Manchester City vs Chelsea: The Scrims

In gaming, a scrim is when a pro or competitive team decides it’s time to get out of public matches and head into a true competitive setting against another pro or competitive team to practice.

Before any major domestic or global tournament, most of the teams scrim against their opponents or even opponents similar in style to the one they’ll face, to try out new strategies — basically to test the water.

That’s exactly how it felt on Saturday as Manchester City hosted Chelsea at the Etihad. A win for the blue side of Manchester would have granted them their 7th domestic league title. As for the team in the other corner, a win would have gotten them closer to securing a spot in top four this season. Despite all that, it felt like a scrim for the Champions League final between the same sides.

Both sides rested key players after their triumph in the Champions League in midweek. The surprise though wasn’t in the individuals, rather the approach. Namely Manchester City’s back three out of possession. It’s a system that might bring back dark memories for the City fans, but this time it made sense.

Different teams have used different pressing schemes to paralyze Chelsea’s mastery of the ball. One that proved quite successful was the 5–3–2 used by Everton and Brighton, and that was the one Pep Guardiola used to press Chelsea.

Similar to the approach Everton and Brighton used, Chelsea’s double pivot was pressed by two Manchester City players while Rodri controlled the zone behind the midfield duo, picking up any Chelsea player trying to drop in between the lines. If the ball was near Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen as illustrated here, the two City players pressing Chelsea’s double pivot were Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling. Meanwhile, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus pressed Chelsea’s center backs that were near the ball.

However if the ball was on the other side of Chelsea’s back three, near Cesar Azpilicueta and Christensen, it was Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres pressing Chelsea’s double pivot while Rodri continued with his tasks and Sterling moved out to press Azpilicueta.

As for the wide center backs in Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, they man-marked Chelsea’s wide players aggressively, continuing with the successful scheme implemented by Brighton a few weeks ago.

Once again, this pressing scheme worked against Chelsea’s build up. Limiting their options and minimizing their threat. The pressing scheme though was only one part of the chemical that gave City the upper hand in the first half. Using Ederson in a fake four-man build up and runs in behind Chelsea’s wide center backs saw City progress through Chelsea’s press and find a solution to their compact defensive unit.

In the second half City’s pressing intensity decreased, allowing Chelsea to build up with less pressure on the ball. City’s wide center backs though were still aggressively man-marking Chelsea’s wide players. These two statements coupled together meant that there were spaces to attack behind Manchester City’s defence and the ball as well as the man could reach that space. Christian Pulisic’s role in the second half was to drag Ake out, vacating space for N’Golo Kante and Reece James to attack.

Once Ake was out of the nest, Kante or James — at times both — gazumped forward whether they were seeking the ball or were already in possession. In this example, Azpilicueta found Kante in the space….

…..before the Frenchman found his right back attacking the bigger space. James’ low cross then found Hakim Ziyech who shot straight at Ederson.

Another example shows Ake and Benjamin Mendy isolated from the rest of City’s back five because of Pulisic and James. In behind though, Kante is making a run into the space. James found him with an outside of the boot pass….

….putting Kante in a dangerous position while Ake and Mendy are miles away from where they should be. Unfortunately for Kante, his cross wasn’t as dangerous as his position.

This wasn’t the first time Chelsea used this approach, it was the same in the first leg against Real Madrid. What was new, was that there were also runs in possession of the ball. Chelsea were determined to attack the vacated space even if there were no runners.

James had Mendy’s number throughout the second half. Once he spotted Pulisic dragging Ake, he dribbled past Mendy…..

…..and sprinted into the space with Ake and Mendy in his rear mirrors.

In another instance, Jorginho rapidly switches play towards James after receiving the ball from a free-kick. As that is happening, Ake is moved out of position due to the Pulisic effect.

James, who already knows that he wants to attack the space behind Mendy, chests the ball down to his right rather than in-front of him. Giving himself a head start against Mendy…..

…..and with Ake no where to cover, James played a slicing low cross that was a second away from meeting Timo Werner’s boot and then the net.

Eventually this approach won Chelsea the game. Ake once again took an aggressive position compared to the rest of City’s back five, this time against Callum Hudson-Odoi. Then Pulisic rather than creating the space, was seeking to attack it.

But he didn’t. It was Werner who made the run into the space behind Ake and Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Dragging Aymeric Laporte and Dias with him. Thus, creating space centrally for Hudson-Odoi and Marcos Alonso to attack. Werner’s reverse pass was inch-perfect, presenting a precious chance for Hudson-Odoi and Alonso to clinch the three points. The Spaniard scuffed his shot, but it went past Ederson and into the net.

As the cliché goes, this was a game of two halves. City’s fake four-man build up, pressing scheme and runs behind Chelsea’s wide center backs gave them the lead in the first half, before Aguero failed to double the score-line from the penalty spot. Then, it was Chelsea’s attacking approach that consisted of dragging Ake out of position and exploiting the space behind Manchester City’s left side, bringing back Chelsea into the game.

There’s one thing every person in a scrim knows, the other team always has an ace up their sleeves.

English Football. United