On Sunday, Man City overwhelmed Chelsea in every department thus highlighting a mesmerizing performance. But Pep Guardiola's side also exposed Chelsea's alarming situation under Maurizio Sarri, placing a question mark on the manager's future with the club.
So much for that hurdle. There are certain games Manchester City would expect to win and some that it would look at on the fixture list and see as a potential challenge. Given Chelsea had inflicted on City its first defeat of the season at Stamford Bridge in December, this would have been very clearly in the latter category. Yet Chelsea could hardly have offered less opposition as City swept back to the top of the table – albeit having played a game more than Liverpool, with whom it is level on points.
City deserves praise, of course. Some of its interplay was mesmerizing and Sergio Aguero’s first goal was spectacular. But really this was more a case of how bad Chelsea was than anything else as it suffered its worst defeat in 28 years. There was a sense at Stamford Bridge two months ago that Maurizio Sarri’s side had got away with it early on when City pressed superbly, only to miss a hatful chances before being caught out by a fine long pass out of defence by David Luiz.
There was an extraordinary early miss here as well, Aguero somehow stabbing wide of an empty net from six yards with the score at 1-0, but that was the only similarity between the games. Chelsea here was dismal, its performance so bad that all the (perfectly reasonable) arguments that Sarri is a manager who plays one way and merely needs time and personnel to instill his method began to feel like mere sophistry. When a team defends this badly, when it shows such a lack of application, it’s legitimate to wonder if there is any way back.
The issue crystallizes in the form of Jorginho, who has gone from being the metronome at the heart of midfield in the early weeks of the season, setting the tempo and creating the play, to being a liability. It’s fair to suggest that with different players around him, Jorginho may look more natural at the back of midfield, to point to the way N’Golo Kante seems such an awkward fit for this side, to highlight the lack of other options for Chelsea to play the ball out, but equally it’s fair to wonder whether a more defensively minded deep-lying midfielder might have been more adept at blocking up the space just outside the box from which City’s second, third and fourth goals stemmed.
But positioning had little to do with the opener, scored after four minutes. From a Chelsea point of view it was desperately limp. Yes, Kevin De Bruyne took the free kick quickly, but not so quickly, surely, that the menace of Bernardo Silva, lurking out on the right, could have been overlooked. He swept into the box and although his cross flicked off David Luiz, no Chelsea player was anywhere near as Raheem Sterling slammed it in. This was Arsenal or Bournemouth redux: whether or not it is, as Sarri has suggested, an issue of motivation, Chelsea has a problem with basic issues of alertness and commitment in away games.
Aguero was not minded to be merciful for long. After his uncharacteristic miss, he whipped in a second after 13 minutes and hooked another six minutes later from Ross Barkley’s mystifying back-header. Ilkay Gundogan stroked in a fourth eight minutes after that. With 27 minutes gone, it was 4-0 and the game was done.
Aguero completed his second hat trick in successive home games – his 13th for City, 11 of them in the league, equalling Alan Shearer’s Premier League record – with a penalty after Sterling had been tripped by Cesar Azpilicueta. Sterling rounded off the scoring from Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross, but it could, frankly, have been more.
By then, though, the details had come to feel slightly irrelevant. After some edgy performances of late, this was a weekend on which each of the two main title challenges produced highly impressive displays. It’s a minimal shift, but the balance has perhaps tilted slightly away from Liverpool and towards City if only because this is one of those seemingly tricky fixtures ticked off. Liverpool must still host Chelsea, although that seems a decreasingly daunting prospect as each week goes by.
This had seemed like a potentially huge weekend in the title race, but it may turn out to have a greater bearing on Chelsea’s future. It has not been a notably patient club under Roman Abramovich’s ownership: is it really going to give Sarri time and resources to rebuild the squad in his image when there is so little evidence of any foundations being laid? Goal difference, after all, has seen it slip to sixth.