After months of groggy performances, Manchester City finally woke up from their footballing coma against Chelsea – and the rest of the Premier League should be afraid. Very afraid.
The football City played in the first half of their 3-1 win over the Blues was as devastating as anything witnessed in the Premier League this season. They dominated their opponents in almost every metric and each of their goals were excellent.
After a shaky first ten minutes, the floodgates opened. First, Joao Cancelo’s probing through ball afforded Kevin De Bruyne a clear sight at goal but the Belgian uncharacteristically pulled it wide. Chelsea would not be able to keep their opponents out for much longer.
With 18 minutes on the clock, Ilkay Gundogan let Oleksandr Zinchenko’s pass roll across his body, leaving Thiago Silva for dead, before firing a shot into the bottom corner. Less than 180 seconds later, City doubled their advantage.
This time, De Bruyne made up for his early miss by laying one on a plate for Phil Foden. After his first effort was snuffed out by Kurt Zouma, he picked the ball up again and drilled a pinpoint pass through Cesar Azpilicueta’s legs, finding Foden unmarked in the box who made made no mistake.
With just over half an hour played, City put the game beyond all doubt. After Hakim Ziyech’s free kick was easily dealt with by John Stones, the visitors turned defence into attack. Within seconds, De Bruyne’s clever header sent Raheem Sterling racing clear of Chelsea’s last man, N’Golo Kante. Sterling took an age to pull the trigger and when he finally did the ball cannoned off the bar. Fortunately, De Bruyne was there to apply the finish.
The immediate reaction to this quickfire, triple salvo on social media focussed on Chelsea’s sieve like defending. However, while Edouard Mendy should have done better for the first two goals and questions could also be asked of Thiago Silva, Kante and a handful of others, overemphasising this does City a disservice.
All three goals showed a vigour that has been missing from their attacks for most of the season. At times, City have been infuriating to watch. Ponderous on the ball and lacking pace, it has sometimes seemed like they desire possession for possession’s sake.
In defeats to Leicester and Tottenham, as well as in draws against West Ham and West Brom, they registered close to, or over, 70% possession. Yet, on all on these occasions they could not make their dominance pay. The first half against Chelsea was a different story. Although the Blues enjoyed 54% of the ball, City were the better side, moving it with speed and purpose to wrap things up in little over 30 minutes.
Against Chelsea, they also demonstrated a clinical edge that has been sorely absent in recent times. Prior to their visit to Stamford Bridge, only Sheffield United had underperformed their xG worse than City. Overall, their expected goals suggested they should have scored five more times so far this season. If they had, the xG model predicted that they would have three more points.
While the first half saw Guardiola’s side break the mould, after the break things followed a more familiar script with City defending brilliantly. No Premier League side has conceded fewer goals than them this season and if it were not for a somewhat freak 5-2 loss against Leicester back in September, their defensive record would be even more impressive.
Against Chelsea, they continued this trend. Stones and Ruben Dias gobbled the ball up like hungry hippos at the heart of the City backline, while Zinchenko and Cancelo starved their opposite numbers of chances.
Meanwhile, Rodri’s performance may not have been perfect, but the Spaniard broke up his fair share of Chelsea attacks to make up for his early looseness in possession. If not for a 91st minute lapse in concentration – which allowed Callum Hudson-Odoi to score a consolation – City would have toasted their eighth clean sheet of the season.
So, what does this all mean? Well, if City are ready to combine their superb defending with a reinvigorated attacking phase as their display against Chelsea suggests, their rivals should be looking over their shoulders anxiously. Particularly due to the easy run of fixtures that Guardiola’s side have in January.
It’s not hard to imagine City picking up maximum points from their games against Brighton, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom and Sheffield United over the next month and these 15 points would go a long way to returning them to the top of the Premier League table.