Saturday 19 October 2019

Chelsea win ignites title race

Chelsea 2 Manchester City 0

David Luiz celebrates scoring Chelsea's winning goal. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
David Luiz celebrates scoring Chelsea's winning goal. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Miguel Delaney

Brought back down to earth, and because the game was brought down to, well, the basics. This may also finally bring a true title race. It has certainly brought new hope for new leaders Liverpool, not to mention a brilliantly victorious Chelsea.

So there will be no invincible season for Manchester City: the champions lost their first league game of the season to fall behind Liverpool. Human after all.

And they didn't just lose the game, but some of their way, as well as the fight. Chelsea suddenly snapped into the game when it had initially looked like they would be unravelled, and then just kept snapping at City, so forcing them off their usual game.

In that, the fact Pep Guardiola's approach forced Maurizio Sarri's side out of his own usual game ended up being a virtue. It directly led to how Chelsea beat the champions.

Chelsea's Ross Barkley (left) and Manchester City's Phil Foden battle for the ball during the match at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Adam Davy/PA
Chelsea's Ross Barkley (left) and Manchester City's Phil Foden battle for the ball during the match at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Adam Davy/PA

"It is emotional for me to see these players do what they do every three days," said Guardiola. "We have to be consistent and today we were so I have no problems with that. The way we played in the first half was incredible. They had minimum chances and scored, and in the second half we were there until the end."

For all the elaborate sophistication of Guardiola's approach, and how Sarri has looked to emulate that, this was really about the basics. Chelsea were just better at them, and an untypical rudimentary approach from Sarri won the match.

It might well inspire others to win more games against City, although most others won't have anything like N'Golo Kante or David Luiz, the goalscorers and best performers who typified Chelsea's approach. They kept it brilliantly simple in running and harrying.

Guardiola and his side were left figuring out what had happened, given how dominant they'd been for most of the first half, and especially given the jarringly limp lack of a response. That was worrying for the champions. But there lies some of the story.

It is one of the curiosities and contradictions of Guardiola teams, going back to Barcelona, whereby their near perfection makes them oddly vulnerable. In some games, they are so on top that they are drawn into a dangerous complacency when they're not actually ahead.

It was the case at this stadium with Barca in the 2011-12 Champions League semi-final, and the case last night.

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus (right) and Chelsea's Mateo Kovacic battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA
Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus (right) and Chelsea's Mateo Kovacic battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA

There were moments in the first half when it seemed like City were capable of scoring at will, and that a goal was inevitable. Misses like Raheem Sterling's in the eighth minute, or Bernardo Silva's header from a corner didn't seem to matter because there was the feeling the next chance would come along in minutes.

Except, it didn't. There was now just passiveness to City's passing; in control, yes, but nowhere near to being in their groove. It is then when they get caught.

There was also something of an irony here. Sarri isn't a manager to wilfully compromise his Guardiola-influenced approach, but the fact City were so in control meant his team were effectively forced into that, and into trying things they wouldn't normally do: like going a bit longer and a bit more basic.

There was no steady accumulation of passes. Just before half-time, and on the break from a Luiz ball, Pedro suddenly spotted Willian free on the left and switched play. The Brazilian's touch was poor, but there was such an unusual amount of space around him that didn't matter. There was a charge forward, and an opportunity. The ball made its way back to Marcos Alonso, and while he also miscontrolled, Hazard didn't.

Barely on the ball because of the nature of the game, the Belgian instead displayed a supreme efficiency that he is still accused of lacking, by making the most of that one moment. He momentarily waited, then weighted his pass so it was perfect for the oncoming Kante to power the ball into the roof of the net with similar perfection.

Out of nothing, but with the full force of everything in the XI, Chelsea were ahead. There was also a symbolism to the scorer. Sarri was vindicated, and Kante elevated. With so much debate about whether the French midfielder has had his best qualities neutered by being taken out his usual position at the base of midfield, we saw how those qualities benefit his new role. A greater freedom means there can be a greater effect of all that energy, all that power, like when he surged into the box.

Manchester City's Leroy Sane in action with Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
Manchester City's Leroy Sane in action with Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Kante seemed to go up another level in the second half, that relentless running so disruptively filling the gaps between City's intended passes and just breaking up all their play.

There was no other way to say it. Having been complacent, City were now shaken, and unable to jolt themselves out of their torpor.

It was Chelsea who looked likelier to score, who looked livelier, and all that came together for the game's clincher.

Sarri's side were just more alert, as they proved with that most basic of goals: a set-piece. They were doing those basics better, meaning Luiz was left free to power in a header.

City's laxness was met with Chelsea force, with an inevitable conclusion, even for a team as well resourced as the champions. Sarri's side were just doing the basics better. And it means the story of this season won't be as basic as so many expected. City have been stopped, and a real title race may now begin.

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