Premier League leaders go 18 points clear with persuading display against defensively-minded opponents
For once, it did not really feel necessary to go through all the well-worn superlatives that have accompanied Manchester City on their procession to the title. That is 14 successive home wins now in the Premier League. No squad had already been racked up so many passes- 902- since the league’s inception and Ilkay Gundogan’s total of 174 was another record for the modern era.
Pep Guardiola’s side had won with something to spare and by the time it was all over, with an 18 -point gap opening up at the upper part of the table, it was difficult to remember that it was the players wearing the darker shade of blue who were, in fact, the champs of England.
For City, that honour is likely to be theirs in a few weeks- quite possibly when Manchester United visit here on 7 April- whereas Chelsea should be embarrassed that those various kinds of record statistics could happen on their watch. They barely laid a glove on the team that, lest it be forgotten, finished 15 phases below them last season and it was startling to find their regression, the ultra-defensive tactics be applied by Antonio Conte’s side and, more than anything, the sheer lack of gumption at 1-0 to do anything about it. Chelsea are supposed to be a big club with lofty aspirations, but what does it say for the present team that they were the patsies on the day one of their competitors made an unprecedented reveal of keep-ball?
The only surprise was Guardiola’s men limited themselves to Bernardo Silva’s goal 33 seconds into the second half and that, for all the intelligent inspires of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva and the flowering magnificence of Leroy Sane, they did not make it a more emphatic win. The home side played every kind of pass- 508 in the first half alone- but there were not too many of the killer assortment. This was actually the first time in City’s winning run on their own ground that they have not managed at least two objectives, but that seldom felt like an issue when their opponents were so vapid. No team can accumulate the various kinds of statistics City did here if they were being chased and harried and that, perhaps, was the most alarming facet for Conte. N’Golo Kante was missing because of a virus and, without their most combative player, it was startling to watch the lack of enthusiasm among Chelsea’s players to make a tackle or raise their voices- anything to show they cared.
Chelsea have now lost four of their past five league games and there was a telling moment late on, just before the amount of stoppage time was announced, when Conte withdrew Eden Hazard to bring on Alvaro Morata, giving the Spaniard all of four minutes to conjure up an equaliser. Hazard walked past his administrator without even exchanging a appear. Too much can be made of these moments sometimes, but the strained body language was reminiscent of a similar incident involving Hazard and Jose Mourinho, shortly before the Portuguese was sacked from Stamford Bridge in 2015.
Conte explained afterwards that he had had to be realistic about City’s superior position and adapt his tactics accordingly. He had a point, but could they not have shown a touch more aspiration? It was difficult to think of another side that has visited the Etihad Stadium this season and had so little impact, attacking-wise, and Conte’s analysis did not take into account that City, for all their counter-attacking brilliance, can often leave themselves vulnerable because of the sheer nature of Guardiola’s lineup.
City had an attacking midfielder, Oleksandr Zinchenko, at left-back. Kyle Walker is the most forward-thinking right-back in the league and Gundogan, operating as a holding midfielder, is another whose first instincts are to go forward. The trick for City’s adversaries is getting the balance right between defense and attack. Yet Chelsea rarely ventured to find out why City had maintained merely two clean sheets in their previous nine home games and, among the snowstorm of statistics corroborating the home side’s superiority, one including with regard to jumped off the page- Hazard had only 33 touches of the ball, 18 fewer than Thibaut Courtois, the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Chelsea utilized the same tactical plan against Barcelona in their Champions League first leg, but it works only if the team defend at their absolute best. Instead, Andreas Christensen’s mistake allow in Lionel Messi for Barcelona’s equaliser and, again, the centre-half had to accept a proportion of the blame when City scored the goal that leaves them needing four more wins to corroborate the title.
When Christensen’s attempted clearance struck one of his own team-mates Sergio Aguero was on the ball in a flash. David Silva was overlapping on the left and Bernardo Silva, coming in at the far post, depicted more interest to get to the cross than Marcos Alonso, turning his shoot into the bottom corner.
Chelsea still had plenty of time to save themselves but their problem was getting the ball, and this is the other thing about City that sometimes runs unnoticed: when they do lose the ball they run devilishly hard at getting it back as quickly as possible.
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