Those who tuned in to Saturday’s match at Stamford Bridge between the reigning league champions and a slick, flourishing City team were always expecting an intensely tactical battle. Ultimately, De Bruyne’s decisive goal was emblematic of how Guardiola’s team played all evening: intelligent, fluid movement, one touch passing and a perpetual creation of space provided Man City with the opportunity to leave London with a well-deserved victory.
Chelsea’s starting XI initially resembled the structure fielded against Atletico on Wednesday 27; Conte fielded a 3-5-1-1 and made three changes. With David Luiz out for suspension following his red card against Arsenal, Conte opted for a more youthful back-line of Rudiger, Cahill and Christensen. The dependable Azpilicueta played as a right-wing back, instead of Victor Moses, whilst Marcos Alonso remained on the opposite flank. The central midfield stacked up as a flat three, consisting of Bakayoko, Fabregas and Kante, whilst Eden Hazard started in his new-found role as a number 10, floating just behind Alvaro Morata.
Man City, still missing Vincent Kompany and Benjamin Mendy, found themselves also without Sergio Aguero, who was involved in a car accident in Amsterdam on Thursday. The team played as a 4-3-3, arguably one of Guardiola’s essential exponents of his particular brand of football. Young Gabriel Jesus, who played on right-wing against Shakhtar Donetsk earlier in the week, moved into the centre to replace Aguero; Sterling, who scored in the game on Tuesday, played on the right. Fabian Delph, who at one point seemed lost to the darkness of bench-warming obscurity, found himself again deployed in the left-back position he had played against Shakhtar.
Initially, Chelsea’s frontmen surged at City’s back line, attacking from kick-off. In the second minute, a header by Alvaro Morata floated just over the crossbar, hinting at good things to continue from the Spanish forward. However, the tide was swiftly turned, as Man City applied a high press and squeezed errors from Chelsea. In the eleventh minute, as Courtois received a back-pass and readied to spray the ball out, Gabriel Jesus sprinted forward to challenge him; the move only ended up with a goal-kick, but it highlighted that Guardiola’s men weren’t messing about. From then on, City dominated possession, stifling any of the title defenders’ attacks and commencing their own shortly after.
At the 34th minute, meanwhile, the death knell rang for any of Chelsea’s potential prowess on the counter; Alvaro Morata limped off with a hamstring injury, replaced by Willian, an odd choice that meant Conte was now fielding a team with no centre-forward. City continued the offensive with an emphasis on David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as creators behind the front three.
Depending on which City player was initiating the attack, Guardiola’s formation would mercurially shift to suit it: Delph or Walker would charge forward with the ball from defence into central midfield positions, looking to link up play; De Bruyne or Silva would either move out to their respective flanks, allowing Sterling and Sane to cut inside toward the box and play alongside Jesus in the centre, or would stroke the ball around centrally and look to provide the wingers with a through-pass. It really was Silva and De Bruyne who played the essential roles, often creating ‘el rondo’ triangles, knocking the ball around with deft, one-touch passes and then moving on, always into space. Bakayoko and Kante were unresponsive at the best of times, outpaced by City’s tempo and failing to provide an effective screen. The Blues’s back-line, however, vigorously denied City an end product in the final third, playing deep back towards their own goal and pouncing on any balls put through to the opposing forwards. Whilst the two teams went into half-time locked at 0-0, City’s 66% possession stat and almost-triple the number of Chelsea passes suggested who clearly had had the upper hand; all they were missing was a goal.
Guardiola’s men came out playing a similar game to the first 45 minutes; high-intensity pressing when off the ball, elegant passing and wounding runs when they won it back. Just after the hour mark, a Jesus shot from a De Bruyne cross was saved, and moments later, Sterling was allowed to make two identical runs in the space of a minute, mazing along the right wing, only for neither of his crosses to end up with a lead. It was clear, when City were going forward, that there was space to be found in between a riled Chelsea defence, perfect to be exploited by a well-timed pass or run. In the 67th minute, Kevin De Bruyne charged toward goal with the ball, playing a one-two with the man-marked Jesus before moving forward; the Brazilian, with his back to goal, laid the ball off for the Belgian maestro, who struck it on the run with his left foot to give Man City a well-deserved lead. It was slick, well-worked and exploited a smidge of space between Chelsea’s central defenders. In the 72nd minute, Hazard came off for Pedro, whilst Bakayoko was replaced by Batshuayi as Conte’s team morphed into a more offensive, but still ineffective, 3-4-3. Man City continued to press, taking the sting out of any Chelsea runs and countering fiercely in the final ten minutes; in the 84th minute, Sterling collected a sweet through-ball from substitute Ilkay Gundogan, before crossing to the open Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian’s calm, curled shot was headed off the line by Antonio Rudiger to deny City a two-goal lead, but Guardiola’s men had done enough by the final whistle to secure the three points and go top of the league.
Whilst most of the post-match analysis will praise City’s well-fought win, the game equally provided some cause for concern for Antonio Conte; Saturday was Chelsea’s second home loss in four league matches at Stamford this season. Conte cannot be furious with the goal, which was the result of consistent, high-tempo play that wore down his defensive solidity. How Chelsea played without Alvaro Morata was perhaps more noticeably worrying, as the Blues lacked any threat when they could manage to get the ball up front. In Manchester, meanwhile, Pep will be delighted, having now gone seven league games unbeaten. Although City only managed to put the one goal in, their performance will not go un-noticed by any of the Premier League’s top teams; they played elegantly in possession, ruthless without, and embodied the Guardiola mentality on the field. Whether the Spaniard can reach the same heights with City as he did with Barca and Bayern is a vision no one can yet be sure of; but if City continue to play as they have been this season, it’s not an unthinkable one.