Manchester City 2-0 Chelsea: City stop Chelsea’s counter-attacks and win comfortably

February 17, 2014

The starting line-ups

Manchester City gained revenge for their recent league defeat to Chelsea.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side was very different from that match, with Costel Pantilimon, Joleon Lescott, Gael Clichy, Javi Garcia, James Milner and Stevan Jovetic all included.

Jose Mourinho’s, however, named the closest thing possible to the XI that won at the Etihad. John Terry was out, so David Luiz moved back and John Obi Mikel came into the midfield.

City were significantly superior throughout, amazingly so given how how confidently they were beaten less than a fortnight ago.

Overall shape

With Mourinho attempting to play exactly the same way as in the previous meeting between these sides, the tactical battle felt like a loose imitation of that match.

There was a similar shape – Ramires’ and Silva’s narrowness meant there was space down that flank for the full-backs, but Branislav Ivanovic was less aggressive and only reached the byline once (although that did result in a dangerous moment) while Clichy is less of an attacking threat than Aleksandar Kolarov, particularly in terms of crossing, and also stayed in deeper, more central positions.

City close down Chelsea’s ‘three’ quickly

The most obvious feature of the game was how quickly City closed down Chelsea’s three attacking midfielders – Ramires, Willian and Eden Hazard – whenever they received possession. This was obvious from an early stage when Javi Garcia stormed into a tackle on Willian, but rather than it being Garcia’s job alone, it summed up the approach of the whole side.

City were blown away by Chelsea’s counter-attacking pace in the previous game, and clearly decided that the crucial part of their defending was to prevent the attacking trio turning. Therefore, there were a series of incidents where City’s players worked extremely hard to press as soon as the first pass was played into Chelsea’s attacking midfielders.

Vincent Kompany played a particularly proactive role, which was interesting because the Belgian always seems most uncomfortable when being brought up the pitch by deep-lying forwards. He made one mistake, when he was cautioned for fouling his compatriot Eden Hazard, but overall got his decision-making right, with Joleon Lescott sweeping behind.

The full-backs also played a part, and it was useful that Pablo Zabaleta likes sticking tight to opponents, and Gael Clichy loves darting in front quickly to intercept balls. Indeed, it was such a collective effort that at one point, David Silva nipped in ahead of Ramires to complete an interception and launch a counter-attack – that felt like a role reversal, and was evidence City had the upper hand.

The approach was risky, especially because it exposed Lescott to the runs of Samuel Eto’o, but Chelsea were simply unable to win these individual duals. Fouls played a part, too: Garcia fouled Willian, Yaya Toure fouled Nemanja Matic and then Garcia fouled Mikel within the opening 15 minutes. This broke up attacks quickly and Chelsea were unable to counter.

Routes of attack - City on the left, Chelsea on the right - from

City offer more variety and mobility

Whereas Pellegrini probably made a mistake by playing two classic strikers against Chelsea in the league match, here his side had more variety because of the presence of Stevan Jovetic. He’s a very mobile striker and impressed with his movement, stretching the opposition back four in every direction. He dropped deep to become involved in link-up play, sometimes played on the shoulder of the defence, hitting the bar when he was first to a rebound, and also made intelligent runs towards the flanks to retain width when necessary, opening the scoring having moved right as Milner drifted inside.

City’s system – and Pellegrini’s systems in general – always depend upon good, integrated movement, and Jovetic is theoretically perfect for this type of play. It seemed to bring the best out of David Silva, too – who received the ball frequently in the 1-0 defeat but had no outlet in possession. Mikel and Matic took it in turns to track him across the pitch, but Silva’s positional variation meant he continually found pockets of space, and he was the game’s star man.

Also of great use was Garcia, who simply offered more mobility than Martin Demichelis in the role alongside Toure. This was the Spaniard’s best game in a City shirt, and simply seemed to cover more ground than Demichelis, helping to plug the gaps in midfield which were inevitably left once Toure darted forward.

