Manchester City barely made to sweat by listless Chelsea
Champions deliver limp display as Guardiola’s side move 18 points clear at the top
Bernardo Silva scores Manchester City’s winner against Chelsea. Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters
By the time it was all done, with Manchester City easing 18 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, it was difficult to remember that it was actually the team wearing the darker shade of blue who could legitimately call themselves champions of England. For City, that honour is just a few weeks away now – quite possibly when Manchester United visit here on April 7th – whereas Chelsea are becoming little more than a spec in the wing-mirrors of Pep Guardiola’s team. For a big club with supposedly lofty ambitions, there was something very wrong, startling even, to see such a pathetically lame performance from Antonio Conte’s team.
They barely laid a glove on a team that, lest it be forgotten, finished 15 points below them in Conte’s first season at the club. His second will reputedly be his last and for long spells here there were all the tell-tale signs that the Chelsea players knew it. This was the first time on City’s run of 14 successive league wins at home that Guardiola’s team have failed to score at least twice. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking Chelsea should warrant acclaim just for keeping the score down. The two sides were poles apart.
The only surprise was that City restricted themselves to the goal from Bernardo Silva 33 seconds into a second half when Chelsea’s lack of fight after going behind must have been alarming for the man whose position is under so much scrutiny. Conte’s hands were jammed into his pockets as he took a soaking on the touchline, and there was a telling moment, just before the four minutes of stoppage time was announced, when he withdrew Eden Hazard to bring on Alvaro Morata. Hazard walked past his manager without the two even exchanging a look. Too much can be made of these moments sometimes, but it was reminiscent of a similar incident involving Hazard just before José Mourinho’s sacking from Stamford Bridge in 2015.
Chelsea are not the first team to visit this stadium and try to put in place ultra-defensive tactics. They will not be the last either, but it was difficult to think of another opponent of City’s showing so little ambition this season. City’s superiority in possession was up to 81 per cent at one point and Chelsea did not register a shot of any kind throughout the entire half. Indeed, the only moment of potential difficulty for City in that period was when Oleksandr Zinchenko wiped out Victor Moses with a late, sliding challenge. Moses was fortunate to avoid the flailing studs of his opponent, who in turn was fortunate only to be shown a yellow card.
Zinchenko was signed by City as a winger, or even a No 10, but Guardiola is obviously perfectly happy for a player of that nature to be operating as a left-back, albeit one who spends more time in the opposition half than his own. Kyle Walker spent a similar amount of time pressing forward, whereas City’s idea of a holding midfielder, with Fernandinho currently injured, is Ilkay Gündogan, who is not exactly a modern-day Claude Makélélé. Of City’s outfield players, only Aymeric Laporte and Nicolás Otamendi could be accurately described as defence-minded.
Perhaps an argument could be made, therefore, that Chelsea might have found space behind Gündogan if the visitors had approached the game more adventurously. Instead, they stuck rigidly to their system and those tactics can only work against elite opponents if the team’s defence is at its absolute best. Chelsea found that out the hard way when Andreas Christensen’s mistake let in Lionel Messi for Barcelona’s equaliser in the first leg of their Champions League tie and, again, the centre-half has to accept part of the blame for a crucial goal.
When Christensen’s attempted clearance struck one of his own team-mates, Sergio Agüero was on the ball in a flash. David Silva was overlapping on the left and Bernardo Silva, coming in at the far post, showed more interest in getting on to the cross than Marcos Alonso, his nearest opponent. Thibaut Courtois, the Chelsea goalkeeper, seemed unbalanced and once Silva’s shot went in there was never any serious threat from the away side.