Manchester City sent a message of intent to their Premier League title rivals on Saturday with an impressive 1-0 win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Pep Guardiola’s side dominated proceedings from start to finish, although ultimately it was only Gabriel Jesus’ deflected strike that proved the difference.
It’s a win that sees City leapfrog both Chelsea and Manchester United, who suffered a 1-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa on Saturday, in the standings and kick-off a tough string of fixtures in the best possible way.
Guardiola chose to line-up his team without a traditional number nine, a decision that allowed City to control the game. However, on the flip side City were again rather wasteful in-front of goal, something that could have cost them on a different day.
This game gave the clearest illustration yet of the positives and negatives of not having an elite striker to call on.
City set the tone of the game in the opening minutes, with it becoming clear that they were going to keep the ball and use it intelligently when in possession, and relentlessly press Chelsea’s defence when not.
For much of the first half, City played with a double-false-nine system (what is it about Pep and tactical innovations when playing at Stamford Bridge?) that suffocated Chelsea and starved the European Champions of possession.
Formation wise, this effectively meant that City played a 4-2-4 when in possession. While Jesus occupied the right flank and Jack Grealish the left, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden occupied the space in the middle. Rodri took up his usual holding role and was supported by the tireless, relentless Bernardo Silva.
This fluid system, that saw Jesus drift into the middle at times and Kyle Walker tuck into the centre of midfield from right-back, meant that City always had a pass open. They didn’t need to force anything. All they had to do was wait until a decent passing lane opened up, giving Chelsea the run-around in the meantime.
On the rare occasions when City didn’t have the ball – they enjoyed 66.7% of possession in the first half and 60% overall, almost unheard of for an away team at Stamford Bridge – they pressed so incessantly and intensely that Chelsea were left with no choice but to try and find the speedy Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku up the pitch with long balls.
Needless to say, with Ruben Dias marshalling the City backline and with a fit-again Aymeric Laporte alongside him, that didn’t work too well.
If City had played with an anchored number nine, as would have been the case had moves for Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo come off, then they simply would not have been able to control proceedings in the same way.
Against an out-and-out forward, Antonio Rudiger would have been comfortable, but against two false nines that came and went quicker than the Manchester sunshine, he struggled. There was nothing tangible for him to grasp onto, to focus upon or to nullify.
With a striker, elite or not, City would not have had the extra body in midfield to help dominate the ball and protect against counter-attacks in considerable numbers.
That’s exactly why Guardiola left Ferran Torres on the bench. Certain games call for a defined number nine presence, but this wasn’t one of them.
Having said that, things could have taken a frustratingly on-brand turn for City.
The Blues took a total of 15 shots, four of which were on target. Jesus converted one of course, but the other three were clear-cut chances that really should have been taken, ones that an elite number nine probably would have done.
Jesus was guilty on a couple of occasions. With the score locked at 0-0, the 24-year-old did brilliantly to chest down the ball in the box, but instead of laying off the onrushing Foden, he swung out a boot and sliced his effort high and wide,
In the second half, he spurned a glorious chance to seal the victory, as he saw his effort cleared off the line by Thiago Silva. It was a great block, but a bit of height on the shot would’ve have taken it in.
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Jack Grealish was also unusually wasteful, hitting the ball straight at Edouard Mendy when through on goal. On another occasion, Grealish did brilliantly to flash a dangerous ball across goal, but there was no focal point to finish it off.
As City tired in the final 15 minutes it felt like Chelsea might capitalise on their visitors’ profligacy, but thankfully that didn’t prove to be the case.
In the end, it’s a toss-up. Plug Kane, Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe into that team, replay Saturday’s game and they may well score a couple of goals. But there’s no way that City dominate possession and keep Chelsea quiet to the sapping extent that they did. Packing the midfield was the perfect way to neutralise Chelsea’s threats and Pep knew it.
A pertinent question remains. Is signing a striker the be-all and end-all that it’s been made out to be? Control or goals – you choose.