Garcia isn’t a perfect holding midfielder by any means, but the energy offered by Fernandinho is as important as his positional discipline (he’s not actually a natural defensive midfielder, and is more of a Ramires-type midfielder). It’s that mobility which Pellegrini must replace while the Brazilian is out of action, because it helps City get away with a two-man central midfield, and on this evidence Garcia is a better option than Demichelis.

The other key difference from last weekend’s side was Milner, who played a very useful defensive role on the right when City went 1-0 up, helping to prevent Hazard becoming involved on Chelsea’s left. Miler is capable of playing almost any role on the pitch, and could prove useful in the remaining months of the season – he probably hadn’t previously played such a good ‘tactical’ game under Pellegrini.

The first goal

Ultimately, the most obvious lesson from this match was the importance of the first goal when one side is playing reactively. At the Etihad two weeks ago, Chelsea went ahead (slightly) against the run of play, and this goal allowed them to play devastating counter-attacking football for the remainder of the game – they were unfortunate not to score further goals in these situations.

Today, because City went ahead early, they didn’t concede such space and therefore Chelsea’s counter-attacking prowess was barely noticeable. It was a combination of City adjusting their tactics, and the natural result of the game state.

Indeed, without the ability to counter-attack, Chelsea were amazingly ordinary on the ball. There was no great source of guile or creativity from midfield, with Oscar only on the bench and not introduced until the 71st minute. Mourinho’s side laced a plan B, as if they’d taken it for granted that they’d counter-attack repeatedly and wouldn’t need any other source of attacking inspiration. Almost every pass they attempted to play in behind the opposition defence was overhit.

Action zones, from


At half-time Mourinho decided to introduce Mohamed Salah in place of Eto’o, and pushed Hazard forward to become the centre-forward. This was a curious decision, considering Salah appears to be another quick counter-attacker and therefore wasn’t offering anything different. Maybe Mourinho was attempting to use more natural pace upfront – Eto’o isn’t as quick as at his peak – to pin back City’s defence and dissuade them from coming out to close down, but it didn’t alter much.

Mourinho then introduced Fernando Torres for Ramires (rather than one of the two holders – probably as he was scared of Silva finding space) with Hazard moving back to the flank and Salah moving right, which created a slightly more attacking side but again, didn’t change the nature of Chelsea’s attack. It was amazing that Mourinho waited until the 71st minute to introduce Oscar – Chelsea were already 2-0 down by this stage.

Pellegrini removed Jovetic and introduced Samir Nasri at 1-0, and within minutes the Frenchman exchanged passes with Silva to make the score 2-0. That was a bonus, because Nasri’s introduction was more about solidifying the side with an extra midfielder, and creating a proper 4-2-3-1 system – which Pellegrini may use against Barcelona in midweek.

The introduction of Jesus Navas in place of Silva, with Milner switching flanks, gave the side both more structure and energy, and City were never really troubled.


Mourinho accepted City were the better side. “I would say that City played much better than us and deserved much more to win,” he said. “The game was simple to analyse – they were the best team, and they won…we were never close enough to score or to be dominant or to scare City in the game.”

Chelsea’s performance was particularly flat. Three shots all game, and none on target, underlines how desperately poor their attacking game was. They’ve depended upon quick, direct counter-attacking in recent weeks, and have looked much less impressive when unable to play in that manner. Mourinho’s complaints about West Ham’s ‘19th century football’ suggest he’s troubled when his players are denied space to break into, and there’s a lack of genuinely creative options in midfield.

That said, City didn’t park the bus like West Ham – they pressed, and their primary strategy was to shut down Chelsea’s attacking midfielders quickly, preventing them from turning. This approach required good decision-making and relied upon players to win their individual battles, and City’s defensive players all performed well.

Elsewhere, Garcia brought more mobility, Milner more defensive discipline against Hazard, and Jovetic better movement and more variety going forward. It feels simplistic to pinpoint the personnel changes from the 1-0 defeat and highlight each of the newcomers as crucial to the difference in result, but it’s largely true.

Tags: , , , , ,