It’s hard to believe in just the ninth match of the season that a matchup between Manchester City and Chelsea could have implications on where the title may end up at the end. However, that very well could be the case on Sunday when City travel down to London to face the Blues at Stamford Bridge.
Part of the intrigue of the match comes in two parts. The first part is that City’s form away from home has been woeful, to say the least. Having suffered two away defeats against Cardiff City and Aston Villa, City do have three away victories. However, two of them were away to outmatched sides in Victoria Plzen and a West Ham side riddled with injuries, and one was against CSKA Moscow. On scores alone, they look like good results, however the performances didn’t match the score. West Ham gave them some trouble in the first half and despite losing the match, CSKA exposed their defensive frailty and could have gotten a result late if not for a Joe Hart save.
Coming to Stamford Bridge will not be easy, as Jose Mourinho still carries his Premier League home unbeaten mark as manager and seemingly is restoring the fortress walls to the Bridge. Not only that, but City will face a Chelsea side that have seemed to start to figure out how to play with one another and with a cutting edge, as evidenced by the performances against Cardiff and Schalke. Even the way in which the side snatched victory away to Norwich showed that some of the old swagger is returning, and even the strikers are now scoring goals.
More pertinent to this debate is the injury reports. While Chelsea have Ashley Cole fit again and returning to his left back spot, the City captain, Vincent Kompany, will miss the match with his thigh injury. That’s a huge blow for City because his deputies, Joleon Lescott and Javi Garcia have not faired particularly well, and against better sides, have proven to struggle.
Regardless, this is an interesting match, particularly since a defeat for City would be their third of the season and would be a real blow in terms of credentials for the title, even if Arsenal can’t maintain their form.
Pellegrini is a much more ambitious coach going forward, but it causes some problems in defence.
The one criticism that was always hurled at Roberto Mancini was that he was too defensive and conservative and with all the talented players, failed to take the handbrake off and let them play more stylistically. Well, he’s gone, and in comes Manuel Pellegrini who has decided to try to mix a bit of both into the side.
Last season, you could debate whether City played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, but in big matches, Mancini tended to play a more conservative 4-2-3-1 with one of his attacking midfielders behind a striker and James Milner on the right to provide energy and player to break up play further forward. This season, Milner’s reduced to a defensive substitute off the bench, and Pellegrini has preferred to play Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo up front (mostly because on form, you can’t drop either) which gives the side more of a 4-4-2 look. And therein lies a flaw in City’s thinking.
Whether home or away, Pellegrini’s preference of playing two creative midfielders in the wide areas and two strikers means that they have to attack. There is really no means of sitting deep and defending, particularly when your wider players are Samir Nasri and Silva. That leaves Yaya Toure and Fernandinho as the deeper midfielders, and one is required to come forward into space. It gives you lots of options in attack, but it leaves you a man short in the midfield to defend without the personnel to sit deeper without having to make substitutions and change the shape.
The shape of City is part of the problem, but so are the transitional phases of the game.
This is another problem City have besides how they set their team up with balance. Because of the number of flair players and two strikers, the only players that are really ball-winners are the defenders and the two deeper midfielders in Toure and Fernandinho.
One of the major problems that City had, particularly against both West Ham and Cardiff, was the inability of those two to track runners when transitioning from attack to defence. By nature, both players are more box-to-box type midfielders who can do a lot of running. The problem is that both of them are more of the type that run hard to get into space to attack, but aren’t particularly quick to recover when possession is lost. Cardiff and West Ham both found joy when bypassing the midfield quickly, with the latter not having the success of the former, and Bayern Munich literally won the ball high and drug their midfielders and defenders around like rag dolls by bypassing the first attempted challenge from the midfield.
And that’s the bigger issue. Toure is good winning the first ball in transition, but if he’s beat, he’s slow to react and cover back to get the shape again (think David Luiz on occasion last season). Fernandinho, while better than Toure at winning the ball deeper and recovering, has a tendency to dally on the ball too long or when pressured, rush his pass and concede possession right back. That’s part of why I feel that they’ve been so bad away from home. When teams sit back, don’t press, and stay organized at the Etihad, they find space. When they come up against sides that are looking to press forward more, they tend to be dragged around and the opponent will find some space.
So what are Chelsea’s best ways of attack?
In essence, you could say that this plays into Mourinho’s philosophy of the midfield triangle allowing you defensive solidity and the ability to exploit the spare man in midfield in attack. Since the only midfielders that are really effective at winning the ball in their best starting 11 are Toure and Fernandinho, Chelsea will always have the spare man or Nasri and Silva nipping at their heels. In addition, Mourinho loves to dominate the transitions, which is a weakness, I feel, in City’s side.
There are two ways you can look at this: the Bayern Munich way or the normal Jose Mourinho way.
Against Bayern at the Etihad, City were quite literally played off the park. What Pep Guardiola did was what Guardiola always does: press high, win the ball high, and attack. City didn’t respond to that well at all, particularly because Bayern aren’t as “married” to tiki-taka as Barcelona were. What I mean by that is that Bayern not only used the short pass to move City’s defence around, but they also used Thomas Muller as a disruptor and long diagonals when appropriate. The result was that Bayern mixed their tempos, playing more direct when they had to and less when they had to, but maintained a high press and attack.
The other method is to counterattack them to death, but it is risky because of their talents going forward. But, that also can become a weakness because by nature, they are an attacking team. If you can invite the pressure a bit and soak it up, you can exploit that transitional weakness, particularly in the midfield and at left back where neither Aleksandar Kolarov or Gael Clichy are particularly convincing in defence. Counterattacking play is one thing Mourinho has thrived on, but the question will be if he will employ that strategy at home. Once the lineup comes out, we will know what he is going for by seeing whom he picks to play.
Vincent Kompany is a huge miss for City.
I mentioned Kompany being out with a thigh strain and how bad his deputies have been. But the biggest problem is Kompany is to City what John Terry is for Chelsea. Regardless of ability to win balls and be a quality defender, he is City’s leader on the pitch and their main defensive organiser. Just like when Terry is absent, the defence has looked disorganised on things like set pieces, the same applies for City.
The biggest difference is that without Terry, Cech begins to take responsibility of organising the defence, but for City, it falls to another defender or Joe Hart, neither of which is a particularly secure feeling if you’re a City supporter.
Kompany’s absence will be felt, but the question is if someone decides to try and step up and lead? (Yaya Toure’s normally the one, but he’s not a defender)
Make Joe Hart sweat at every opportunity.
Aside from tactics, City have one real weakness besides Kompany’s absence – the form of one Joe Hart. Great save against CSKA Moscow aside, Hart’s form over the past year for club and country is really troubling, especially in his awareness in his own box that leads to goals.
The good thing from a Chelsea perspective is that we will start three defenders who are very strong in the air on set pieces, meaning that Hart will have to command his area, and Frank Lampard will start, he of the dipping shot from distance. In addition, Eden Hazard and Oscar are both capable of confusing the goalkeeper, and let’s not forget about the movement of Ramires in instinctive finishes.
To beat Chelsea, Joe Hart must be at his best because I do think we will get chances to test him. If he makes a mistake or two, it could cost them dearly.