Who’s betting against Chelsea now? Two weeks ago, with the Blues preparing to host Tottenham Hotspur, we were treated to a barrage of chatter about how winning six on the trot might all be well and good but that the true test of this side’s title credentials was still to come. One week ago, having ended Tottenham’s unbeaten run, it was more of the same. “Yes, yes, very nice,” said the footballing world. “But a trip to Manchester City is coming, and surely Chelsea won’t —”
But then Chelsea did.
In fairness, some skepticism was warranted, not of the Blues themselves but rather their vicious schedule. City, Arsenal and Liverpool had each found themselves stymied by Spurs in the season’s early days, and a trip to the Etihad is exactly nobody’s idea of a good time. Before today, Chelsea’s last win there required a truly titanic performance, and Pep Guardiola’s incarnation of City is an upgrade — a demented, flailing upgrade, but an upgrade nevertheless — on the Pellegrini model.
Antonio Conte would have had his work cut out even with a full-strength squad, which he didn’t have. Much to everyone’s surprise, Nemanja Matic failed to even make the squad, an absence explained by a muscular issue which Chelsea fans can only hope proves fleeting. The partnership between Matic and N’Golo Kante is the engine that drives the 3-4-3, and how the side would function bereft of the Serbian was an open question.
Perhaps the obvious solution was to throw Nathanial Chalobah into the fire. In limited minutes this season, the youngster has shown that he’s a capable backup: strong, quick, sharp and with a touch of flair to boot. He’s the natural replacement to fill Kante or Matic’s shoes. But if we’ve learned anything from our post-Arsenal run, it’s that Conte doesn’t do the obvious. Faced with having to play Matic-lite* against a team of City’s calibre to keep the gameplan intact, the manager opted to go with a surprise.
*Considering how good Matic has been, I hope we can all agree that this is by no means an insult.
Chelsea’s recent transformation began with Cesc Fabregas being hauled off at the Emirates. There seemed to be no room for the midfielder in Conte’s dynamic 3-4-3, and Fabregas hadn’t played a Premier League minute since. After what happened at Arsenal, few would have been expecting to see him starting a big match.
Fabregas is a hardly an all-around midfield giant. His positioning is erratic, his pace is plummeting rapidly into non-existence and he sometimes forgets to defend entirely. It’s impossible to assess Fabregas’s game without looking at his weaknesses, but it’s also foolish to ignore the strengths: he is the best long passer in the Premier League. Few have his vision, few can match the speed of his release and absolutely nobody can drop those raking balls into space as accurately as Fabregas at his best.
With City looking to flood bodies forward in a high pressing line and leaving their centre backs isolated against Chelsea’s forwards, quick forward passing was always going to be a fruitful point of attack for the Blues. With Fabregas and David Luiz lurking on the ball from deep, Conte gave his side multiple options with which to catch the hosts out. Weakening the midfield screen to do so was clearly a gamble the manager was willing to take.
For the first hour or so that looked like a mistake. The first half against Tottenham Hotspur was the first time Chelsea had been outplayed in 3-4-3, but Spurs’ pressure looked like a light drizzle compared to the battering City unleashed. Guardiola was deprived of Raheem Sterling through injury, which didn’t prevent him stacking his lineup with attacking players. David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, Jesus Navas and old friend Kevin de Bruyne were all on the pitch, and seemed to be coming from everywhere, all the time.
There’s something disconcerting about Manchester City at the moment. They’re fantastic going forward, and they, more than any other side, seem to have players pop up from nowhere to create chances. That attacking brilliance doesn’t necessarily come from crushing the opposition, however — it’s the result of the decision to expose the defence and trust that the forwards will score enough goals to see them through. All of which means that no matter how dominant City might be, they always appear on the verge of spinning out of control into catastrophe.
City were dominant here, and Chelsea were lucky to go into the break down just 1-0. The hosts were dangerous on the break and in possession, targeting the space between the wingbacks and the outside centre backs and driving through them relentlessly. Silva and De Bruyne reveled in the space they were given, the latter in particular causing real problems on the Blues’ left flank.
There was also Aguero to worry about. Over the years few players have given Chelsea as much trouble as the former Atletico Madrid man, and he was a constant menace whether or not City had the ball. It was Aguero who drew the first save from Thibaut Courtois with a thumping drive from outside the box, and he also forced a last-ditch block from Cesar Azpilicueta, that chance coming from a looping Silva pass that left Victor Moses for dead.
