Kante and Luiz pierce City’s aura of invincibility
The Premier League may feel a different place this morning for some of the rivals of Manchester City, no longer undefeated, no longer even top of the table and the aura of Pep Guardiola as the untouchable general of an implacable force a little less forbidding than it once was.
The champions beaten at last, 16 games in and Christmas’s punishing schedule on its way, Guardiola on the touchline wagging a finger at the fourth official and that grey woollen jacket inadequate in the cold winter rain.
Strange how perceptions can change so swiftly, and while City might still go on to crush all opposition, this was an intriguing blueprint for how they might be defeated – defeated by a team that had less possession, fewer shots and one corner to the away side’s 13.
Afterwards Guardiola was generous about Maurizio Sarri’s victory, his first over his friend in four attempts, but the Catalan was bullish about his own side. This was how Guardiola says he likes to lose, if indeed he has to lose, on the front foot and in control of the ball although it never felt quite like that after the break. They dominated the first half and then had to wrestle back con- trol of the second but in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne the goal threat was lacking.
Liverpool are top of the league by a single point and now, after victory over Bournemouth, are the only undefeated team left in the Premier League. Their meeting with City at the Etihad on Jan 3 is shaping up to be an epic, and if the eight-part Amazon Prime hagiography of the previous season’s title-winning campaign taught us one thing, it was that Guardiola loves a speech about overcoming adversity.
“A joy” was how he described managing his team after this defeat. It did not look that way as he complained to the fourth official about the corner that led to David Luiz’s second decisive goal, but this is Guardiola’s mantra – that whatever the outcome, no one must deviate from the process.
“After all we have done last season everybody wants to beat us,” he said, “we played with incredible personality. We didn’t defend, we stayed high, regained a lot of balls. We attacked, we created enough chances to score one or two in the first half. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
His team certainly did control the first half, and it barely seemed credible when N’Golo Kante gave Chelsea the lead on 45 minutes from a tearaway break that finally saw Eden Hazard pick out the run of the French midfielder in the box. “We’re not here to be invincibles,” Guardiola said later. “We’re here to try to be champions.” Later he said that the myth of invincibility was a fallacy in any sport. “When people say that they’re selling illusion. Part of the competition is you can lose.”
Whether Chelsea’s approach will be successfully imitated by others is a question worth asking given that Sarri said himself that the first 25 minutes did not go anything like he had planned. It was not hard to see the problem, with Hazard deployed as a false nine and unwilling to do anything more than jog nonchalantly towards the City defenders in possession of the ball rather than press in the way in which Sarri had in mind.
“We had Eden for the first time in that position and I think in the first 20, 25 minutes we didn’t work very well in the defensive movement in the opponent’s half,” Sarri said. A high-risk strategy given the roots of Hazard’s serious fallout with Antonio Conte last season began when the former Chelsea manager picked his No10 in the same position at the Etihad in March. Did Hazard like playing there? “He had some problems at the beginning of the match,” Sarri said, “but I think he played really a very great second half.”
For now the result is all that matters but Hazard, with his future a matter of debate, will not be pleased to hear that Sarri says there will be other times when he is required to do the same. This was, nonetheless, a stunning win for the Stamford Bridge manager.
City dominated the first half. The home team hung on but it was not much fun for them, especially on their left flank when Marcos Alonso gave the ball away often and struggled to keep Raheem Sterling under control.
The Kante goal itself was not even particularly well finessed. It started with Luiz switching the play to Pedro, there was a poor touch from Willian, a bit of indecision from Alonso but when Hazard got on the ball in the area, time seemed to slow down. City’s defenders stood off the Belgian and he alone could see the run of Kante, unmarked in the box, to score. It was a hell of a way for Sarri’s team to end the half.
Hazard had been selected as a centreforward ahead of Olivier Giroud who was on the bench and Alvaro Morata, who was not even in the squad.
Sarri fudged the Morata question too, saying that he needed a substitutes’ bench with midfielders rather than strikers and towards the end of the game he did change his formation, bringing on Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley in the wider positions. There was no place for Gabriel Jesus in the City team either and although he was later summoned from the bench Guardiola also picked a formation with a false nine, Sterling on this occasion.
Did the City manager expect to see his formation mirrored by his opposite number? “Yes,” he deadpanned, “yesterday I called Maurizio and we decided to play the same way.”
Sarri’s team played much better after the break and were rewarded with a second goal when Barkley won a corner that Ederson might have prevented from going out. Guardiola seemed to think the set-piece should never have been given.
Before Hazard took it, Luiz worked his way to the front post and outjumped everyone to direct his header back past Ederson, putting the finishing touch on a pretty remarkable victory.