In a game that has almost everything, it may seem rude to start by selecting something He didn’t do that Happened at Chelsea 4-4 Manchester City. But here goes: There wasn’t a single through ball in the entire match.
In an eight-goal thriller between two enterprising and technically proficient teams, there was not a single pass between the defenders to an onrushing striker, according to Opta. By comparison, there were 12 through balls in Chelsea’s eventful 4-1 win over Tottenham last Monday.
Yesterday’s match was one of 10 Premier League matches this season that did not include through passes, most of which involved less adventurous Premier League teams. On the other hand, there has been only one Premier League match this season – West Ham’s 3-1 win over Brighton – which featured more rapid attacks.
This may seem like trivial statistical information, but it tells you something about the nature of this game – the style, the rhythm, the way these sides attacked. Once upon a time, an open match between these two sides was characterized by incessant incisive balls at the back from Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, and from David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. But in some ways, the game has evolved.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a passing quality on display yesterday. But the passing quality came almost solely from depth. The players who played the most passes were Ruben Dias, Rodri, Axel Disasi, Manuel Akanji, Thiago Silva and Josko Gvardiol, five defenders and a midfielder.
But how did these movements develop? How did Chelsea and Manchester City manage to frequently get the ball to attacking players in dangerous positions? Here are nine different methods.
1) Playing under pressure
This is the classic way modern parties confront a challenge like this. Instead of fearing the opponent’s pressure and trying to get past them with long balls, teams activate the press by playing short, then moving the ball quickly across the lines.
On this occasion, Chelsea beat two City players in different ways: first, Reece James exchanged the ball with Thiago Silva to go past Bernardo Silva…
…Then he got to the ball just before Gvardiol and shot it past him.
Chelsea finished five-on-four, with Cole Palmer dribbling forward into the box.
2) The second ball
When Pep Guardiola first arrived in English football, the main thing that surprised him was the number of second balls (quick passes and clearances of crosses or long balls when the ball is still there to win) his team had to fight for. In December 2016, he devoted an entire training session to the concept of catching second balls before the clash against Arsenal.
With so few long balls in this match, there were relatively few such moments. But sometimes, it proves decisive. Chelsea’s second goal came when Kyle Walker tried to clear the ball from the goal line after a long attack, and Enzo Fernandez struggled to reach the ball first.
He played it to Palmer, who waited for the interference from James…
…who passed the ball across the six-yard box for Raheem Sterling to head home in the same way he had done regularly during his time at City.
With both teams pressing their opponents intensely in midfield, one mistake in possession could have been fatal. Here, Dias plays the ball forward to Phil Foden, and Fernandes quickly jumps on him and drives forward, passing the ball to Conor Gallagher.
He, in turn, feeds Nicholas Jackson…
…who tries to play a pass between Dias’ legs and Gallagher collides with it, but the pass is blocked.
Immediately after the previous step, Walker stops and assesses the situation. At first, he was tempted to slow down the pace of the game. But then he finds an opportunity to break, so he changes his mind…
…Jackson dribbles and passes the ball to Bernardo.
He then picks the ball up and passes it to Erling Haaland, who runs inside past Thiago Silva, but his shot is too close to the goalkeeper.
5) Goalkeeper distribution
This was a tough game for the goalkeepers, who were pouring in shots, and also had to act as reliable distributors from deep. While Sanchez has made mistakes this season, and Ederson may have been unhappy with his save on Jackson’s goal in the second half, they made no mistakes in possession.
The goalkeepers’ best pass of the match came shortly before half-time, when Sanchez passed the ball to Gallagher…
…who in turn received it…
…and played it to Sterling, who entered the penalty area and made a good effort on goal.
City’s third goal, unusually, came from a throw deep into their own half. But this is arguably the best opportunity to get past many opponents, who try to “tag in” the side with the throw.
Gvardiol throws the ball back to Bernardo…
…who passed it directly to Haaland, who immediately cleared Disasi, and suddenly Chelsea had only two defenders between the ball and goal.
Haaland passes the ball to Foden, who is waiting for Julian Alvarez’s run, and Haaland returns the net at the far post in sloppy fashion.
7) Classic counter
Sometimes, attacks in close matches like this are counterattacks. But more often than not, that doesn’t happen, the team starts with the ball, and simply gets past the pressure before the break. This is not a counterattack, because the opposition was not on the offensive in the first place.
But there were real counter-attacks at Stamford Bridge. Here, when Fernandes plays a sloppy pass, Dias slides in to pass the ball to Foden.
He plays in goal for Marc Cucurella and Haaland…
…who turns and passes a long ball to Jeremy Doku, an acre on the left. He eventually cuts inside and has a decent effort at goal.
8) The trick
One skill in midfield can be invaluable in a high-pressure game like this. Here, Akanji passes the ball to Bernardo, who senses Moises Caicedo coming…
…He lets the ball pass through his right foot, controls it with his left foot behind his right leg, then passes Caicedo intelligently and attacks.
He then plays the ball to Rodri, who kicks it out for substitute Jack Grealish, and City break away to win by five to four.
In a game that neither side had control over, this move summed it up nicely. Disasi tackled Foden and the ball flew into the air.
Five seconds later, there was another big tackle, with Grealish slipping onto Gallagher.
Chelsea win one tackle, City win one, but the ball falls to Palmer, who has options left and right. He crossed his pass to Jackson and was intercepted by Akanji.
After the end of the game, Mauricio Pochettino appeared angry with the referee for blowing his whistle when Chelsea were on the attack, but it was an appropriate way to end the game – a player dribbling forward towards the opposition defence.
In some ways, this match seemed like a ridiculous anomaly – a crazy back-and-forth contest in which both sides lacked control or defensive solidity. But in reality, that was probably just an exaggerated reflection of the matches between the big clubs in the Premier League at the moment.
Defenders were essentially playmakers, tasked with initiating moves. The deep midfielders were effective receivers, and were asked to collect forward passes while under pressure from opponents. The attacking midfielders were almost purely dribblers, tasked with carrying the ball forward into space, rather than passing. And the two No. 9s, conventionally enough – each played just 12 passes and were on the sidelines for long spells but scored three goals between them – should only be considered finishers.
In the big games, that’s what the Premier League is all about.
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