Kante, Marcos Alonso and Gary Cahill were all responsible for some daft passes to put the Blues under pressure, but the worst offender was actually the normally faultless Azpilicueta, who on another day and perhaps with a different referee might have left us down to 10 with most of the match to play.
A Chelsea move sucked everyone forward and then broke down, allowing De Bruyne to fire down the left touchline for Aguero to chase. Azpilicueta beat him to the ball and tried to play it back to Courtois and safety, but his off-balance pass merely served to guide it into the striker’s path. David Luiz, the last man back, was never going to beat Aguero for pace, leaving him with little option but to give his long-time nemesis a gentle shoulder barge as he raced past.
Aguero went down in a greasy, flustered heap while Luiz put on his ‘I am an angel who has never fouled anyone’ face, hoping to get out of what seemed like an inevitable red card. But by some happy miracle Antony Taylor saw Aguero as embellishing rather light contact*, and the Blues escaped what would have been a brutal sending off.
*Which, to be fair, is pretty much what it was.
They could not, however, escape the opening goal. While Aguero’s biggest chance and the Luiz incident both came from moves down the City left, it was their right flank which looked more promising, and it was there that City made their breakthrough.
It’s not entirely clear what Cahill was trying to do with Navas’s low cross. He had to do something to prevent the ball reaching a mass of City players in the centre of the box, but instead of hoofing to safety with his left foot, he tried a strange, desperate hook with his right. A fiendishly deflection was the not-entirely-unexpected result, but the trajectory proved especially unlucky, the ball looping off Cahill’s shin, floating over Courtois and finding the back of the net at the far post for a 44th-minute own goal.
Against Tottenham, Chelsea had scored just before halftime to deflate the visitors and provide a platform for a come-from-behind victory. The tables were turned here, and had City turned their narrow lead into a rout at this point, few would have been surprised.
That’s not to say that the Blues hadn’t had their chances. Early on, John Stones was guilty of dawdling in the box and had his pocket picked by Diego Costa, but Pedro was crowded out before Chelsea could capitalise. An even better opportunity was to follow when Fabregas found Eden Hazard with a great long pass*, but although the Belgian rounded the goalkeeper and seemed bound to score, he tried to feed Pedro rather than sweep home himself. City cleared gratefully.
*Rest in peace, Nicolas Otamendi.
Those defensive lapses would have given Chelsea hope despite staring at a 1-0 deficit. City had put the Blues under intense pressure but hadn’t blown them away on the scoresheet, leaving the game well within reach.
Thanks to Chelsea’s three second-half goals we’ll probably hear plenty about Conte’s half-time adjustments, but in truth not much seemed to change when the teams came out after the interval. City were on top, Chelsea merely trying to survive, frequently by the skin of their teeth.
Shortly after the restart, Alonso contrived to give Aguero the opportunity to put the game beyond doubt. Like Azpilicueta in the first half, an ill-judged and weakly-hit backpass put the Blues in danger, but this time there was help on hand, Cahill sliding back to block Aguero’s goalbound shot, a block that probably wouldn’t have been required if not for the captain leaving Alonso’s pass for Courtois to deal with.
Weak City finishing rather than stout Chelsea defending was keeping the match tight, and the worst miss of the game arrived just before the hour mark through De Bruyne. Ilkay Gundogan and Silva combined to rip open the Blues’ left side, leaving the centre completely exposed. Courtois was taken out of the picture by the pass to De Bruyne, who was left with three yards between his feet and an open goal.
He hit the crossbar.
That miss felt like the sort of moment that could define the match, and it was indeed a trio of chances clustered around 60 minutes that turned the match in Chelsea’s favour. Even before De Bruyne’s calamity, the Blues were looking more of a threat, with Willian, on as a substitute for the injured Pedro, adding the forward impetus which they’d been lacking on the ball. Let off the hook by City, it was the Blues’ turn to strike.
The equaliser came out of nowhere, but it was also exactly what Conte would have been hoping for with his team selection. The hosts gave Fabregas a fatal amount of time on the ball deep in midfield, and Costa made the sort of run that will give Otamendi nightmares for weeks. It required a magical ball to pick him out, and a magical ball was duly provided. Costa brought it down with a shoulder, laughed off a challenge from the desperate Otamendi, and fired low beyond Claudio Bravo to hand Chelsea a lifeline.
