Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Surely even Pep Guardiola did not imagine the success Fabian Delph’s unusual instructions would engender. Designed, presumably, to copper-fasten Manchester City’s customary possession-dominance, Delph’s turn as an inside-left-back also tempted Antonio Conte into the tactical call that cost Chelsea this game.
Wisely anticipating the same Chelsea 3-5-1-1 that won away to both Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, Guardiola responded accordingly. Delph’s narrow deployment was almost certainly designed to even the central-midfield odds — four against four.
The resultant midfield congestion goes a long way toward explaining that chance-free first-half. There was little going on in wide areas either, with both Chelsea wing-backs cancelled out by touchline-huggers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané.
Both sides, therefore, benefited from a three-on-one surplus at the back, against the opposition’s lone striker. The onus fell upon the likes of Antonio Rudiger and Kyle Walker to shed their defensive moorings and pose problems. Alas, for the neutral viewer, undue conservatism trumped measured risk, and that did not happen.
de Bruyne and Kanté
Only two players — Kevin de Bruyne for City, and N’Golo Kanté for Chelsea — were minded to do something different.
The Belgian’s in-to-out runs, facilitated by Sterling’s infield drifts, represented City’s best chance of scoring before half-time. Indeed, it was a de Bruyne cross, albeit from a corner-kick, from which Fernandinho forced the half’s best save.
Meanwhile, before injury robbed Chelsea of focal-point Alvaro Morata, Kanté’s dashes between Delph and Nicolas Otamendi looked likely to bear fruit. The Frenchman stood up the 3rd-minute cross that Morata headed wide, after gamely running into that always-gaping inside-right channel.
Conte unclutters the centre
This obvious City weakness, paired with Willian’s 35th-minute introduction, must have got Conte thinking. The Brazilian dynamo adopted a right-of-midfield role in the second-half, in the hope of more fruitfully exploiting the space to Otamendi’s left.
Although Tiemoué Bakayoko remained tucked in to Cesc Fabregas’ left, Chelsea’s defensive shape then more closely resembled their usual 5-4-1. Guardiola no longer saw the need for an inside-left-back, and Delph duly morphed into a more conventional full-back.
Suddenly, upon the removal of two of its occupants, space appeared in central midfield for the first time. And dual number-10s David Silva and de Bruyne were primed to exploit it. The former saw a goalbound strike blocked down just seconds before the latter rampaged through the middle to slam home the winner.
Having operated a compact, low-block to that point, Chelsea’s subsequent high-pressing attempts were incoherent to say the least. Conte’s ragged charges failed to press as a unit, rendering City’s new task — killing the game by keeping the ball — an extremely facile one.
Guardiola laid down a real marker here. The Spaniard comfortably swatted away Conte’s new big-game Plan A, before responding intelligently when the Italian unwisely reverted to type.
There was a measure of fortune about the 5-0 victory over ten-man Liverpool; recall how vulnerable City’s back-three looked before Sadio Mané’s dismissal. But there was nothing lucky about this one. Guardiola was always in control, as is side at the Premier League’s summit. Who, if anyone, will supplant them?
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