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Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Can’t win if you don’t score

Manchester City v Chelsea - Premier League
‘The Interview’ is not aging well...
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The basic premise of football is not complicated — score more than the opposition, win the game. Even with a resolute defense, without a goal, a draw is the outcome. Although there were fairly decent opportunities presented to us against the league leaders Manchester City, our final product remains remarkably far off the mark.

When Tuchel took over as manager, he said the squad needed more balance and directed his attention to establishing it. Under Lampard, we were scoring plenty but conceding equally as many. Tuchel has fortified a shaky defense into one of the best in Europe.

Despite that, to come to Manchester City and play with more of a counter-attacking strategy was still disappointing. Earlier this season, Tuchel began to show glimpses of his offensive guile with a reinterpretation of the wingback position, utilizing the goal scoring nous of Reece James and Ben Chilwell to great effect. At that time, it was easier to overlook the lack of production from the front line, whoever they may have been.

Analyzing our starting XI is nigh on moot in regards to the back line or keeper — we sent out the strongest we had available. In fact, we had no defenders on the substitutes bench.

Chelsea starting XI and used/unused subs

Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta are what they are — aging but generally reliable professionals overused in our shortage for the wingback positions. Marking Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish, respectively, they were exposed for pace. The amount of take-ons from City on the flanks show how easily and often they were beaten. In addition, neither of them got a chance to produce anything offensively. Although we were credited with 11 crosses, they only got up to send in 4 of those.

Notice where all the take-ons are occuring, the flanks and in our half

Our centre midfielders were chosen to try to combat City’s expected dominance in possession. Both teams play better while in possession of the ball, both of our styles are predicated on possession, and so both teams would want to be on the ball as much as possible — but City are more effective at it.

To counter their presence on the ball and minimize the chances of this being as one-sided as the last encounter, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić were deployed as the double-sixes. They are the most defensively responsible and aggressive combination, and would also cover far more ground than Jorginho, the only other viable selection.

However, Kovačić was the only one looking to penetrate City’s lines and move the ball into and around the final third. As shown in the table below, the rest of the team lacked progressive final third movement.

Kovačić dominating our passing stats
FB Ref

And that opens the can of worms that is our forward line. There has been no consistency, and no chance for Romelu Lukaku to develop any semblance of cohesion or partnership. Tuchel has tried pairing him with Timo Werner and Kai Havertz in a front two or with any number of different wingers as part of a front three. Tuchel explained in his defense of leaving out Mason Mount to have gone with Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech because he wanted “runners.”

But those runs were far too often into already-occupied space, or essentially the same run being made by another Chelsea player. This isn’t a new problem, and also exacerbated by our forwards’ tendency to collectively show for the ball to receive at their feet rather than stretch a back line — even the high lines of the likes of Manchester City or Liverpool, and even when that player is club-record signing Romelu Lukaku, who’s far more versatile than that, at least in theory.

Kovačić cannot play over the top of their high line, all are showing for the ball to feet. In the second image, you can see how narrow and easily-covered our front three are.

The first great chance in the game fell to Chelsea, but it wasted thanks to our lack of cohesion.

After receiving the ball at his feet, Lukaku spins John Stones and bears down on goal. Ziyech takes his run left-to-right across Lukaku, presumably to try to drag Aymeric Laporte out of Lukaku’s shooting lane and to be an option to slip in. But his run instead slows Lukaku’s advance and, when he opts for the pass, Ziyech is caught offside.

The fact that this isn’t a straightforward goal is a problem

In nearly the next passage of play, after playing out from the back following a series of corners, Kanté and Kovačić work the ball well in triangles and find Ziyech opened up in space. Ziyech receives the ball on the half-turn and spies the run of Lukaku splitting the City centre-backs. His pass is laughably overhit for something seemingly so simple, and again we are left wanting.

The next pass is horribly over-cooked

The third greatly promising situation wasted by the front three occurred at the start of the second half, and it was our greatest chance of them all.

After doing the dirty work in midfield and once again being the spark to progress the ball, Kovačić threads a lovely ball with perfect weight into the path of Lukaku. This time he goes for goal. While it is a decent effort, it seems his easiest route would have been to round Ederson and finish with his right foot rather than take the shot on as he did.

24% to score, higher if he rounds Ederson?

Those three misses, any of which could have produced a goal or at least pose a greater threat to City’s back line than they did, would help to form the narrative on the day — our attack was not good enough. That third opportunity was our first attempted shot of the game, the only shot on target. It was the first time we had not produced a shot in the first half of a game during Tuchel’s reign. We finished the game with fewer shots and fewer touches in the opposition box than we ever have under him, too.

While City play a back four, their outside backs like to contribute not just to the possession but to threats in the opposition’s final third. Joao Cancelo in particular likes to provide good service and assists down City’s left hand side, even though both teams preferred attack was roughly 45% down the right on the day.

And yet, City’s breakthrough would come from that left side and directly involving Cancelo himself. Immediately after replacing our two wingers with Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi, Werner loses an aerial battle to Laporte — something their centre backs were comfortable doing all night long, not that we should be expecting Werner to win many in the first place.

The ball falls to the feet of Rodri, who recycles to Cancelo. Cancelo’s first-time pass with his non-dominant foot is weighted perfectly into the turn of Kevin De Bruyne, who seems to love punishing his former club.

Cancelo and De Bruyne slicing through our right side

De Bruyne brushes off the tackle from Kanté and progresses into the center of the field just outside the box, completely unmarked. Kovačić, though positionally well-placed, was ball watching at first and is slow to react once Kanté is beaten. Rüdiger was held wide to the right due to the presence of Grealish, but he should have been the one to step to the ball. Silva has to cover Phil Foden, who, centrally, is a far greater threat than Grealish wide on the left. The failure to close and get touch-tight to De Bruyne allows him to unleash a curling effort dug out from under his feet.

De Bruyne’s individual brilliance for the winner

That individual bit of finishing quality is all that it took to sway the title race completely in City’s favour and even start to bring to question how easy our march to the top four will be. Teams like Arsenal and Tottenham have a number of (up to four!) games in hand to close the gap.

Our progression in both of the cups and the Champions League, as well as playing in the Club World Cup next month will mean plenty of fixture congestion. Buckle up and hold on, it’s still going to be quite the ride until the end of the season.


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