If not for some smart goalkeeping, parity might have been short-lived. There was still plenty of fight in the home side, who strolled through the centre of the park after a Kante error, and found Aguero through De Bruyne. A goal within a minute of Costa’s leveller would have been a punch to the gut, but despite Aguero being through, he dallied and allowed Courtois to race out, close the angles and make a good stop.
Moses came to the rescue shortly thereafter, reaching in to cut out a dangerous Navas cross with Aguero looming behind him. Moses’s performance over the course of the match was impressive — he started out a little slack defensively (which is what you’d expect from a career winger effectively playing at right back), but he tightened up considerably as the game went on, forcing City to try their luck on the other flank.
But now it seemed like their luck was out entirely. Having spurned two great chances to lose their stranglehold on the match, City were looking vulnerable for the first time. They flooded forward in a desperate attempt to regain the lead, compromising their own shape in trying to force their way past Chelsea’s defence. The Blues remained patient and composed, and would soon have their reward.
Alongside Fernandinho, Gundogan had been doing fine work in denying Chelsea the centre of the pitch. Now, however, with his team in need of a goal, he became more adventurous. That nearly paid off with a swashbuckling run down the left channel and a dangerous cross which Alonso barely cleared. It also came with a price -- Manchester City were left without numbers in midfield, and the Blues were able to explode into the space left behind.
Hazard bounced onto the ball, raced forward past Fernandinho and found Costa in the centre circle. Otamendi tried to close him down but was two steps slow and Costa left him trailing helplessly in his wake. With Aleksandar Kolarov up the pitch in support of the now-collapsed City attack, Willian was free down the right, and Costa laid in a perfect pass for the substitute, sending him clean through. All that remained was to beat Bravo. Willian stayed cool, waited for the goalkeeper to shift his weight and the second Bravo committed himself stroked a fine finish into the far corner.
After being very much second best for most of the match, Chelsea suddenly found themselves 2-1 up. Being behind to a top team is rarely an enviable position, and with the Blues newfound defensive solidity that applied doubly. No longer forced to chase goals but able to sit back and absorb pressure, the midfield and defence held firm against an increasingly frantic City attack. The introduction of Yaya Toure failed to yield any clear chances for the hosts, nor did yanking off John Stones for young ace Kelechi Iheanacho.
Despite City looking vaguely impotent after going 2-1 down, they had more than enough quality to make the closing stages feel extremely nervous. When there was just a goal in it, there was always the risk of something going wrong. After all, Aguero hadn’t really left his mark on the game. And Aguero always leaves his mark on the Blues. Chelsea fans would have been forgiven for refusing to count their chickens as the match headed to six minutes of stoppage time
Squeaky bum time, however, was averted. Fabregas had been causing problems with his delivery from deep all afternoon, but this time he let Alonso have the honours, sliding him the ball and gesturing upfield where Hazard was making a run behind the City defence. Alonso followed his instructions to the letter, and Hazard put an exclamation mark on an impressive comeback with a calm finish inside Bravo’s near post.
The drama wasn’t over yet. Remember: Aguero always leaves his mark on Chelsea, and if he wasn’t going to do it with a heartbreaking goal he was more than happy to find other, less legal means of doing so. The Argentinian is a sneakily dirty player, and his favourite target is David Luiz (that FA Cup game in 2013 should come to mind), but even so, the sight of Aguero attempting some sort of flying scissor tackle to Luiz’s knees came as a shock.
It’s the sort of tackle that can end careers, and Taylor reached for a red card immediately. He was beaten to Aguero by Nathaniel Chalobah, who raced over to gently remind Aguero that inflicting pain on David Luiz is a bad idea for anyone who wants their bones fully intact at the end of the day. That sparked a general to-do, highlighted by Fabregas slowly backing away from Fernandinho’s throat-hugs until he got shoved over an advertising hoarding, earning City another red card and Fernandinho probably a lengthy suspension.
Assuming Luiz is fine — despite being a walking cartoon character who really ought to be immortal, we know he’s injury prone — it was about as perfect an ending as one might have hoped. Chelsea showed an extraordinary amount of resilience in one of the toughest games of the season, kept their cool, earned three points and seen a title rival blow their top in response. When the going got tough, the Blues got to it, and City fell apart. You can’t ask much more than that.