Chelsea’s approach to facing Manchester City suggests ominous few years in the Premier League
More so than with any other team before them, English football is yet to work out Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Fans and pundits cannot speak highly enough of what is fast becoming the most remarkable team ever to play in the Premier League. Of course, they will need the medals to prove it, but after winning the Carabao Cup at a canter against Arsenal last week, Thursday’s league win at the Gunners and Sunday’s victory over reigning champions Chelsea leave them just 12 points from Guardiola’s first league title.
Manchester United won the treble in 1999, Arsenal went the entire league season unbeaten in 2004 and Chelsea set a record points tally under Jose Mourinho a year later. City may not achieve any, and certainly not all, of those feats this season, but they have broken the mould so much, done everything so effortlessly on the surface this, that they have to at the very least rival those legendary sides. Nobody quite knows how to take them; when Guardiola first arrived in 2016, he was told, in no uncertain terms, the breath-taking, high intensity football that had seen him dominate Spain and Germany would not work here. There is too much variety in the Premier League, they said; the greatest tactical innovator in the modern game would have to tailor his approach.
A year of teething helped back this philosophy up, but as he is now showing, once fully bedded in, Guardiola was always going to turn English football on its head. At no point this season has he altered his thinking in preparation for a match; whether Sam Allardyce, Jurgen Klopp or Mourinho are in the opposite dugout, he has demanded the exact same bravery, technique and panache from his players. Natural progression means that it is the Premier League that has had to adapt to him and City; barely anyone has proven to be a match for them over 90 minutes, let alone the entire season.
David and Goliath stories are nothing new in the Premier League, but never has anything been seen on this scale. Relegation-threatened sides are always going to defend deep against the big boys, but against this City team it is even more understandable. Sky Sports pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher lambasted Newcastle United, for example, for their approach to the game at St James’ Park just after Christmas. It was clear Rafa Benitez wanted to get out of the game without major damage to his goal difference, just as he did at Liverpool on Saturday, and the Magpies barely moved out of their defensive third; but they pushed on against others in the top six at home, earning draw with the Reds in October, and giving as good as they got in last month’s home win over Manchester United. This City side are different, though; attacking them is not seen as a risk, but a suicide mission, and the majority of the league is laying down before a ball is even kicked.
For the likes of Newcastle, who only lost 1-0 that night, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, who all suffered late heartbreak in the face of Guardiola’s relentless intensity, surrendering as an attacking force is a sensible approach. On Sunday it was much more worrying, when Chelsea, the reigning Premier League champions, did the exact same thing and lost 1-0 to a Bernardo Silva strike just after the break. Their performance was a far cry from the type that led them to the title last season; there were barely any counter attacks and no pressing; with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, the wingbacks, rarely striding forward.
Eden Hazard, arguably the league’s best player, cut a frustrated figure up front; bizarrely, Antonio Conte’s tactic appeared to be using him as a target man instead of a false number nine, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, specialists in that role, sat on the bench.
Conte even justified his tactics in the same way as Benitez, Mauricio Pellegrino and David Moyes. When Sky’s pundits criticised him in the same vein as they had Newcastle in December, he told reporters: “I’m not stupid to play open against City and lose 3-0 or 4-0. If I remember, Arsenal did that and you criticised them for conceding three goals in 30 minutes.”
There are some good points made; he is right about Arsenal, who were humiliated twice by City, but their performances across the season have suggested going toe-to-toe with them would end like that. If Chelsea, a team that personified balance between defence and attack on their way to the ultimate success last season, a team that has spent £200million under Conte, including £75million on record signing Morata last summer, cannot attack City, choosing damage limitation over trust in their players right from the start, what hope is there for competitiveness in the future?
Chelsea players are often criticised for downing tools when they want a manager to leave, and speculation over Conte’s future is more prominent than ever. For once, Sunday’s performance cannot be put down to a lack of cohesion between players and manager; they followed his instructions perfectly, there was just no intention to try and win the game from the visitors’ point of view.
Worst of all, though, is the idea that Conte is correct in his thinking. Those post-match comments may be terrible to hear coming from the manager of a team as powerful as Chelsea, but it is hard to disagree with his premise because Manchester City have just been that dominant this season.
Liverpool are the only team to beat City in the Premier League and the only team to win by attacking them full throttle. Crucially, the Reds have as much attacking flair at their disposal, but they still conceded three goals. The evidence suggests Conte is right, and the concerning development of teams just accepting defeat against Manchester City is now impacting even the biggest games. Nineteen Premier League teams need a new plan when facing the ferocity of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, because their current one really isn’t sustainable.