Chelsea’s midfield the difference maker at the Etihad Stadium
A lot has been made of the individual brilliance of both Eden Hazard and Willian in last night’s victory over title favourites Manchester City however it was Chelsea’s mobile, dynamic midfield duo which gave them the edge over what has looked at times this term, an unstoppable Manchester City team.
The pre-match news that Fernandinho would miss the match was a sizeable blow to Manuel Pellegrini, the base of his team’s free fluid football this season has come from the powerful, marauding midfield partnership of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Without Fernandinho in tow it was difficult for Manchester City to hold any strength or their usual rhythm in midfield. The much maligned Martin Demichelis, usually a centre-half was given the task of replacing Fernandinho alongside Toure at the heart of the Blues’ midfield. Javi Garcia was too missing through injury.
The pre-match billing was one of polar opposites. The free flowing, unstoppable attack of Manchester City going up against the well constructed defensive wall of Chelsea, as has been the case of a number of occasions this season since the Portuguese coach’s return. However this proved not to be the case with the addition of Nemanja Matic in central midfield giving the visitors a very flexible springboard from which to both defend competently but also attack in significant number.
Demichelis by no means had a bad game, the Argentine was tidy in possession and won a number of tackles but unfortunately for Manchester City, that was it and nothing more. The veteran Argentine was unable to get forward with attacks like Fernandinho does, he was unable to move into a good area in the opposition’s half and then pass either one of Navas or Silva like Fernandinho can do and it really hampered Manchester City’s play when in possession.
Furthermore it meant the midfield two of David Luiz and Nemanja Matic could focus both their efforts on just the one Manchester City midfielder coming in the shape of Yaya Toure, and rather surprisingly Matic, on his Premier League debut, had the Ivorian in his pocket for the entirety of the evening. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher analysed the defensive side of Matic and Luiz’s partnership well in terms of describing their position in relation to John Terry and Gary Cahill at the back, like a square.
The problem for City was that without Fernandinho there was only one midfielder running from deep to get into this square and challenge the Chelsea midfield and even if you are the size of Toure it is unlikely you will be able to beat both Luiz and Matic without any supplementary help from a midfield partner.
I myself, along with I expect a number of other questioned whether the energy levels shown by Matic and Luiz could be kept up for the entire ninety minutes, they were. The Chelsea midfield were almost like an elastic band in the sense they moved backwards together but were then read to fly forwards as soon as they had regained possession. It was a very uncharacteristically high octane approach from a Jose Mourinho midfield.
If we look back to the 2010 Champions League Semi-Final between Internazionale Milan and Barcelona at the Camp Nou, we can see Mourinho was trying to employ a similar midfield system in that match with Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta being the ‘elastic band’ midfield pairing. These plans were scuppered when Motta was given a red card in the first half and Mourinho had to incorporate a much flatter and deeper midfield two consisting of Chivu and Cambiasso which prevented Internazionale mounting any real attacking threat but in turn boosted their defensive resolve. You do wonder if Motta had stayed on the pitch whether or not we would have seen a similar performance in that match as we saw last evening with Matic and Luiz and maybe there is rather more to Mourinho’s tactics away from home against side’s he respects than simply ‘parking the bus’ as it is continued to be labelled by some.
Another of the evening’s pleasing points for Mourinho came through the work rate of Eden Hazard and Willian on the flanks. Hazard has never been known for his ability to track back and work hard to help out the full-back behind him however last night was a completely different story. Hazard worked so hard to get back into his own half and be a ‘body’ defensively, he would attempt to hassle David Silva and Jesus Navas when they were on the ball which would allow his full-back on either side to track the runs of Zabaleta and Kolarov and when Chelsea won the ball back through the midfield pair Hazard would be right up the other end of the pitch with Silva of City not tracking back anywhere near as well, which would prove costly for Pellegrini’s charges.
Willian and Ramires’ work on the right hand side was impressive with both looking increasingly fatigued as injury time drew nearer. Aleksandar Kolarov hardly had a kick throughout the match due to the double coverage Willian and Ramires placed on him, you do wonder whether or not bringing Gael Clichy into play for the final ten to fifteen minutes would have given City a boost down the left with Kolarov struggling with fatigue himself and not making any forward runs as the match drew to a close. With Ramires and Willian both looking tired it might have created a number of opportunities for City on the flank.
Let’s make no mistake this was not as one sided an affair as people would have you believe. Manchester City particularly in the first half created a number of chances, particularly from low crossed driven across the penalty area. Dzeko was particularly guilty of missing chances in either half. You could see the cutting edge of Aguero was missing and unfortunately with Alvaro Negredo not putting in his usual stellar performance prior to be substituted, Manchester City looked toothless upfront.
Jose Mourinho is being unusually coy with the media, gone are the brash statements of confidence in his team’s ability to win title after title, breaking records in doing so from his first spell in charge, with the self proclaimed ‘Happy One’ stating that Chelsea are only looking to win the title next season. This is all part of the Jose Mourinho ‘mind-games’ if you will, there is absolutely no way Jose Mourinho believes his Chelsea side will not win the title this season, yes Manchester City are a strong side in terms of quality but not by much and with Nemanja Matic proving to be the much needed breath of fresh air in Mourinho’s midfield it certainly looks as if the title could be Chelsea’s sooner rather than as Jose Mourinho so coolly predicts, later.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4