A win for Manchester City, a vital one in that it keeps the champion nine points behind Liverpool, which had won 2-1 at Crystal Palace earlier, and perhaps an important one given how Chelsea have started the season. But it would not be an evening that would entirely have pleased Pep Guardiola.
Although his side could, in the end, have won more comfortably than 2-1, it was far from straightforward and there were long spells, particularly early on, when it struggled to match Chelsea.
As a spectacle, it was enthralling, end to end and with a regular flow of chances. Frank Lampard perhaps was happy enough with that, accepting his best chance to taking something from the game was a slugfest, two sides piling blows—sophisticated blows, admittedly, but somehow chaotic—on each other. Guardiola, though, demands control—and there was precious little of that. But it was a win, and one of the hardest games of the season out of the way. Nine points remain a mighty gap, particularly given Liverpool’s current ability to conjure wins from unpromising situations, but more than that might have been unbridgeable.
Chelsea’s start to life under Lampard has been characterized by incisive attacking plays and questionable defending—17 goals leaked in 12 league games as well as the 4-4 against Ajax. To an extent, that is a function of the freedom with which Lampard has the side playing, itself a corollary of the transfer ban and the consequent use of young players. There has been a tightening up since the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on the opening weekend, and the presence of N’Golo Kante, back after injury, clearly helps. But Chelsea has still looked vulnerable at times—and not only against top-class opposition.
The attacking aspect was in evidence early on and Chelsea had threatened repeatedly before Kante put it ahead after 22 minutes. Again and again space opened up just in front of the defensive line, Rodri offering nothing like the sort of protection provided by Fernandinho, who was again forced into emergency service as a central defender. It was a simple ball over the top that caught City, though, Mateo Kovacic finding Kante who held off Benjamin Mendy and squeezed a finish past Ederson.
Kante had only scored 12 league goals in his career before this season, which was one of the reasons there was such bewilderment at Maurizio Sarri’s redeployment of him as a box-to-box player last season. Lampard, perhaps reasoning that was the only way to get Jorginho into the side, has continued the policy this season, insisting Kante was not only the defensive player he had previously been considered. Three goals in five starts this season suggest he was right.
But then came the defensive issues. City upped the pace a little and Chelsea’s shape disintegrated. It was Kevin De Bruyne who, with the help of a big deflection, leveled after 29 minutes, capitalizing after a break initiated as Fernandinho dispossessed Tammy Abraham on halfway.
Eight minutes later, City had the lead. De Bruyne had gone close again before Riyad Mahrez, making a rare start, sliced between Emerson and Kurt Zouma before curling a shot across Kepa into the bottom corner.
It could have been 3-1 before halftime as well, as Kepa’s shanked clearance gifted an opportunity to Sergio Aguero who clipped his shot against the bar.
It was a half that summed up most of the doubts about Lampard’s side: dangerous and exciting going forward but very open. Youth and inexperience may be an issue, but it’s also notable that Derby was vulnerable in similar ways under Lampard last season, conceding a higher proportion of goals on the break than any other side in the Championship. Ultimately, it ended up like Chelsea’s two games against Liverpool this season: it put pressure on, made life difficult for the title challenger, but was too shaky at the back to fully take advantage.
Although Chelsea’s threat never disappeared entirely, by the end City was effectively holding it at arm’s length. There was a late free kick from Mason Mount that flashed just wide, certainly no late siege, or any sense of sustained pressure. City could probably reflect that for an hour it was the better side, but the period before De Bruyne’s equalizer will be a major concern. Aymeric Laporte can’t return soon enough.
In that regard, perhaps, any win in such a game is good enough. All City can do is cling on, and hope it is still in the race when it gets its defense back.