Manchester City 0-1 Chelsea: cautious team selection from Mourinho, but positive approach

February 4, 2014

The starting line-ups

Chelsea kept a clean sheet and created a number of chances in a highly impressive away performance.

Manuel Pellegrini was without Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Fernandinho. He kept a 4-4-2 with Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo upfront, and brought Martin Demichelis into the midfield.

Jose Mourinho left out Oscar and played a cautious midfield featuring both David Luiz and Nemanja Matic.

Chelsea were excellent here, working extremely hard without the ball, counter-attacking effectively and being more adventurous than expected.

City formation

The formation decisions of both managers were crucial in the pattern of the game. Manuel Pellegrini stuck to the 4-4-2 system he’s played for the majority of the campaign, with two out-and-out strikers. This was a slightly surprising decision considering the nature of the game, and Pellegrini’s injury absences.

No-one would have batted an eyelid had Pellegrini played this system with a fit Sergio Aguero upfront, but without the Argentine the selection of Dzeko and Negredo together was questionable. They’ve combined well when starting upfront as a duo previously, particularly in the recent Capital One Cup thrashing of West Ham, but this match was a different situation entirely.

City’s problem wasn’t the standard 4-4-2 issue – being outnumbered and therefore overrun in midfield – but more about the relative lack of attacking options when the midfielders had the ball. Dzeko and Negredo were rarely guilty of making the exact same run, but didn’t provide enough variety to really stretch the Chelsea defence.

In hindsight, Pellegrini might regret not playing James Milner on the left, moving Silva into the number ten position, and playing only one striker, as he did in the 2-1 win over Liverpool. The 4-4-2 is much flatter without both Fernandinho and Aguero, and seemed more predictable.

Chelsea formation

On paper, Mourinho’s side looked like the defensive-minded 4-3-3 that helped grind out a 0-0 at the Emirates, with Oscar omitted and another holding midfielder in the side. Instead, it was more of a 4-2-3-1, albeit with Ramires playing a very narrow right-sided position (similar to how he’s played with both Benfica and Brazil previously, and probably his best role) and Willian central.

Mourinho might have been planning this all along, but it’s also possible he switched to a 4-2-3-1 having realised City were using Demichelis in midfield. It would have been a waste not to put a dangerous attacking player close to him, testing his positioning and tackling skills – and, in the event, the Argentine looked uncomfortable at various points, although was probably better than when played at centre-back.

Average positions - City left and Chelsea right (from

Nullifying Silva

The most remarkable thing about Chelsea’s performance is that they kept a clean sheet, the first at the Etihad for a visiting side for over three years.

The key to this was nullifying Silva. City’s side was less creative than usual – Demichelis isn’t as positive in possession as Fernandinho, Dzeko doesn’t have Aguero’s guile in deep positions, and the lack of Samir Nasri robbed City of their second most talented playmaker, too. Therefore, there was a huge emphasis upon Silva. Jesus Navas can cross, and Yaya Toure can storm forward, but Silva’s passes can be impossible to defend against and are more crucial in the type of football Pellegrini demands.

Stopping him was no easy task. Silva is averaging close to four ‘key passes’ per game this season, an unparalleled figure. Four separate players all contributed to minimising his space – Luiz was usually closest, Matic acted as cover, while Ramires’ narrowness helped prevent passes into him, and Branislav Ivanovic tucked in naturally to deny space in that pocket, too. It’s difficult to remember Silva attempting a single through-ball, his speciality, although he did get into good goalscoring positions.

Narrowness down that flank

Silva drifting inside, plus Ramires playing narrow, meant the space was all down that flank. The game’s first chance came when Aleksandar Kolarov stormed forward, received a pass from Toure, and crossed – nearly finding the Ivorian at the far post. Later, perhaps City’s best chance of the second half came when Silva couldn’t turn in another Kolarov cross.

Equally, it allowed space for Ivanovic to get forward, and his aggressive positioning was obvious even before he gave Chelsea the lead. The narrower Silva became, the more Ivanovic could attack – safe in the knowledge Chelsea had two holding midfielders ready to cover. Mourinho wouldn’t have expected Ivanovic to score the opener from open play, but he tends to come up with important goals – as he stuck, Silva was high up the pitch in a centre-right position.

