In what turned out to be one of the most surreal Chelsea games I can remember, a point was secured at the Etihad on Sunday afternoon. The nature of City’s equaliser was incredibly disappointing from a defensive standpoint. Everything about the goal seemed bizarre as Manchester City’s Frank Lampard slotted home in customary fashion. Even typing that felt odd, and I reworded the sentence about ten times.
Ultimately playing against ten men Chelsea should have gone on to secure three points. The notion that we would have happily taken a point before the game dissipated after the sending off. André Schürrle’s opener should have sealed victory and Diego Costa’s shot was unlucky to be deflected onto the post by the excellent James Milner. Still, to concede that late into a game versus ten men through what appeared to be another defensive lapse is worrisome.
After the match Gary Neville suggested that Mike Dean did not have a poor game, but he wished he would have refereed the match differently. Neville suggested that there was an unwritten code that referees adhered to in "big matches". A code that allowed for aggression and a more physical edge that naturally comes from the standard of the match being played. It is something that many anticipate, but it leads to a lot of grey areas that can drastically influence play.
During the first half the referee booked several players for what looked like relatively innocuous challenges. However, he seemed to feel that it was okay for Mangala and Kompany in particular to repeatedly crash through the back of Diego Costa when getting the ball. My personal opinion remains slightly old school, in that getting the ball is getting the ball. However, in the scope of the game and the way Dean refereed the first half it was infuriating. Kompany and Mangala played very well, but you would question their effectiveness if pulled early on some questionable tackles from behind.
We have seen multiple instances already this season where Terry and Cahill have been penalised for what appeared to be clean tackles. Kompany plays on the edge constantly and gets away with an incredible amount. He was also clever enough to realise that Mike Dean was not going to punish him for it.
Playing the ball into Costa’s feet is Chelsea’s get-out pass. When he manoeuvred himself in front of Kompany he received little protection from the referee. A peculiar decision involved Costa shifting the ball around Kompany only for the Belgian to completely block him without rebuke. It was "half" a foul but players were getting booked for less. Kompany’s body check on Hazard was even more spectacular and again drew nothing from Dean.
I have no issue with teams being physical, but the inconsistent refereeing enabled City to simply kick Costa out of the first half. The midfield area in particular appeared to be drawing yellow cards across the board. Carragher, Neville and Souness (two defenders and an extremely combative midfielder) seemed to suggest City’s treatment of Costa was fine. This might have been coherent had Dean been consistent throughout the game.
However, Dean refereed the second half completely differently. How can a foul now be deemed a foul given Kompany was doing precisely the same during the first half? Had the referee applied his second half judgement in the first, Kompany would surely have been booked and unable to target Costa when in possession. Referees can alter the course of a game by inaction as well as action.
It’s probably prudent to caveat this section by stating that this season Chelsea is completely different in terms of structure. The instructions full-backs receive, our midfield combination and how we try to regain possession are poles apart. This has led to uncharacteristic goals being leaked and a theme seems to be developing.
Ivanovic and Cahill are arguably two of Chelsea’s most driven players. They will run through brick walls for the club and throw their body in front of anything to stop a shot. It therefore makes it difficult to criticise them, but the point needs to be looked at now.
The volume of chances and goals being created from our right back/right centre back channel is verging on ridiculous. Ivanovic and Cahill are not solely responsible for these chances, but they are becoming a targeted area for opposition teams. Burnley, Everton, Swansea, Schalke and Manchester City have all scored goals down these channels. That is a number of goals and chances that cannot be truly ignored.
We can start by looking at the protection offered by those ahead of them. With Cesc Fàbregas in midfield (as opposed to the polarising David Luiz) Chelsea lacks both aggression and defensive acumen. Nemanja Matic typically sits to the left in the pivot, with Fàbregas favouring the right hand side. The Spaniard’s nature is not defensive, but he must do better without the ball. Matic, as you would expect, offers far more protection on the left hand side. This could be solved by deploying John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic in "big" games.
Looking out to the flanks we seemed okay without the ball when Willian or Ramires stayed out wide. Yet, it was the introduction of André Schürrle that proved decisive. The German is far more likely to score than his Brazilian teammates, but also more prone to defensive lapses. Hauled off at Swansea during half-time reportedly for not tracking the run of the Swansea left-back, he let Milner glide past him to play the key equalising cross. Even Eden Hazard has become diligent in his tracking, so there are no excuses.
With there being varying degrees of cover Cahill and Ivanovic are more exposed than last season. However, their individual performances and decision making has deteriorated far more than Terry’s and Azpilicueta’s. Ivanovic is fine marauding up the park, but he is often being caught out of position in transition. Moreover, his ability to stop crosses or cut-back passes has been extremely disappointing. In Lampard’s equaliser the ball floats over his head as he ambles back into the box. Lampard is already yards ahead of him and in a position to score.
