It was every inch a Mourinho masterclass. A meticulously prepared gameplan, performed with perfection by a series of drilled and highly motivated athletes. There may have only been one goal in Chelsea’s win at the Etihad, but it was probably the most captivating contest of the season.
Despite enjoying 65% of possession, City were by far the second best side on the night, and with his Plan A horribly exposed by Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini has some thinking to do if his side are to remain on course to win the title.
No bus parking in sight
After the sterile displays that Chelsea put in away at Man United and Arsenal earlier in the season, most spectators thought that Jose Mourinho would be content to go to the Etihad, ‘park the bus’ and return home with a point after a goalless draw.
What the Portuguese actually did was very different. Rather than operating defensively, Chelsea took the game to City, tearing them apart on the counter attack time and time again. In truth, a 1-0 scoreline flattered City, and Chelsea could genuinely have won by three or four goals.
Man City’s midfield woes
One of the key reasons why Chelsea were able to enjoy such dominance was their superior personnel and performance in the midfield. With Fernandinho injured, Pellegrini opted to stick with his 4-4-2 formation, and replaced the Brazilian with centre back Martin Demichelis. In hindsight, having lost the dynamism and work rate of Fernandinho, it would have been far more prudent for the City boss to add an extra midfielder to give City more of a presence in the middle.
Some may even label Pellegrini’s decision to play two in midfield as naïve, and on the evidence of the 90 minutes against Chelsea, it’s hard to disagree. Demichelis and his midfield partner Yaya Toure were separated far too often, and this created acres of space for Chelsea’s front four of Willian, Ramires, Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard to cause havoc.
Matic and Luiz nullify City’s attacking threat
If Pellegrini wanted a perfect example of what he should have done to nullify Chelsea’s front four, the deployment of Nemanja Matic and David Luiz in front of the Chelsea back four was precisely that. The two midfielders were superb, and their ability to flood the midfield and thwart the City attacks was the primary reason why City failed to score.
Pellegrini clearly opted for the two-man midfield because he wanted more options in the final third, but Chelsea showed that if a team has the required work ethic it is possible to have options in the final third without weakening the midfield. Chelsea’s attacking players had clearly defined defensive roles, and this meant that as soon as City ceded possession to the Blues, Chelsea were able to get their most dangerous players on the ball. Even Eden Hazard dropped back into midfield to help out, and this meant that Chelsea were able to get their brightest spark on the ball very quickly indeed.
By contrast, David Silva was seen doing very little defensive work, and this meant that the Spaniard was often starved of possession, with Matic and Luiz making sure that his opportunities in the final third were limited.
Nothing’s the Mata when you’ve got Hazard
Please forgive the awful pun. Plenty questioned the wisdom of Jose Mourinho allowing Juan Mata to leave for Old Trafford, but quite simply, when Eden Hazard is in this sort of form, who cares about Mata? Hazard was Chelsea’s principal attacking outlet, and his ability to hold onto the ball whilst waiting for reinforcements was a big factor in Chelsea’s dominance.
Much was made of Mourinho’s repeated omission of Mata in the first half of the season, with many thinking (myself included) that leaving a player out of the Spaniard’s quality was scandalous. However, Hazard’s (and indeed Willian’s) performances have indicated that once again Mourinho was right. Mata is a serious talent, of that there is no doubt, but the question marks around his defensive work rate are not question marks that hang over Mourinho’s current attackers. Willian, Ramires, Hazard and Oscar are all prodigious players in their own right, but offer the defensive solidarity that Mata simply doesn’t. Against the majority of the league a lack of defensive discipline might not be an issue, but when it comes down to the big clashes, success or failure often rests on the strength of the gameplan, and if one player weakens the gameplan, he’s far less useful than a player who doesn’t.
Are Chelsea now in pole position?
According to Mourinho, no. But really, when have we ever believed Mourinho when he says something like this? The Portuguese will be more than happy for his team to be seen as underdogs in the title race, but the reality is, this win against City indicates that they should be seen as joint favourites with the Citizens. Both sides have similar run-ins, and it really is too close to call at present. For now, though, there really is only one winner.