Kolarov was more involved than Zabaleta (who was scared to attack past Hazard):

And Ivanovic was more adventurous than Azpilicueta (pinned back by Navas):

Chelsea counter-attacks

Chelsea primarily threatened on the counter-attack, where they had three quick runners behind Samuel Eto’o. The Cameroon striker wasn’t one of Chelsea’s star performers, and arguably the only player on Mourinho’s side that wasn’t genuinely excellent. However, he continually made dangerous runs in behind Manchester City’s centre-backs, who appeared nervous all night, misplacing clearances and getting in the way of one another.

The key attacking players broke forward from midfield, though. Chelsea had tremendous pace in three different ways – Ramires’ incredible speed over long distances, Willian’s consistent short, sharp sprints to find space, and Eden Hazard’s ability to shift up through the gears and beat opponents at will.

Chelsea’s best counter-attack came at 0-0, from a stray Negredo pass that meant the away side could attack four-on-one, following a City corner.

Unsurprisingly, the four runners were Eto’o, Hazard, Willian and Ramires. Eto’o and Hazard had stayed up as Chelsea defended the corner, Willian was protecting the space on the edge of the box and ready to break, while Ramires – the man who found himself with the chance, and eventually produced a poor finish – was actually marking Negredo when the Spaniard misplaced the pass from on the edge of the City box. He sprinted 80 yards to the opposition box in eleven seconds to shoot – the Brazilian’s’ desire underlined Chelsea’s commitment to playing on the break.

These players’ energy when defending was also crucial. Willian consistently shut down opposition midfielders, while Hazard battled back to protect Cesar Azpilicueta, who handled Navas well.


Pellegrini didn’t change anything for the second half, but turned to Stevan Jovetic just twelve minutes after the interval. This was his only substitution of the match, and was broadly successful – Jovetic played a different role to Negredo, the man he replaced, dropping off the front and drifting towards the left. His contributions were inconsistent – he gave the ball away too much – but he provided a spark previously missing, brought Chelsea’s defenders out of position, and was a threat from long-range. It gave another dimension to City’s play.

Mourinho’s changes all came in the final ten minutes, and were about shutting down the game. Oscar replaced Samuel Eto’o, with Hazard going upfront, then John Obi Mikel and Demba Ba were introduced for their height, as Mourinho anticipated an aerial bombardment.

As we’ve seen before, Mourinho happily shifts to an extremely defensive system – with a back four plus Matic, Luiz, Mikel and Ramires at full-time. Chelsea defended deep in the closing stages, and Cahill, Terry and Petr Cech did the dirty work when required.


“Parking the bus has no relation with the players the manager chooses, it has a relation to how the team plays,” Mourinho said before the game. “You can play with six, seven, eight defensive players and be an attacking team.”

This was the perfect away performance: solid defending, a clean sheet and sporadic chances on the counter-attack. Chelsea hit the woodwork three times at 1-0 up and created some promising situations on breaks. They also defended excellently, with the midfielders working hard and the defenders flawless inside the penalty box.

1-0 is a slender defeat, but there’s not a single area where City were superior in this game. Their defenders looked nervous, their midfield didn’t cover the space effectively without Fernandinho’s energy, Silva struggled to create chances, Navas lost his battle with Azpilicueta and the strikers didn’t offer enough variety with their movement.

Clearly, it would be foolish to question City’s overall strategy considering their astonishing results this season, but in the biggest games Pellegrini could, in future, seek to play an extra midfielder rather than two forwards – certainly if Aguero isn’t available. City’s 4-4-2 is definitely workable with Aguero and Fernandinho, but without adequate replacements (at least until Jovetic is trusted from the start) is becomes, in effect, an entirely different and more basic system.

Chelsea’s default style – pragmatic, counter-attacking, disciplined – lends itself more to big matches like this, whereas City’s all-out-attack style is more efficient at beating smaller sides. The results so far this season underline the difference – City have collected six more points against other sides, but Chelsea have won both head-to-head clashes.

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