water polo game Manchester City 1

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Not a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Not a single shot of any description in the first half. Not a single player completing more than 55 passes, when seven did so for Manchester City. Not a single player having more than 75 touches, when seven did so for Manchester City. Not a single moment of creativity, adventure or ambition.

Not a humiliation nor a disaster, but a reinforcement of where Chelsea stand in Antonio Conte second season: firmly the fifth best club in the Premier League. Being below Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham and above Arsenal is hardly cause for concern, but this meek acceptance of inferiority was quite something.

City have failed to win six games this season. None of the clubs who thwarted them did so without showing at least a semblance of attacking intent. Everton took the lead against them in August before drawing, Crystal Palace missed a late penalty in their December stalemate, Burnley had eight shots in their 1 1 draw in February, and Shakhtar, Liverpool and Wigan all beat them by playing to their own strengths as opposed to trying to nullify City tried to topple an all conquering force with just over one fifth of the ball. It would have been ballsy had they not used the exact same tactic against the exact same opponent for the exact same result at home in September. They threw in the towel even before Michael Oliver started the bout.

While City last game came against Arsenal on Thursday, Chelsea had a full week to prepare for their visit to the Etihad Stadium. Perhaps their last match played on his mind, as Alvaro Morata ineffective performance against Manchester United was rewarded with a place on the bench.

Eden Hazard was entrusted as the central striker. The Belgian did well in the role against Barcelona, interchanging to great effect with Willian and Pedro. But his was a more fixed position on Sunday, staying central as opposed to drifting to the wings.

Olivier Giroud has now started one of a possible five Premier and Champions League games since joining, and he capped that sole opportunity by assisting Hazard opening goal in a 3 0 win over West Brom last month. If Conte has learned to distrust Morata through first hand experience, what is his excuse for a player he signed in January?

Asked post match what Chelsea might have done differently, Pep Guardiola offered an interesting response:

a question for Antonio. Chelsea can do absolutely everything build up, long balls with Alonso, high press, when they defend deep they are masters of the counter attack, said the City manager, relishing a rare chance to display his in depth knowledge of an opponent in a press conference as well as on the pitch.

we were better in every area made an amazing performance, he finished, and therein lies the most prescient point. City have played three games against the clubs in fifth and sixth over the past seven days, and the aggregate score is 7 0. The gap between City and Chelsea was 15 last season; it is now 25, but in City favour. That truly is

The conventional wisdom is that these Chelsea tactics can only thrive with a physical striker leading the line. It provides a focal point, a player capable of holding up the ball and bringing teammates into play. Hazard is a wonderful talent, but a target man he is not.

On that evidence, the decision to ostracise and sell Diego Costa was a mistake, or at least the inability to adequately replace him has cost Chelsea. Many felt that the Spaniard would have made a considerable difference to their approach on Sunday.

Yet over 1,000 miles away in Spain, Costa was failing miserably in having even the slightest of impacts for Atletico Madrid against Barcelona. He started as a lone striker against a home team dominant in possession, had no shots and completed just seven passes in the first half. Only when Atletico switched to a formation with two strikers did he show an improvement.

To say Chelsea are missing Costa feels too simplistic. Perhaps it is not the personnel that is the problem, but the approach.

Besides, the departure of Costa was not Chelsea most costly this summer. Nemanja Matic has left a gaping hole in the midfield that is yet to be addressed.

With N Kante sidelined, the pressure was on Cesc Fabregas and Danny Drinkwater to perform. Without a natural defensive midfielder, both would have to shoulder that responsibility together. But they would also have to find a way to pass around the City press when in possession. This would be the foundation upon which Chelsea would build any sort of positive result, and two demands that Matic incorporates so well.

Not only did Fabregas and Drinkwater make a combined two tackles, two interceptions and two clearances compared to Ilkay Gundogan two tackles,
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two interceptions and one clearance, but their passing was not nearly good enough. Together, they completed 82% of their 91 passes: a solid amount, but nowhere near enough to land a telling blow.

Drinkwater and Fabregas both won only 20% of their duels. Kante missed, as you would expect. March 4, 2018

Such minimal resistance certainly helped Gundogan. Guardiola noted that the lack of a coherent Chelsea press made the German job more and he again excelled at the base of the midfield.

Gundogan had 181 touches and completed 167 passes: both Premier League records, and both integral in helping City find a way through. With the hosts constantly searching for any potential gaps, the 27 year old had to provide a passing option for every defender, every midfielder and all three forward players, endlessly switching from left to right and recycling possession. It requires supreme concentration and fitness, and he has stepped ably into the shoes of the also underrated Fernandinho.

Gundogan himself described it as a spectacular match on social media afterwards; City really have normalised their record breaking brilliance.

I made the point in 16 Conclusions in midweek, but it bears repetition: City are thriving without key players in every outfield position. John Stones was on the bench again, Fernandinho is still sidelined, Raheem Sterling did not even make the match day squad, and Gabriel Jesus was afforded only a handful of minutes as he continues his return from injury. Benjamin Mendy is still out, and makeshift replacement Fabian Delph joined him on Sunday.

In their places, Aymeric Laporte, Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Aguero and Aleksandar Zinchenko have all thrived. It is easy to discredit the point by simply referencing the price tags of each replacement, but it rather ignores the fact that neither injuries nor suspensions have derailed City momentum. The machine keeps rolling, regardless of which part is used.

Gary Neville likened the Chelsea players to at one point in the second half, but it should be said that in the first half the strategy was working. The Blues blocked five shots in the opening 45 minutes, while City missed the target with another three.

Thibaut Courtois may have had only two saves to make, both of which were in the second half, but City had three shots on target. Only the divine intervention of Cesar Azpilicueta after a divine piece of skill from Leroy Sane kept the scores level.

Sane dragged the ball down from a Kevin De Bruyne free kick in the 27th minute, turned, took a couple of touches then unleashed a shot. It was powerful, it was low, and it was almost impossible to save. But Azpilicueta managed to not only take the sting out of the shot, but clear it off the line and to safety. Chelsea best player can only rescue them so many times, however.

While it was the first time since statistics began in 2003/04 that Chelsea failed to register a single shot in the first half of a Premier League game, Conte would have been content. The hosts were dominant in possession yet had only created one obvious opportunity.

The crucial defensive aspect of their first half was that any mistake Chelsea made came in a position where they could not be immediately punished. Any misplaced Fabregas pass was picked up by City in midfield, any poor Hazard touch simply ceded possession to an opposition centre half. There was never any need for Chelsea defence to hastily regroup in the face of a lightning quick City attack or incisive City pass. None of the five visiting defenders were ever pulled out of position.

It took 33 second half seconds for that hard work to be undone. Gundogan dropped deep and spotted Sergio Aguero run. The midfielder lofted pass failed to find the Argentinean, yet Andreas Christensen botched clearance played the ball into his path. Two passes later, City were ahead. The lion had waited patiently for the gazelle to let its guard down before pouncing. The opening might have been brief, but it was ruthlessly exposed.

know I made a mistake, but there is not much else to do than to learn from it and make sure it doesn happen again. made those comments after his misplaced pass handed Barcelona their equaliser last month; he has failed to learn his lesson. In his two appearances since, he has made high profile errors leading to both of Manchester United goals in a 2 1 defeat and to City eventual winner at the Etihad Stadium. As harsh as it seems when discussing a 21 year old essentially learning on the job,
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to make such costly mistakes in three crucial games might well cost him his place.