Premier League: Maurizio Sarri's minute adjustments to system pay off as Chelsea snap Manchester City's unbeaten run
Manchester City started the game on the front foot, pressing high and creating pressure on the Chelsea backline which has been the most vulnerable aspect of Sarri’s team
It was supposed to be a routine day-out in the park on a cool, cloudy evening at the Stamford Bridge — Maurizio Sarri had never beaten Pep Guardiola in three previous meetings, Chelsea were amidst a poor stretch of form and whispers of the Invincibles 2.0 regarding Guardiola’s princely jewels in the air, but football always finds the ability to produce a moment of dark humour at someone’s expense.
Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League record of eight months as well as their lead at the top of the league table dissolved into thin air as N’Golo Kante and David Luiz handed out a 2-0 defeat to the defending champions on Saturday. Both clubs started in a similar formation with Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling as ‘false nines’. For Chelsea, while Olivier Giroud was confined to the bench, Alvaro Morata did not even make the squad. Guardiola, on the other hand, trusted Sterling’s fine form in Sergio Aguero’s injury-laden absence, but for the first time this season, the Spaniard missed the match-winners that Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne are.
In City’s defence, the visitors started the game on the front foot, pressing high and creating pressure on Chelsea’s backline which has been the most vulnerable aspect of Sarri’s team, but the hosts’ defenders were on song right from the get-go. Marcos Alonso produced another shaky performance, giving the ball away and failing to deal with fast-paced take-ons, but Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz were immense, the Chelsea captain, in particular, showcasing why he is so often regarded as 'Mr. Dependable' in the Chelsea ranks.
One moment which certainly stood out in the first half was when Leroy Sane latched on to the ball from six yards with just Azpilicueta and Kepa Arrizabalaga to beat, but the Spanish full-back thwarted Sane’s shot with a sliding full-body block. Guardiola had hoped the Chelsea defence would succumb under a systematic press, like they did against Tottenham Hotspur a couple of weeks back at the Wembley, but Sarri ensured there were minute adjustments to his preferred tactical scheme without changing any basics.
While Hazard slotting in as a false nine gave Chelsea more fluidity up top, in spite of the fact that the Belgian was mostly a passenger in the first half an hour of the game, Sarri’s masterstroke was to play Kante a bit closer to Jorginho, as a tucked-in right inside midfielder while Mateo Kovacic had a free license to break the lines. There is no denying that Kante has no match in the Premier League when it comes to being a defensive cover, but even in light of a few early errors when he was robbed of possession, Kante’s tenacity was crucial behind Chelsea turning the tables on Manchester City.
Chelsea’s first goal at the brink of the half-time came against the tide of play — not only was it vintage Chelsea but it came off a move which involved as many as eight Chelsea players. David Luiz, having exchanged passes with the rest of his fellow defenders found an advancing Pedro on the right wing with a peach of a ball who switched play to Willian on the opposite side. Willian’s indecisiveness had all but taken away the element of surprise but the ball fell upon Alonso who fed Hazard in City’s penalty area. As Hazard took a few seconds to assess his options, time paused for the Citizens who ferried back to cover the goalmouth but the Belgian found a yard of space to release the ball onto an onrushing Kante whose superb volley brought the roof down at the Stamford Bridge.
If Chelsea meandered through the first half simply with resoluteness, they brought out the best of their abilities in the second half when Manchester City were thoroughly outplayed. City registered 14 shots, but only 4 of them were on target, one lesser than the hosts who only attempted eight shots in total. Manchester City also earned thirteen corners as compared to Chelsea’s one, the visitors’ bulk possession not contributing anything to their cause. That Kepa Arrizabalaga produced yet another masterclass to ensure his clean sheet is no longer surprising, but David Luiz’s no-nonsense display was reassuring to fans and pundits alike.
It was Luiz who dealt Manchester City the final blow when his brilliant looping header caught Ederson out of position to slot into the far top corner and helped Chelsea secure an emphatic victory. The fact that Sarri did not change his system and only played slightly deeper to counter Manchester City’s aggressive tactics, all the while outclassing a side which did not play poorly by any means makes this win a true accomplishment for the Italian — something on which Chelsea’s new manager can surely build upon.
“We are really pleased but we have a team with some difficulties to be motivated. In this kind of match, it’s very easy to have great motivation and determination. We need continuity in motivation and determination otherwise we can win this kind of match and lose points in another match,” Sarri said after the game, emphasizing on how a single result does not change the course of their season unless they can achieve consistency.
Manchester City have struggled on the road this season, a tenet they must rectify soon for it will be the defending champions who will now play catch-up to Liverpool who took the lead by one point at the top of the table courtesy Liverpool’s win over AFC Bournemouth, but City do not have any more difficult away trips remaining. Moreover, Guardiola remains insistent that this defeat would only serve them well in the long run. “We’re not here to be invincibles,” Guardiola opined, “we’re here to be champions.”
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