This was the second time Chelsea faced Manchester City in the space of fifteen days, which made the preceding Premier League fixture an instructive marker of how this FA Cup tie would unfold. With both sides making few changes to their approaches from the first clash, it was a similar tactical battle - City’s 4-4-2 (this time with Javi Garcia in place of the disastrous Martin Demichells, Joleon Lescott and Gael Clichy instead of Matija Nastasic and Alexander Kolarov at the back, James Milner replacing Jesus Navas out wide and Steven Jovetic starting ahead of Alvaro Negredo) up against Jose Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 with Ramires tucking in on the right, although this time David Luiz was required in defence, which brought John Obi Mikel into the centre.
First, it’s worth considering whether this fixture was more winnable from a City point of view because of how they lost the first round. That might sound stupid, but in many ways, it was easier for them to address what went wrong (rather than say, improve something that doesn’t obviously need to be fixed) with manager Manuel Pellegrini able to address his side’s shortcomings in the build-up and with his team selection. Mourinho, on the other hand, would’ve appeared silly had he drastically changed the successful game plan from their last meeting at the Etihad.
In that sense, Pellegrini’s four changes from the match proved decisive. In a broader view, the decision to sit slightly deeper and commit less numbers in attack was an obvious alteration, giving City more cover at the back, preventing Chelsea from being able to press in midfield so readily and not leaving the back four so exposed to the counter-attack.
The five individual changes were all particularly key. Firstly, City were markedly better for simply not having Demichells on the field, the Argentine representing such a liability it is laughable he even features for a side with a serious claim to the Premier League title. His replacement in midfield here, Garcia, was barely involved, because his role was about sitting slightly deeper of the midfield two, allowing Toure to push forward into aggressive attacking and defensive positions - the Ivorian enjoyed the freedom to play more proactively against Nemanja Matic, who was forced backwards far more than he had been in the tie two weeks ago. Toure also had some opportunities to shoot from range, moving forward to get on the end of attacks as City built moves in the final third.
Garcia might not have been involved much, and his individual quality can certainly be questioned, but he had an important, intangible role off the ball here.
Secondly, the change of centre-back partner liberated Vincent Kompany. In what may have been a matter of increased confidence in his teammates, the Belgian was far more confident darting off his defensive line to aggressively challenge Chelsea’s attackers high up the pitch, the style he usually practices but one that was noticeably absent against Chelsea last time round. This meant rather than the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian being able to turn on the ball and face the play, they were shepherded back towards their own goal when in possession and struggled to attack with their usual purpose. Garcia, too, in his holding position, also provided an extra wall of defence.
The reshuffle at left-back had flow-on effects higher up the pitch, as Kolarov’s inswinging crosses had been City’s most dangerous source of attacks in the EPL fixture (with both Toure and David Silva squandering good chances in front of goal). They lacked that sort of incision here with Clichy - however, the Frenchman was his typically aggressive self defensively, always looking to nip in front of Ramires and Ivanovic to win the ball and doing so on a number of occasions, benefitting also from Ramires’ lack of form. City may have lost a bit of width down the left, but benefitted more in a defensive sense.
As it were fifteen days ago, Ivanovic was the freest Chelsea player in attack, because of the way David Silva narrowed inside from the left. He had that cross from the by-line Costel Pantimillion fumbled at the feet of Pablo Zabaleta (perhaps Chelsea’s best chance of the match), as well as the cut-back for Willian the Brazilian skied high over the bar. Ivanovic was also free throughout for cross-field balls, but he didn’t have anywhere near the same impact as he did when he scored the winner previously - mainly because of his own poor form.
Defensively, City also benefitted from the introduction of Milner into the side, as the Englishman worked hard to get back and protect Zabaleta from Hazard. The angles of support he provided in attack, too, proved useful, complementing Silva’s wandering with clever overlapping runs as well as providing width out on the right as is Jesus Navas’s usual brief.
Finally, having provided clever link-up play between the lines off the bench fifteen days ago, Stefan Jovetic was entrusted with that role from the start, giving City an extra dimension in the final third. He was smart in drifting to the outside of Chelsea’s midfield two to find space, in that zone between the wide and central players to connect the strikers to midfield. That in turn allowed Edin Dzeko to play higher up against the centre-backs, that being a key tenet of City’s play this season and being much more difficult to defend against than two static strikers.
By contrast, Chelsea’s lack of changes also seemed crucial, if only because of how little it meant the side had been rotated in the fixtures in between. The attackers seemed particularly fatigued in the midweek match against West Brom and the lack of rest they’ve had between these two clashes with City surely had an impact upon their ability to implement the high-tempo game plan that was so decisive in the Premier League.
Pellegrini took advantage of the lead, too, to introduce fresh players into the fray, using the bench to rest key players for Tuesday’s Champions League tie but also to rectify the defensive issue down his left-hand side by bringing Milner across to that flank (when bringing on Navas), who duly closed down the space available to Ivanovic going forward.
Pointing to the changes in team selection might seem an easy and obvious way of explaining why City won this fixture and lost the last, but it certainly serves as a pertinent explanation here.