A Shadow Fiend often resembles a dark evil spirit trying to conquer the world. Yet the noun Fiend can also translate to an enthusiast or a devotee, making a Shadow Fiend a person merely interested in shadows.
At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were chasing shadows. The shadows of Manchester City. Kindred spirits that are intangible, making them impossible to get hold of. The only physical feature they possess are legs and feet.
The first half left the Chelsea players and their manager mesmerized, unable to figure out how these shadows were attacking. The ball moved so smoothly between them that at times it felt part of the shadow. In thirty four minutes it was all over, the shadows had conquered.
Guiding the shadows was the Shadow Fiend, Pep Guardiola. Instructions from outside only served as guidance, the shadows already had the principles instilled in them.
As shadows, labelling their shape in possession is tricky. What seems like a 3–1–3–3 could be a 3–2–4–1 when Bernardo Silva drops deep next to Rodri. The main principle guiding them though was having an extra man in midfield. It was mostly Joao Cancelo, but as kindred spirits it didn’t matter whether it was Cancelo or Raheem Sterling as long as the principle was held.
The extra man caused disturbance against Chelsea’s midfield three, just like it did against Arsenal earlier on in the season. The overload meant that at times a Manchester City midfielder could be found roaming freely of any marking. Here, it was Bernardo Silva. Cancelo’s presence in the right channel grabs the attention of Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante. Meanwhile, Ilkay Gundogan’s high positioning forces Mateo Kovacic deeper into the penalty box, leaving Bernardo Silva free plus Rodri who is guarding against the counter attack. Cancelo played the ball back into Sterling in this situation, but a back heel into Bernardo Silva could have presented a good chance for Manchester City.
The Chelsea midfield was stretched by the fourth Manchester City player going inside. Unable to mark the moving shadows, they left Cancelo open to receive freely in the center of the pitch. Mount and Kovacic were far on the other side tracking Rodri and Gundogan, while Kante was keeping tabs on City’s newest player going inside. Sterling.
Now with Sterling going inside, where was Bernardo Silva? This leads us to the second principle which is maintaining two wide players up the pitch. In this attack, the first principle freed Cancelo to receive and connect with another player (Bernardo Silva) higher up the pitch. The first and second principle worked together creating a chance for Manchester City, which Edouard Mendy managed to save.
Once Sterling moved inside, Bernardo Silva made sure the second principle was maintained by going wide. Here, Sterling positioning inside the field drags Ben Chilwell out of position….
…..which forces the Chelsea defence to shift horizontally once Rodri plays the ball into Bernardo Silva’s path, leaving Phil Foden free at the far post after Gundogan’s run moved Cesar Azpilicueta further inside. Foden though, headed the ball wide.
The two principles were working in conjunction regardless of the players occupying the positions. Here, Gundogan is in Oleksandr Zinchenko’s place and vice versa after the Ukrainian made a dart forward. However, the first principle is still held. Chelsea’s midfield three are sucked towards the far side of the pitch, leaving Cancelo who went inside as the fourth midfielder free.
Meanwhile, Foden’s positioning as the other wide man, holding the second principle, enables him to be found by the touchline after a neat passing combination featuring Gundogan and Zinchenko. The ball now will reach the wide player (Foden) high up the pitch as planned, and the other free player (Cancelo) who went inside can make a free run into the box.
So, what about Bernardo Silva who is lingering in-front of the defence?
He is applying the third principle, the intangible forward. Kevin De Bruyne played a false 9 role, allowing others to run into his space when he dropped deeper to disrupt the Chelsea defence.
The third principle wasn’t in use here though as Foden found Cancelo’s run into the box. The shot went sky high, but the attack was a prime example of the first and second principle working in conjunction with each other.
Whenever Chelsea’s midfield thought they were containing Manchester City…..
…..they weren’t because Cancelo’s presence was threatening whenever he went inside the pitch.
His aim was to connect the ball to the wide man (Sterling), using the first principle to hold the second. Then comes the third principle with De Bruyne dropping to vacate space for Bernardo Silva to run into.
Here, Sterling played the wall pass with De Bruyne whose movement left Thiago Silva in no man’s land, resulting in Bernardo Silva having a huge amount of space to attack. Bernardo Silva’s shot was blocked by Kurt Zouma, but the attack showed how the three principles worked together to dismantle Chelsea’s defence.
Another attack later on in the half showcases how the principles were implemented. Once Sterling spots Bernardo Silva by the touchline, he moves inside behind the Chelsea midfield.
Which always him to run freely at the defence once Bernardo Silva finds him with a pass.
Next to him is Foden, who is keeping the width and De Bruyne who is ready to halt his run…..
….for Gundogan to make his. Thiago Silva and Azpilicueta are exclusively focusing on the ball and De Bruyne here, leaving Gundogan to stride freely into the box.
De Bruyne played Foden out wide, then the cross was back-heeled by Gundogan but wasn’t on target. Again, the three principles were maintained to put City in a dangerous position.
Accordingly, the goals also maintained the three principles. In the first goal, Cancelo’s efforts to go inside were nullified by unusual tracking by Christian Pulisic.
De Bruyne moved wide to maintain the second principle, while Gundogan moved into De Bruyne’s space centrally and Foden was keeping the midfield busy.
Pulisic’s initial presence forced Manchester City to circulate and once that happened, the roles circulated as well. The wide player was now Zinchenko, Foden the intangible forward and De Bruyne the fourth midfielder, freeing Gundogan behind the Chelsea midfield.
Once Zinchenko received the ball, he was only looking for the free player, Gundogan. Eventually, it reached the German before he eloquently adjusted his body shape and put it past Mendy.
The second goal shows De Bruyne dropping, and dragging Zouma with him. Foden spontaneously attacks the space. But what’s more interesting is what De Bruyne does after he plays the ball.
He moves wide to maintain the second principle, even before Thiago Silva intercepts the ball….
…putting him in an excellent position to cross with Azpilicueta out of position. His cross then found Foden, who doubled City’s lead.
The three principles guided the shadows, but it wouldn’t have been successful without their impressive defensive display off the ball as a collective and as individuals. The faith Guardiola now has in the likes of John Stones and Ruben Dias allows him to stretch the limits of these principles, knowing that he can depend on his defenders in 1 v 1 situations. Something he wasn’t able to do before.
Pep Guardiola, might not be a dark evil spirit, but he’s definitely trying to conquer the footballing world.