My criticism of Gary Cahill sits at odds with the fact I do like him as a player. He is an exceptional penalty box defender who seemingly has superhuman reflexes to block shots. However, this season requires a completely different style of centre-back and Cahill is suffering. As an aside you can see why Mourinho wanted to sign Mangala, the pacey option to make this higher line work. What is being asked of Cahill is at odds with his entire defensive makeup.
The way he continually backs away from the ball is beyond worrying. Against Schalke, as Huntelaar is approaching the area Cahill backs off letting him run fifteen yards before the Dutchman fires his shot into the bottom corner. Benteke, Agüero and others have all done the same in the past. Cahill appears incapable of actually pushing out and making an early challenge. In this new proactive system, where a higher line is played and ball recovery paramount Cahill is being exposed.
Filipe Luis should be our starting left-back. César Azpilicueta should be playing at right-back every game. Whoever partners Terry, and in my opinion it should be Ivanovic, needs to really up their game. You can pinpoint other areas of the pitch for being defensively weak leading to them being exposed. Conversely, their decision making (when to back off, when to press etc.) has been abject at times and it is directly leading to goals being scored. Unpopular, as I like both players immensely, but we have already shown little sentiment this summer with Lampard and Cole departing for pastures new. If we need to make further changes, we probably should.
I briefly touched upon our midfield issues earlier in this piece, but I wanted to highlight them in a little more detail. Last season we often enjoyed success against "big" teams by implementing a physical midfield pivot. The idea was simply to win the game by overpowering our opposition or playing defensively and counterattacking. David Luiz offered us an edge in midfield and a bit of nastiness that we no longer have. We struggled to match Touré and Fernandinho for the majority of the match. When City was perpetually fouling time after time, no one in midfield thought they should do something about it.
We did not play well against City; Mourinho did not alter our game plan significantly to cope with Pellegrini’s set-up. The Chilean put James Milner on Eden Hazard, let Fernandinho and Touré match up with Matic and Fàbregas, left Silva with Willian and Ramires with Kolarov. Physically we did not win a contest during the game and this was disquieting. Matic, overall, had a decent game but the difference without David Luiz was salient. We seemed incapable of keeping the ball for long periods as well due to a mixture of refereeing and City’s aggression. It was all a bit on the back foot.
Going forward how will Chelsea deal with this type of physical confrontation? Gone are the days when we could just put Michael Essien and Michael Ballack on the pitch and the midfield battle was already in our favour. Mourinho is going to either need to be subtle or extremely blunt. His shape against City did a spoiling job, but City was in control. It was neither a subtle counterattacking philosophy nor a blunt physical approach. The team looked devoid of attacking impetus or defensive solidity.
Unless Chelsea signs a player of Paul Pogba’s ilk to partner Matic, I can only see us playing a system that heavily relies upon physicality and counterattacking in games like this. Pairing Matic with Obi Mikel, Oscar in the number ten role with Willian and Hazard supporting Diego Costa should provide us with stability and more of a presence defensively. You could slot Fàbregas into the number ten role, but you lose Oscar’s immense defensive capability. We cannot simply blast City away by outplaying them; they are too good a side. Mourinho will need to find another way for us to look a lot more comfortable in matches of this type. Although it must be said that we are unlikely to play someone as good as City all season.
During the game a point seemed like an extremely good result to take from the Etihad. City was playing as well as they had done all year and we were not in the contest. An okay performance still let City have 16 shots with 4 on target; I doubt any Chelsea fan felt particularly comfortable throughout the match. Nevertheless, after the deserved sending off and subsequent goal, allowing them equalise is unforgiveable. It is the second time in a week we have let a lead slip despite odds being in our favour.
We must tighten up the right hand side of our defensive structure. We cannot ignore that the majority of goals are coming directly from this area. Filipe Luis offers more going forward than Ivanovic and is defensively sound. Azpilicueta would solidify the right hand side, even if Cahill persists at centre back. Cahill must start working on his decision making during games. He was bossed by Gomis, backed up by Huntelaar and looks miles away from his best. I want him to succeed desperately, but at this point in his career can he change something that looks so enmeshed?
The balance in midfield definitely needs looking at for games of this magnitude. If we cannot outplay teams, we must find another way of coping with them. The result will be all that matters, but the performance was edgy and we were very much under pressure. A point at the champions is not something to be scoffed at, but our ability to close games out has to be better if we want to seriously win this title.
It says a lot when you feel slightly hollow about getting a point against Manchester City. The team has come on a long way since the summer and we look every inch a side ready to win the league. Mourinho needs to secure another victory to restore that winning mentality and continue to work on this new style he is introducing. We are still five points clear of City, realistically our biggest threat, so we just need to maintain our form and continue to develop as a side. A slightly downbeat post, but that Lampard goal has taken it out of me.