Chelsea v Man City: One big game, five big questions


There’s a growing concern inside Stamford Bridge that Maurizio Sarri’s Plan A has been found out, and that after a honeymoon period in the Premier League we are entering a difficult second phase for the Italian at Chelsea. While Pep Guardiola coaches a variety of tactical battleplans simultaneously – to keep opponents on their toes – it would appear that Sarri is set to fine tune the 4-3-3.

It had better work. Chelsea have won four points from their last four Premier League matches to leave them ten behind Manchester City as we enter the frantic Christmas schedule; this isn’t the time of year to be entering a sticky patch, particularly if the manager insists on the same formation and roughly the same team selection week in, week out.

Here are five tactical posers for Pep and Sarri…

1) Will two high-line teams create a claustrophobic, risk-averse game?
The two clubs’ respective draws with Liverpool earlier this season indicate this might not be a classic. Chelsea’s 1-1 in September and City’s 0-0 in October were both defined by risk-averse football that saw Liverpool and their rivals cancel each other out.

Chelsea and City use relatively similar tactics, their 4-3-3 shapes both relying on short-passing build-up play that funnels through the deepest midfielder (Fernandinho or Jorginho) and links to the front line via centre-mids shuttling up and down the left and right half-spaces. Both want to overload the middle of the park with bodies, both play a lot of football with their backs to goal, and both deploy high defensive lines to stamp out counter-attacks.

It is easy, then, to imagine a claustrophobic game in which the midfield is too cluttered, as Sarri and Guardiola squeeze up the pitch until everything is bunched in the middle. By accident or design, similar formations mean most areas of the pitch could end up man-to-man, while wariness of each other’s counter-attacks ensures the full-backs will show caution.

2) Or does Wolves’ performance on Wednesday set up an end-to-end thriller?
That’s one theory. But Wolves’ 2-1 win at Molineaux in midweek offers an alternative preview of Saturday’s big game, in which Guardiola’s pressing unsettles the Chelsea midfield but leaves City vulnerable to long balls over the top.

Wolves were notably more aggressive in the second half on Wednesday, pushing much higher up the pitch to disrupt the rhythm of Chelsea’s passing. They attempted 14 tackles in the 2nd half (picking up four yellow cards) compared with nine tackles in the first 45 (and one yellow). It was a brave approach from Nuno Esperito Santo that could – perhaps should – have backfired.

The positive impact was obvious, as Wolves committed men forward to score twice in the first 20 minutes of the half, but throughout that chaotic period of the match Chelsea could easily have scored a couple themselves thanks to long balls over the top of the home side’s high back line.

So, should City try to dominate the ball, and should Chelsea attempt more direct balls forward, we could get the end-to-end match everybody wants. We should know within the first 20 minutes what type of game we’re going to get.

3) Will Bernardo Silva & Mahrez overload Alonso down Chelsea’s left flank?
As the weeks go by Bernardo Silva drifts further and further out to the right, and at Watford on Tuesday night his unusual positional play created what might be a first in English football: two right wingers playing at the same time. Silva teamed up with Riyad Mahrez – each alternating between a traditional winger and an inverted winger – to overload Jose Holebas as City hit Watford’s weakest flank again and again.

Between them, Silva and Mahrez took a ridiculous 125 touches of the ball on the right flank, exchanging passes 25 times to bamboozle the hosts. It is City’s unmatched possession dominance (boxing in their opponent) that allows Guardiola to deploy such a lopsided formation without sacrificing balance, and so it is certainly possible Bernardo will have to tuck into a more traditional central midfield role on Saturday to deal with Matteo Kovacic.

Nevertheless, at various points he will roam out to combine with Mahrez (or Raheem Sterling) on what happens to be Chelsea’s most vulnerable position. Marcos Alonso was at fault for both Wolves goals in midweek, first unable to intercept a through ball from Morgan Gibbs-White and then failing to close down Matt Doherty as he crossed for the winner. With Hazard rarely tracking back to help, Alonso could be left helpless.

4) Can Hazard break free of Walker to get Chelsea into the game?
As we’ve already mentioned, two mirrored 4-3-3 formations probably means the game will be defined by individual head-to-heads, so let’s spend some time looking at the two most eye-catching. First, Eden Hazard versus Kyle Walker.

When confidence is low teams turn to their star player, and few forwards in English football can grab the game by the scruff of the neck like Hazard. Chelsea are already far too reliant on the Belgian (he has scored or assisted 42% of their league goals), funneling the vast majority of their attacks down that side in the hope Hazard can cut inside and make something happen. There’s no doubt about who City need to focus on.

Walker will be the man tasked with following Hazard, primarily because the England right-back already functions as a cross between a regular full-back and an inverted one; his defensive movement mimics the out-to-in runs of Hazard. Walker’s pace and strong tackling will be tested to their limits by the Belgium international in what should be a fascinating duel.

5) Will the Kante versus David Silva column decide the outcome?
In terms of the midfield battle and wrestling for control of possession, David Silva versus N’Golo Kante is the battle to keep an eye on. Operating in the same column of the pitch, it will be interesting to see if Kante can contain Silva – which in turn would limit Leroy Sane’s effectiveness – and if the Frenchman can counter-attack into the big space Silva tends to leave behind him. Given that breakaways will form a significant part of Chelsea’s offensive, this match could be decided by how deep Kante is forced to play.

The former Leicester City man may find himself penned in as he tries to track Silva (and provide Cesar Azpilicueta with support up against Sane), and yet to do so may spell danger higher up the pitch. Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-1 win over Chelsea at Wembley saw the hosts’ three-man midfield swarm the too-large gap between Willian and Kante in Chelsea’s centre-right column; Silva and Fernandinho will drop into this gap should Kante sit too deep. It’ll be a tough balancing act for the France international.

Alex Keble