The Season So Far
Between August and December, Man City threatened to complete football and make any further playing of the game, at any level and anywhere in the world, redundant. Thankfully, the sport remains worth playing and enjoying. City’s mask of invincibility has slipped and revealed a very human fragility, at one point leaving them seven points behind Liverpool. They begin the weekend back at the summit, but will very likely have to beat Chelsea to end it there.
With title rivals Liverpool now faltering — while, let’s remember, still having the best season in their entire history — Pep Guardiola and company are once again convinced that a clean sweep of all available trophies is possible. Indeed, it looks like the league will be the most difficult trophy for them to win: the Champions League looks more winnable than ever, City could win the FA Cup without ever playing their strongest XI and they of course face Chelsea in the final of the EFL Cup in a fortnight. Liverpool will doubtless push them all the way, but that could serve only to bring out the best in them.
That said, it’s now a long time since we’ve seen the best of them. Man City have won ten of their last eleven games, sure, but they haven’t hit peak form during that time and some of those matches have been real gimmies. Is there really any point in measuring City’s quality when they’re playing the likes of Burton Albion, Rotherham and Arsenal?
It’s worth conceding that Sergio Agüero has been as lethal as ever and Kevin De Bruyne is slowly playing himself back into form, but every other player appears to be on autopilot. Even the majestic David Silva and the reliable Fernandinho have allowed mistakes to creep into their games in recent weeks - evidence of their advancing ages more than anything else, perhaps, but reason nonetheless to think that Chelsea can upset the odds here.
The Season Ahead
With so many cup competitions looking so easily winnable, including the biggest one of all, it’s going to be a brutal few months for Guardiola as he rotates his side to keep everyone fresh while maintaining the requisite (flawless) level of performance needed to ensure success on multiple fronts. That said, everyone barring Ederson and Fernandinho has an understudy or two ready to step in at a moment’s notice, so unless injuries mount up, Pep will be able to manage. Unlike Chelsea, City have built their squad properly, and they’re able to take full advantage of competent planning and smart spending.
In big games Guardiola usually sacrifices one of his out-and-out wingers in a bid to field another midfielder and ensure domination of a particularly high-quality midfield battle. When Chelsea beat Man City at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, Pep sacrificed his striker, however, playing Raheem Sterling as a false nine with instructions to pull wide and leave the centre vacant. City overloaded Chelsea in the centre and in wide areas and could have been ahead by the time N’Golo Kanté’s goal on the verge of half-time gave the Blues the push they needed to overcome City.
With that plan having failed to yield three points, it’s possible that Pep will revert to type, playing Agüero through the middle with Sterling or Sané to one side and Bernardo Silva on the other, just as he did last weekend against Arsenal. With Sané and Sterling having been rested in recent weeks, however, and with Chelsea looking dodgy at best in recent weeks, Maurizio Sarri shouldn’t be surprised if it’s all out attack from Man City on Monday night.
In any case, their primary mode of attack will be through-balls played behind the Chelsea full-backs from the centre of the pitch, which will then be squared across the goal for a tap-in at the back post. It’s a sign of City’s ridiculous quality that they’ve scored the same goal so many times against teams who know exactly what’s coming but remain powerless to prevent it.
No team has more goals, expected goals, open play goals, shots, shots on target, penalty box shots, six-yard box shots, dribbles, possession or short passes than Man City this season. They’re winning at just about everything. Admittedly, that’s easier than it sounds when you have the wealth of a country at your disposal and you spend it on Pep Guardiola, Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Aymeric Laporte and many more besides.
It’s basically impossible to beat them unless they let you.
Their biggest weakness is that they are letting teams beat them. Crystal Palace and Leicester both did it in December, admittedly by scoring unrepeatable screamers and riding their luck big-time at the back, and Newcastle did it last month, capitalising on horrible defending and complacency to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat having been thoroughly played off the park in the first half.
Having already done the seemingly impossible, Chelsea know they have everything they need to do it again. City won’t be as charitable as they were in the reverse fixture, and Sarri’s record against Guardiola suggests we shouldn’t expect anything besides noble failure, but the fact remains: Chelsea can defend well enough to frustrate City and hit them on the break.
Let’s assume Pep plays with a striker and one out-and-out winger, but it could well be Bernardo Silva who drops to the bench with City’s minnow-flattening 4-3-3 in use. By the same token, it could also be a pioneering 2-1-3-1-3 formation with everyone apparently out of position. With Pep, who knows?
As for Chelsea, we know exactly what’s coming.
Man City 3-2 Chelsea in a modern classic. Just don’t blame Jorginho when it happens.