Saturday evening, Stamford Bridge. Chelsea hosted top of the table Manchester City after an impressive performance away to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. On the other hand, City are accumulating the points impressively in the Premier League and the Champions League, steamrolling through teams with fives and sixes, the top of the table clash at Stamford Bridge was destined to be a blockbuster considering both teams’ form. Unfortunately, City were hit with two crucial injuries midweek with Aguero and Mendy out with a broken rib and ACL rupture respectively, therefore Pep had to tweak things a bit. Chelsea were denied David Luiz’s services after the Brazilian’s red card against Arsenal two weeks ago, so Christensen was shipped into the starting eleven with Ruediger in for Moses.
Chelsea started the game in a 5–3–2 system with Fabregas and Kante either side of Bakayoko, and Hazard just behind Morata, Conte also selected Azpilicueta as right wing back instead of Moses in a more calculated approach considering City’s threat from the wings. Pep Guardiola’s system was quite interesting a 4–3–3 off the ball with Delph at left back, and a 3–4–3 diamond midfield when in possession of the ball with Delph and De Bruyne occupying the inside left and inside right channels respectively. Chelsea started the game on the front foot with a Morata header, but they slowly faded when City started dominating possession, De Bruyne and Delph’s positioning allowed City to control the midfield by having an extra player with Chelsea’s full backs afraid to push forward as they’ll leave City’s front three 1 on 1 with Chelsea’s center backs. On the right hand side, a similar scenery to Chelsea’s last trip to the Etihad when Cesc Fabregas couldn’t contain De Bruyne from the inside right position with Jesus Navas overlapping to contain Marcos Alonso, De Bruyne controlled the game with ease in the first twenty minutes as Cesc’s main deficiencies were once again exploited. Also, on the offensive front for Chelsea, Cesc’s positioning minimized his passing range with him not having enough time on the ball before being pressured and having to change his body shape due to his position every time he has to play the ball to the other side of the field, this required multiple touches from him to have the full range of the field which in a way minimizes Cesc’s main strength as a player who can control the game and exploit defences with the minimum possible touches of the ball. Around the 20th minute mark, Conte realized the above and switched Bakayoko with Cesc to add more pressure on City’s right side and allow Cesc more time on the ball.
Pep’s flexible system gave City a huge edge on multiple fronts, firstly Delph and De Bruyne’s positioning nullified Chelsea’s counter attacking threat as they were mainly positioned in the half spaces; so Hazard, Morata, Cesc or Kante drifting into the channels would always face Delph and De Bruyne instead of a free space, a similar approach to the inverted wing backs however with midfielders, and this required great understanding of the role from City’s duo. Furthermore, City’s midfield always had an extra free man as Bakayoko then Cesc couldn’t press as they would leave Silva free in between the lines, this allowed City to control the game and led to Chelsea seeing less of the ball so their five six man attacks with wing backs was never to be seen. Beyond controlling the game City had to create chances, De Bruyne’s positioning gave Chelsea three choices, let De Bruyne control the game freely, let Alonso press him highly leaving Sterling 1 on 1 against Cahill, or letting Cesc do the job which will give a huge amount of free space for Silva. Chelsea mainly went with option A, by letting the Belgian control the game from the inside right position which allowed City more time and space to create chances and denied Conte’s team the ball. Additionally, Morata’s injury made things worse as it denied Chelsea the option of long balls and crosses.
Conte’s change to a 5–4–1 off the ball was imminent with Willian replacing Morata to equal City’s numbers in midfield to allow them less time and space on the ball, the main problem with this is that it totally nullified Chelsea’s attacking threat and despite City having less time on the ball, they still created chances due to their impressive arsenal of talented players. City kept on creating chances until the 67th minute when De Bruyne was free inside the right channel, connecting with Jesus then whipping the ball into the net with a beautifully struck shot to give City the lead. Chelsea had to reply, so Conte changed back to his main 3–4–3 system with Pedro, and Batshuayi replacing Hazard and Bakayoko respectively, that gave the Blues a bit of an edge but couldn’t succeed as City’s defence was surprisingly solid. City switched to a normal 4–3–3 to adapt to Chelsea’s threats while also having options on the counter attack with the pace of Sterling and Sane, however neither teams managed to add to the scoreboard and the encounter ended in an away win for City.
Manchester City outplayed Chelsea on the day, with impressive performances from every player especially Ederson, Stones, Otamendi, and Delph, but huge credit to Kevin De Bruyne who not only adapted to an unorthodox role but thrived in it and was hands down the best player on the field. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola tactically outfoxed Conte leaving him with a tough to decision to make with every available option hindering Chelsea’s opportunity to win the game.