Manchester City 2-0 Chelsea: Chelsea stay deep, narrow and compact but City find a way through

February 25, 2013

The starting line-ups

Chelsea played negatively, and afforded City too many goalscoring opportunities.

Roberto Mancini surprisingly played Yaya Toure behind Sergio Aguero, a combination he’s rarely used this season. Jack Rodwell started alongside Javi Garcia, while Vincent Kompany wasn’t fit, so Kolo Toure started at the back.

Rafael Benitez used Demba Ba instead of Fernando Torres. John Terry was on the bench, as were Cesar Azpilicueta and Oscar, with Branislav Ivanovic used at right-back and Ramires on the right of midfield.

City dominated the first half but broke through in the second, after Mancini turned to his bench.


Contests between Mancini and Benitez aren’t exactly mouthwatering – their two previous Premier League meetings had finished 0-0, with the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge a decent contender for ‘worst Premier League game of the season’.

Here, both coaches named the more defensive of their two possible 4-2-3-1 formats, with Ramires and Yaya Toure in the attacking band of three, rather than charging forward from one of the holding midfield positions. This meant the game had a cautious feel in the opening stages, although City dominated in terms of territory, and got the ball into some promising positions.

Chelsea start cautiously

Benitez set his stall out defensively, ordering his players to play deep and narrow. It was only fifteen minutes before he could be seen on the sideline, shouting ‘compact!’ at his team while doing the now-familiar gesture of pushing his hands together, urging Ba and Juan Mata to drop deep, to prevent Manchester City from finding space between the lines.

His approach was logical. Aguero likes to sprint in behind when playing upfront, so staying deep denies him space there. David Silva likes to drift inside between the lines, which means it was imperative not to allow him time in that zone, while Toure’s at his best when storming forward into space. With no Edin Dzeko, and therefore no significant danger aerially, Chelsea could afford to allow City time on the flanks.

City attacks

But while Toure had relatively little impact on the first half, and Aguero only had one chance when he drifted in behind the defence, City were surprisingly impressive when attacking down the flanks. They were particularly dangerous down the left, where Silva drifted inside and dragged Ivanovic narrow, allowing Gael Clichy to overlap to good effect. It was a surprise to see the Frenchman given so much time on the ball, with Ramires deployed on that flank to provide balance, but often Ramires was too narrow to stop him.

On the other flank, Eden Hazard offered a counter-attacking threat and therefore pinned back Pablo Zabaleta more, but James Milner had a good game, not simply staying wide and stretching the play, but also ducking inside into a pocket of space behind Lampard.


There may have been no classic centre-forward threat in the air, but City got around this by Toure and, in particular, Rodwell arriving in the box to get on the end of crosses. It was a slightly unusual approach, but it’s something City have done before – Gareth Barry has scored two headers from open play in the last two months from similar situations. Set-pieces were also a real problem for Chelsea, with City forcing Petr Cech into a couple of saves when players evaded Chelsea’s man-marking.

Chelsea’s counter-attacking threat was sporadic and mainly based around Hazard on the left, and Chelsea’s insistence on staying deep meant that (despite Benitez wanting compactness) Ba often received little support. However, City were also quite good at winning the ball back quickly – Rodwell made a couple of unncessarily hard tackles but provided physicality in the middle, while Garcia had one of his better games for City in a disciplined holding role close to Mata. Ramires, often excellent at taking the ball forward on the run, contributed little going forward as he started in a deeper position. Lampard sprayed passes forward but rarely contributed anything in the final third.

Second half

The game changed in the second half – Chelsea were more attack-minded and their passing became more direct. Ba against Kolo Toure was a battle Chelsea hadn’t explored enough in the first half, and Ivanovic’s long ball behind the defence tempted Joe Hart into a rash tackle – Lampard failed to convert the penalty, but he had been more involved in the attacking third after the break.

But City also stepped up their game, particularly after Mancini’s first substitution. Carlos Tevez replaced Jack Rodwell – which was harsh on Rodwell, who had played well, but City needed attacking invention. Surprisingly, Toure stayed in his advanced role and Milner dropped deeper into midfield, with Silva going to the right and Aguero starting from the left. City’s crossing was less obvious after the break:

Tevez creates space for others

City were fluid, however, and Aguero moved inside from the left-sided position to make runs behind the defence. Whereas this had only happened once in the first half, within three minutes of Tevez’s arrival, Aguero found space in behind twice in quick succession – now the defenders were being brought up the pitch, Aguero’s runs (from a deeper position) were more effective. It’s odd Mancini hasn’t selected Tevez and Aguero together more frequently, as this act of stretching the defence both ways consistently seems dangerous when they’re paired, and Tevez had an important impact before he’d even touched the ball.

Toure also benefited from the extra attacking player, and he waltzed away from John Obi Mikel to open the scoring from the edge of the box. It was odd Mikel should be beaten by Toure for the goal, considering he’d been so impressive against Toure in the recent Africa Cup of Nations competition, and Benitez will be disappointed at the nature of the goal – with this team selection, he was clearly trying to make his side solid in the centre of midfield.

Benitez changes

Benitez made two changes on 68 minutes. Victor Moses on for Frank Lampard, with Ramires moving central, made sense to give Chelsea extra attacking drive. Oscar replacing Hazard was more surprising – Hazard had been Chelsea’s liveliest attacker.

Really, Benitez was constrained by his initial negativity – Chelsea didn’t need Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ivanovic and Mikel (plus Ashley Cole at left-back) all on the pitch until 81 minutes. A more attack-minded right-back would have been useful (but Benitez couldn’t have replicated a favoured substitution from previous weeks, Azpilicueta for Ivanovic, without being criticised for not introducing an extra attacker).

His final substitution was Mikel off, Torres on. Torres went upfront, Oscar dropped into a deeper midfield position. Benitez obviously felt Oscar alongside Ramires wouldn’t work, so Oscar was was partnered by Luiz, who had stepped forward from defence. Ramires moved from the centre of midfield to right-back, his third position of the game, with Ivanovic shifting inside to become a centre-back.

There was some logic to it – Ramires could now provide a burst of energy from right-back, Luiz offered the back four protection. But this was a relatively small attacking shift that apparently required a complete transformation of his side, with a new centre-back partnership, a new central midfield partnership and a makeshift right-back. Benitez was simply taking off a holding midfielder and putting on a second striker – 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. It shouldn’t be that complicated, and the attacking substitution made Chelsea no more dangerous – Tevez’s fine goal put the result beyond doubt.


A surprising feature of this game was Chelsea’s dominance of possession – 53%. Much of this came after they went behind and were forced to come into the game, but City appeared to see far more of the ball. Presumably, Chelsea’s possession was simply in non-threatening zones.

The first half was about Chelsea preventing City working space between the lines, and showing them wide instead – City created a number of chances by attacking down the flanks. After the break, Tevez’s introduction meant other players found more space, while Benitez’s changes were largely ineffective.

Some brief thoughts on the League Cup final here

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