous gap to have to make up.
On the other side, Chelsea will want to show that the draw to Schalke at home was just a minor blip, a wake-up call as it were. There would be no better way to do so than to go away to your main title rivals and hand them a defeat that puts them further in the rear-view mirror. And let’s not forget that Chelsea were the only side to beat City at the Etihad last season and beat them in both Premier League encounters.
The stage is set. Now let’s see how it may play out.
Call it a World Cup hangover or lack of match fitness, but City are not the same team so far this year.
Last season in their march to the Premier League title, City were by far the most complete team in the league. While Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal all had issues at either end of the pitch, the only two concerns for City were that Joe Hart’s form had been inconsistent and there was little cover at center back behind Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis.
This season, those two areas were addressed, with Willy Caballero coming in from Malaga to provide a better backup goalkeeper than Costel Pantilimon and a bit of competition for Joe Hart and the addition of Eliaquim Mangala at center back. If that wasn’t enough, City also shored up their center midfield by adding Fernando from FC Porto, a player that’s more defensive-minded than Fernandinho or Yaya Toure. However, despite the additions of these players and the fact that they only lost Gareth Barry and Alvaro Negredo in the transfer window, it’s a real mystery as to why they’ve struggled this season.
When City were on form, they were an irresistible attacking force, moving the ball at pace, opening up spaces, and attacking them with clever passing. That hasn’t happened so far this season, and it’s a mystery as to why. One thought though, over the past couple of seasons, complacency has been the main enemy of City, and it’s cost them some points against lesser sides. Could that be what ails them?
Which Yaya Toure appears on Sunday?
Yaya Toure’s been an interesting study over the past three months. From wanting to leave City to complaining about a birthday cake, he’s managed to stay in the headlines in a World Cup year for reasons other than he was the main threat for the Ivory Coast. What’s more interesting to study is his performances on the pitch this season.
I remember writing last season for the City match that Toure doesn’t always give you 100% in terms of urgency and effort as a midfielder, and once again, that seems to be the case. Forget about heat maps and stats like distance covered, sometimes the best way to gauge a player is simply to trust what your eyes see. When you watch Toure, he does get himself around the pitch to cover the ground, but he does it at the same trot for the full 90 minutes. He very rarely sprints to cover ground, but rather just sort of glides around the pitch.
That gets problematic for City because it does effect how they can play. Against Bayern, Fernandinho did a lot of covering for Toure because he was either out of position or didn’t get back in his position until much later. It’s become a problem because City are at their best in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 with Toure playing deep, but his play leaves them exposed in the middle.
After the Community Shield against Arsenal where there were images of him 30 yards from attackers for the first goal, it was chalked up to match fitness and a glorified friendly. Perhaps, there’s something else going wrong.
What formation does Manuel Pellegrini play?
The previous point is a great segue into this question because it really does matter for City what shape they decide to go with. If they play 4-4-2, as Arsenal have shown and we did last season at the Etihad, they can get overrun by numbers in midfield and are susceptible down their left-hand side if David Silva plays there because he comes inside. If they play 4-2-3-1, it means that Pellegrini has to make a decision on whether to play Sergio Aguero or Edin Dzeko as the lone striker, which means you sacrifice an effective goal scorer for either James Milner or Jesus Navas who don’t really give you goals.
Most likely, especially with Stevan Jovetic still out, City will go for a 4-2-3-1 with David Silva behind the striker. It’s probably their best formation because of the guile that Silva provides, but it also gives them some issues. Aguero is clearly their best striker, but he also limits your methods of attack, especially against Chelsea. As good as he is, he’s not a real threat in the air, meaning you can’t play any aerial crosses towards him and he isn’t an out ball, so you have to play out of danger. But he does allow you to play a more intricate passing style in the final third, so if Chelsea play a defensive system, it’s easier to break them down.
With Dzeko, he gives you that aerial presence, especially because outside of the center backs and Toure, there isn’t a lot of height in the City side, and he gives you a great reference point for your attack. Dzeko is perfectly capable of scoring goals, but his best asset is his ability to bring people into play and opening up space for runners in behind. However, with David Silva behind him, Dzeko’s often asked to play higher up the pitch, and I think that limits him a bit because he is a very good all-around striker.
The attributes of Dzeko and Aguero are why 4-4-2 is probably their best formation, but can also be their biggest curse.
City’s center backs aren’t quite the tandem that they’re made out to be.
It’s something we’ve known for a while, but the Bayern match on Wednesday proved it. While Kompany is a good defender, he doesn’t deal well when he has to turn and run toward his own goal. Most defenders aren’t good at that, but given Kompany’s reputation, it’s interesting that no one brings up that flaw in his game.
Against Bayern, Thomas Mueller gave him all sorts of issues with his runs from deep and in behind, and last season Chelsea didn’t have that type of player. This season, Diego Costa is the main man, and that is one of the things that Costa will bring to the match.
For all the stick that Demichelis got last season, he’s actually been their most consistent defender. He reads the game very well, and that has allowed City’s backline to cut out a lot of danger around their box, particularly with the excellent Pablo Zabaleta helping out from right back.
However, Demichelis also lacks a bit of pace, but that is offset by the fact that he’s often the deeper of the two center backs. However, his pace concern is a real question, particularly given the number of quick players, either of feet or of mind, which will be playing against him this week.
So how do Chelsea attack them?
First off, this Chelsea team can’t play the way they did at the Etihad last season where David Luiz and Nemanja Matic sat in front of the back four and soaked up everything through the middle. This Chelsea side isn’t built like that. The only way Chelsea can play something similar is if John Obi Mikel comes into the side alongside Matic, and I doubt that would happen.
The one takeaway that both sides have is that neither Cesc Fabregas nor Yaya Toure are suited to playing deeper in a 4-2-3-1. Fabregas, at the moment, lacks the tactical discipline to sit and hold, preferring to close down the ball, and Toure would prefer playing further forward because he’s either unwilling or unable to track back.
However, Chelsea have a better solution to their problem. Whereas City’s solution is to stick Silva in a wide area and play James Milner in the midfield, Jose Mourinho will simply revert to a 4-3-3 and play Ramires alongside Fabregas with Matic as the holding midfielder. With City unlikely to play Silva wide in this match, the 4-3-3 defends against a lot of what City like to do.
When David Silva plays that number 10 role, most of the attacking play goes through him, and he’s the playmaker further forward. The problem is that they lack a midfielder to exert that level of control of a match from a deeper area, meaning that if you press them high up the pitch with a midfielder sitting deep, you can force them into mistakes, which is what Bayern did so effectively.
I think that’s what Chelsea have to look at. Despite being away from home, I don’t think this team is designed to absorb pressure and counter swiftly like last season, rather they are built similarly to that Bayern side, and I think it gives them a good idea of what to do.
If Chelsea are to win this match, they must take advantage of the fact that City’s main weakness the deeper part of the middle third. If you let them get into the attack quickly, they are very dangerous. They will try to get it quickly through your midfield so they can avoid having to build the play slowly from the back. If you cut out their ability to do so and make them play from the back, it gives you more opportunity to press them and force them into mistakes.