Here are two telling statistics after tonight’s 2-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium.
One, Chelsea had more possession — I know, I know, but stay with me here — than Manchester City. This is a stat is almost always useless (especially in its early guise as pass-volume), but it does matter to some extent when you’re playing against the likes of Pep Guardiola or Maurizio Sarri, managers whose systems are predicated on possession. It might not determine who wins or who loses, but it does serve as an indicator of sorts regarding the teams’ relative success in this sort of contest.
And not only did Chelsea have more possession than City, Chelsea had more possession than any other team has ever had against Pep Guardiola. That’s 381 matches. Chelsea at the top.
46.74 - Man City's possession figure of 46.74 today is the lowest recorded by a side managed by Pep Guardiola in any of his 381 top-flight matches in charge. Academic. #MCICHE— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 23, 2019
All the usual caveats apply. And sure, more of Chelsea’s possession was at the back than City’s (21% vs. 33% defensive third zone time). And most importantly Chelsea lost. But Lampard set out his team to try to go toe-to-toe with City. That may have been foolish or naive, but it’s what he decided to do. And in that regard, we executed well. Very well, even, as well as anyone has ever done. In fact, better than anyone has ever done.
It’s something to build on. The passing combinations (the effective passing combinations!) to get Chelsea moving forward from the back and through midfield (Jorginho, Kovačić putting on masterclasses at certain points), pressing high, defending from the front, recovering the ball quickly, recycling possession in the final third — these were all done exceptionally well, especially in the first 20-25 minutes, and against a team normally noted for doing the same themselves and preventing other teams from doing so against them.
Afterwards, Lampard paid tribute to his players for being brave and playing to their own strengths.
“Maybe it is not the critical factor, but coming into the game in our recent form and developing quickly, I wanted us to come here and be brave. Be brave on the ball and off it and I think that you saw that from us today.
“At 1-0 we had a relative control of the game. Of course when you are here it can never last. They had a couple of moments, but we were playing well and throughout the game there were a lot of positives. At this level maybe it shows that the finer details in the boxes, both boxes decide these ones.”
That said, Lampard’s assessment is also rather generous, especially after the first 20-25 minutes.
City’s two goals came from a deflected shot and a fantastic individual effort. But De Bruyne’s shot was a result of a sloppy midfield giveaway (and not closing him down, which we failed to do repeatedly and shockingly), while Mahrez was only able to dribble in because he was allowed to split two Chelsea players ostensibly playing defense on him. City had a third goal ruled by yet another laughable VAR decision, and that was a result of a poor clearing header and weak wrists. Agüero hit the bar after a horrendous goal kick, Azpilicueta had to clear off the line after yet more set piece defending calamities, and so on.
Chelsea started very well, but the equalizer knocked the wind out of our sails with the force a thousand hurricanes. Those sorts of momentum swings and lapses in concentration are often defining features of young teams, and obviously Chelsea are very young. We know that there’s work to be done, and this game underlined that more so than any other game so far this season. In a way that’s another tribute to the team’s progress this season, but it’s also a reminder that the “next step” that needs to be taken is not an easy one.
And that’s where the second stat comes in. Chelsea have lost all five games against teams we think of as the “top six” this season (Manchester United twice, Liverpool twice, Manchester City today), and we’ve yet to beat any of the actual top four — top five if Sheffield United beat Manchester United on Sunday.
Sure, Chelsea did “better” this time than the last two times at the Etihad, but the proverbial “gap” remains something that needs to be minded very much. The work to close it remains non-trivial.
This isn’t necessarily a huge criticism — we could’ve easily been humiliated, again, by Manchester City on their home turf — but football is a game of small margins at the top level, so saying that the margins are small isn’t necessarily a huge positive either.
“Everyone seems slightly fixated on those couple of games we’ve played, like Liverpool and City. We have gone toe for toe with them, drawing in Istanbul and then losing on penalties. Lost at home in the league pushing for 45 minutes. We have lost today with a very good performance, it is moments in the boxes. That is not something you can actually put down as a rule going into a game of why you win it or don’t.
These teams like Liverpool and City have been getting results for a long time, they have worked together and worked hard, they get things right. Today I don’t think you can come away from that game and think anything other than it was two really strong teams going against each other. One wins it because of a deflected goal and one moment of real quality from Mahrez and the rest was pretty much in the balance.”
-Frank Lampard; source: Football.London
All that said, the kids are alright, and will only get better. Lampard will get better, too. Chelsea are indeed building something fantastic, and we’re making progress. This is all very okay. And it will get better, good, even best.
Now let’s win at Valencia on Wednesday!
Onwards and upwards.