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During their title winning campaign of 2016/17, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea took all six points from their games against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The Italian switched to a back three after a late September defeat against Arsenal and never looked back, going on a 13-game winning streak which put them in pole position for the rest of the season.
City were unfortunate that both of their meetings with the west London club came after their manager had already made the switch. Chelsea won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and 3-1 in a fiery affair at the Etihad which saw late red cards for Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho.
The new season brings new challenges for both managers. The recent contest between the sides at Stamford Bridge was dubbed a battle of two tactical brains.
Not since Tony Pulis faced Sam Allardyce have tactics been so high on the agenda in English football.
- Conte’s back three floundered against Guardiola’s narrow full backs.
- The lack of support for Álvaro Morata meant City had it easy.
- Chelsea’s own full back threat was nullified by opposition wide players.
These narratives were all heard in the aftermath of the game, and while there is some truth to the statements, the two teams weren’t as far apart as it first appears.
The game flowed this way and that, with City enjoying much of the ball and also experiencing periods of dominance. They out-shot the home side 17-4, and had 62 per cent of the possession.
But looking at the data, both teams had two attempts which are deemed “big chances” — ie shots on goal where the player would be expected to score more often than not.
A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.
City missed both of theirs, which fell to Gabriel Jesus and David Silva; and Chelsea missed their pair of big chances though Andreas Christensen and Morata.
So despite the apparent void between the two sides when it came to dominance in the game in terms of quality rather than quantity, they both created a similar amount of scoring chances.
This is backed up by the expected goals tally from the game, with Chelsea at 0.91 and City at 1.23 according to Understat. Again, this is despite the visitors having far more shots than their opponents.
In the end it took a strike of great quality from City’s best player this season, Kevin De Bruyne, to break the deadlock.
However, despite the comforts they can take from the quality of chances they did create and the type of chances they limited their opponent to, it wasn’t an ideal performance from Conte’s side. There are still things they can improve on for next time the sides meet, and for the season as a whole.
City's full backs did unsettle their side, but this was more to do with the knock-on effect they had on the attacking midfielders. The narrowness of Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker meant that De Bruyne and David Silva had plenty of space in wide areas, while the two full-backs drifted into midfield, seeing a lot of the ball as a result.
Delph (101) and Walker (97) had more touches of the ball than any of the other players on the pitch, and were heavily involved in the build-up play. The freedom it gave De Bruyne allowed him space to do more damage in attack, as he showed with his excellent goal.
The image below shows the two full backs (circled) forming a midfield three with Fernandinho, while De Bruyne and Silva are in advanced positions.
Last season Guardiola had chosen to go with more of a standard 4-2-3-1 in the first game, and then matched Chelsea with a similar back three in the second.
Neither worked, so this time, now more familiar with Conte's formation, he tried something different and it paid off.
The challenge for Conte is to respond in kind and counter the opposition manager's changes. He might have been better off going with his more familiar system in forward areas, rather than adopting a defensive stance.
Rather than using two in midfield and three up front, waiting to spring the counter attack, he used three in midfield and two up front. Granted, the two were Morata and Eden Hazard, who are both capable of creating something from nothing, but they lacked the support of that extra, pacy winger.
When Morata departed the field injured, Conte turned to Willian rather than Michy Batshuayi, so was playing without a striker for almost 40-minutes of the game until the Belgian came on later in the second half.
Chelsea’s play is often about stopping the opposition first and then building an attack from there, but in this game it seemed more about stopping the opposition then hoping for the best, rather than having any specific counter-attacking plan.
Using two of Pedro, Willian, or Hazard to support Morata from the off may have been a better option, and may also have troubled City’s defensive unit. The more defensive of the right full back options, Cesar Azpilicueta, was used instead of Victor Moses, which was another example of where the team could have been more adventurous.
Next time the two meet Conte will be better prepared. He should stick to his guns when they travel to the Etihad later in the season and go with three rather than two in attack as the next chapter of this tactical story unfolds.