MANCHESTER, England – The best theory in the world means nothing if your players lack the wherewithal to put it into practice.
Pep Guardiola worked out a way of combating Chelsea, put Antonio Conte’s side under pressure, had his Manchester City take a halftime lead and still ended up losing 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. For Chelsea, this was a hugely impressive victory, its eighth in a row in the league, and one that carries it clear at the top of the table, four points above City. It survived a City assault through a combination of good defending, good fortune and City wastefulness and was utterly ruthless on the break.
The ramifications for City are worse than just a first home defeat of the season. The game ended with a mass brawl following a frustrated, flying lunge by Sergio Aguero on David Luiz that earned him a red card. Nathaniel Chalobah then barged over Aguero, earning himself a yellow card. As players from both sides piled in, Fernandinho twice grabbed Cesc Fabregas by the throat and shoved him over the advertising boards into the crowd, prompting both benches to get involved. Fernandinho was also sent off and Fabregas was booked, but there could be further charges after the FA views video evidence. Aguero, having been sent off earlier in the season for an elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid, will be banned for four games–Leicester, Watford, Arsenal and Hull–while Fernandinho will miss the first three of those.
While there can be no excusing Aguero’s scissoring foul, referee Anthony Taylor must bear some culpability for a game that had simmered uneasily from the moment Gary Cahill went unpunished for clattering his studs into the Argentine’s shin in the first half. David Luiz was also fortunate to escape sanction after a cynical block on Aguero.
“It shows our character,” David Luiz said. “We didn’t lose our heads.”
But City’s meltdown was a symptom of wider problems. Guardiola insisted he was “proud” of how his team had played.
“In the boxes we are not strong enough,” he said. “The opponents arrive and score a goal and we arrive and we don’t. I don’t have regrets.”
After a scrappy opening, City had come to dominate the first half, repeatedly creating crossing opportunities, exploiting the space left by Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 system. It took the lead just before the break as Cahill, strangely going for the ball across his body with his right foot, diverted a Jesus Navas cross into his own net.
Its control continued after the break. Kevin De Bruyne had a shot saved by Thibaut Courtois, Aguero latched on a poor Marcos Alonso backpass but saw his effort cleared by Cahill and De Bruyne hit the bar from close range. At that stage, a second goal seemed just a matter of time. But then Diego Costa ran on to a long ball over Nicolas Otamendi, turned back inside the Argentine and finished for his 11th game of the season.
Courtois saved again from Aguero and Victor Moses made a last-gasp challenge to deny Aguero from a De Bruyne cross before Chelsea struck again with another incisive break. Hazard fed Costa, who in turn fed Willian. The Brazilian outpaced Aleksandar Kolarov and finished past a diffident Claudio Bravo.
Another counterattack brought the third, with Eden Hazard running on to a long ball over the top from Marcos Alonso before, with a measure of inevitability, beating Bravo, who may be gifted with his feet but is certainly not an imposing goalkeeper.
As Chelsea marches on–a paucity of its squad depth in certain key areas the only slight concern–there are major issues for City.
The arrival of Gabriel Jesus in January may reinvigorate an attack that has scored just four goals from 72 shots in its last four home games, but the bigger worry is the basic defensive issues.
City has kept just two clean sheets all season in the league. In part that’s a function of the way it plays: push as high as it does and play as many risky passes as it does and it will always be vulnerable to counterattacks. But there have also been a series of inexplicable individual errors, from Otamendi and Kolarov most notably, accentuated by the more general sense that Bravo exudes neither authority nor confidence.
There is a strange sense in which the defeat was more worrying for City because it actually played well. It pressured Chelsea in all the right areas yet somehow lacked the personality to take advantage. Perhaps with confidence, that edge will come, but for now it feels as though all the old issues of softness that used to manifest as complacency are emerging again in a slightly different form.
Chelsea, meanwhile, has that rigor in abundance and with a relatively gentle fixture list between now and Christmas–West Brom, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Bournemouth–could be in command of the title race by the New Year.