Manchester City 2-1 Chelsea: Mancini gets one substitution wrong, then two right
Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko helped turn a 0-1 into a 2-1.
Manchester City were without Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, so Micah Richards moved into the middle. Mario Balotelli continues to start ahead of Edin Dzeko in big games, while James Milner was left out with Samir Nasri preferred.
Roberto Di Matteo played Fernando Torres upfront, Ramires on the right and John Obi Mikel in the holding role. John Terry was out.
Chelsea lined up in the 4-2-3-1 shape that Di Matteo prefers, with Raul Meireles in support of Torres, and Frank Lampard much deeper. This system changes the role of the wide players significantly: it forces them to form a second bank of four without the ball (whereas in the 4-3-3 they stayed much higher up, especially as Andre Villas-Boas wanted them to press).
This was significant: Juan Mata often got caught too high up the pitch when Pablo Zabaleta made forward runs past him, and when City switched the play out wide they often looked dangerous, particularly after their wide players had come inside and made Chelsea narrow. Ramires, on the other side, is naturally both more disciplined and happy tracking back, and Gael Clichy caused fewer problems.
City dominate but fail to score
City dominated possession in the first half and should probably have had a goal to show for it, but they struggled to create clear-cut chances. Their closest efforts, Samir Nasri’s lob onto the bar and Balotelli’s effort just wide, came with attacks straight down the middle of the pitch.
Indeed, they were very focussed on playing through the middle, with the two wide players coming inside. Often one of the forwards would move out to the left flank, but when they stayed in the middle and one dropped deep, it meant a 3 v 2 situation with Nasri, David Silva and either Sergio Aguero or Balotelli forming a triangle around Lampard and Mikel.
There were further problems when Yaya Toure burst forward into this space – Meireles generally watched de Jong – and it was surprising that City didn’t create more from this zone.
At the other end, Torres generally played up against Richards (probably to combine with Mata towards that side) and drifted wide to the flanks. One area where Chelsea did look promising was when Meireles drifted away from de Jong (who often had to cover too much ground with Yaya Toure high up the pitch, so got drawn to runners) but his end product was poor.
Chelsea made two changes during the second half – Michael Essien on for Meireles, with Lampard up higher, then at 1-0 Didier Drogba came on for Torres, presumably to help Chelsea hold the ball up when under pressure.
But this was all about City’s substitutions. At half-time Mancini took the curious decision to remove Balotelli and bring on Gareth Barry. This meant Aguero and Yaya Toure moving higher, and the intention was probably to get the latter into more dangerous positions, and more specifically to get him permanently into that zone between the lines Chelsea were vulnerable in.
It didn’t really work, though – City didn’t play any worse than they had at the end of the first half, but Chelsea’s fortunate goal meant City simply lacked attackers with the opposition getting ten outfield players behind the ball. They now had too many central midfielders.
Mancini inevitably had to bring on another forward, and revert to the system he used at the start of the match, with Toure alongside one holder (though this time it was Barry, not De Jong).
The first forward summoned was Carlos Tevez. Whereas in the first half Aguero and Balotelli played as a front two, switching positions, Tevez was put firmly between the lines to pick up balls in that zone. He played the role brilliantly – whereas Toure’s natural instinct is to drive towards goal, this often isn’t possible when the opposition are playing deep and getting men around the player in possession. Tevez was useful because of his close control and one-touch passing in tight areas – he continually found space between the lines and kept City’s play flowing – Nasri and Silva’s runs looked better when they had Tevez on the same wavelength.
But City still couldn’t breakthrough – Chelsea were playing very, very deep – the defence sat on the edge of the box, the midfield barely crossed the halfway line at 0-1. Aguero, Tevez, Nasri and Silva were playing decent but very intricate football, and City really needed a more static central striker for the other players to work around. Edin Dzeko came on for Silva, Aguero went right-ish, and now City had much more of an all-round threat. Suddenly, they were working the ball wide and getting crosses into Dzeko – they were rarely successful, but they were attacking from different angles, stretching the play, making Chelsea work harder across the pitch. Dzeko’s presence won the corner that resulted in the first goal (a very indirect contribution to the goal, granted, but he was having an impact).
Notably, both Dzeko and Tevez could play with their back to goal – that helped for the Nasri winner, as Tevez’s awareness and touch were excellent when playing the one-two.
Let’s not pretend that this was a tactical masterclass from Mancini – he got his first change broadly wrong, and the second and third substitutions were the obvious choices. Instead, this simply showed what a great range of options City have – Tevez and Dzeko are not merely established forwards, they also offer completely different methods of attack to the other forwards.
This was the sign of a good side – not because of the usual cliches about squeezing out results in a tight game, but because City showed they had flexibility upfront and can deal with different challenges by responding with a fresh approach in the final third.