The Debrief: Compact defence foils Man City forwards, but it’s not enough in narrow defeat

Chelsea were unable to halt Manchester City’s run of victories in the Premier League, but the statistics show how close our tactics came to succeeding and reveal a much closer game than it may have appeared.

You couldn’t fault the effort or the commitment of the Blues on Saturday, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Man City recording their 12th win in a row in the Premier League, even if we came closer than anyone to being the first visitors to leave the Etihad Stadium with a point since October, a feat only two teams have managed all season.

We had to do a lot of defending over the 90 minutes, with the concentration levels required adding mental fatigue to the physical exertions of the last few weeks, and in the end the pressure we had withstood for much of the game told, as Kevin De Bruyne scored the only goal of the game with a curling shot from outside the box.

Thomas Tuchel said after the match he felt we had deserved a point for our efforts at nullifying City’s threat, and the statistics tend to back up our head coach’s view, showing how close we came to doing what nobody has done for nearly three months by picking up points away at the Etihad Stadium.

Fresher legs tell

There is never a good time to play the league leaders, but it’s fair to see this match didn’t come at the ideal time, with a well-rested Manchester City playing their first game for over a week, while Chelsea were taking to the pitch for the third time in the same eight-day period, following our midweek exertions in the Carabao Cup semi-final win over Tottenham Hotspur.

City inevitably used that extra energy and their home advantage to control possession for long spells, although probably not by as much as it appeared at first viewing, but their 56 per cent possession still left us working hard to try and keep them at arm’s length.

Acknowledging that fact, Thomas Tuchel’s team attempted to ration our energy by employing a tactic similar to that used with such success by England at last summer’s European Championship, coming out quickly at the start of each half to try and make an impact before our opponents could settle into their rhythm.

It nearly paid off, especially in the second half, with three of our four shots coming inside to first five minutes after half-time, including the closest we came to scoring. If Ederson hadn’t managed to palm away Romelu Lukaku’s effort with a great save right at the start of the second half, it would have been 1-0 to Chelsea and a very different 45 minutes that followed. In contrast, our opponents didn’t manage an attempt at goal in the opening 10 minutes of either half.

Denying opportunities

Manchester City’s plan was clear, using a trio of quick, skilful attackers to try and break our defensive line and open up spaces in the penalty area. Phil Foden operated in a free role, trying to tempt our centre-backs to follow him into deep positions to expose gaps for Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling to attack from the channels.

Thankfully Thiago Silva was far too experienced and disciplined to fall for that trap, holding his ground and organising those around him to keep our defensive wall intact, while passing Foden off to our midfield when he strayed too far, resulting in N’Golo Kante playing much closer to our defensive line than usual to prevent any space forming in that area for Foden to exploit.

That left City’s wingers looking to find gaps between our centre-backs and wing-backs from wide positions, with just 19 per cent of their attacks taking place down the middle of the pitch, as opposed to 37 per cent on the left and 44 per cent on the right.

It took a real team effort to stop them creating clear chances through that method, with Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso forming the first line of defence, while Antonio Rudiger and Malang Sarr covered their backs ready to step in quickly if the wingers managed to find a yard to use their pace or tried to exploit the spaces behind our wing-backs on the counter.

Kante and Mateo Kovacic also played a key role here, especially the Croatian in the case of keeping Sterling penned in on our left flank. Kovacic’s clever positioning helped block the inside channel and ensure any pass to Sterling’s feet would need to be wide and out of harm’s way, and denying City the chance to play through-balls between our defenders for the pacey attacker to run onto.

The important role the midfield pair of Kante and Kovacic played in helping our defence close those spaces is clear by the fact the Frenchman made the highest number of tackles in the match, joint with Azpilicueta on five, while Kovacic was close behind with four.

Looking for the out ball

Finding ourselves in the unusual situation of having less possession than our opponents, with 37 per cent of the game played in our third of the pitch, and facing a relentless high press, there was a more direct approach on display from the Blues, similar to that we had seen at Tottenham earlier in the week.

However, while in north London the emphasis was mostly on Lukaku to hold up the ball in a central position, City’s high defensive line called for something a bit different, as the Belgian was corralled into our own half to stay onside. Instead, we looked to exploit the space behind their attacking full-backs.

With Kyle Walker’s pace making that difficult, it was Christian Pulisic bursting into the areas vacated by the attack-minded Joao Cancelo down our right that we looked to, with the likes of Thiago Silva keeping an eye open for opportunities to release the American early with long balls and Azpilicueta helping to support him. That explains why 43 per cent of our own attacks came down that side, with Pulisic and Azpilicueta accounting for two of our three key passes in Manchester, Kovacic providing the other.

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