On a night which will no doubt be mainly remembered for Liverpool’s title win, it could be easy to overlook the contents of the full game between Chelsea and Manchester City. But do to so, would be to miss out on the coaching masterclass that Frank Lampard put out.
In his first season of managing a Premier League club, I have fast become impressed with Lampard’s ability to make the right calls in terms of team selection for big top 6 clashes. Beyond that even, Lampard has shown he certainly has the eye for making meaningful in-game changes. A notable example being against Arsenal at the Emirates. After being what can only be described as battered for the first half an hour, Lampard replaced a defender for Jorginho, a central midfielder. The change allowed Chelsea to regain their footing, later going on to win.
Thursday night was no different, once again Lampard fine tuned a Chelsea team which had the capability to beat Manchester City. The question to examine is whether Lampard has set out a blueprint for teams looking to beat Manchester City.
Getting The Right Team
I am a strong believer of the idea that you can lose a game of football before the whistle is blown. Often, we see managers overthink and imbalance their team in a bid to surprise the other manager. This may work for the first 10 minutes, but as seen in Arsenal’s recent loss to City, this temporary advantage can quickly be nullified once the opposition settles. The team is now overly exposed.
Lampard rightly avoided any drastic changes. Perhaps the two most questioned decisions before kick-off were Olivier Giroud over Tammy Abraham, and Ross Barkley over Matteo Kovacic. Whilst they raised some eyebrows, they were by no means something which we have not already seen this season.
The logic as far as Giroud goes appears to have been for primarily physical reasons. Although Abraham is by no means undersized in terms of height, Giroud is the more likely of the two to throw his weight into his play. Giroud historically brings impressive set piece defence, and his hold-up heavy style has the benefit of drawing defenders to the ball.
Again, one could question if Barkley’s imposing frame helped give him the edge over Kovacic. Whilst this is possible, I think it is perhaps more likely that it came down to his more direct style. Kovacic is a truly fantastic player as far as possession play is concerned, but that is a dangerous route to go down against Manchester City. Whilst no doubt the more wasteful of the two, having Barkley on the pitch means having a player more plainly concerned with goal impact.
In avoiding any real selection howlers, Lampard took the first steps to a win.
Packing The Midfield
In perhaps the most easily said and trickily done thing in all of football, you must frustrate City’s midfield to beat them. This manifested in many ways.
Kevin de Bruyne. A man who has inflicted 90 minutes of torture on most teams. A man who Chelsea managed to limit in open play. This might feel slightly odd given he did score, but it is very important to note that it was from a free kick. This must be contrasted with the usual damage he does from open play.
So many of de Bruyne’s assists come from him driving into the centre right of the penalty area. What Chelsea managed to do was keep him relatively central. The impact this had on his pass selection was that he would frequently get stuck in the middle and have to pass horizontally. The two-fold effect of this was that de Bruyne himself could not be the player receiving the ball in wide areas, and also that he would frequently be passing the ball away in danger areas.
The way that Lampard set out to achieve this was through what can only be described as a hard-running midfield trio of Kanté, Mount, and Barkley. None of them showed any hesitation at the required workrate, and none of them made any glaring errors in play.
What this suggests is a good model for midfield play against City. Teams who have tried to fight City’s creative fire with fire have largely found themselves outplayed. The answer seems to lie in a more robust set-up.
Keeping Them Honest
However, we have seen many teams set up to frustrate City and still find themselves pinned back and picked off.
The trick in City’s losses this season seems to be in giving them something to be scared of. Namely, transition defending.
When asked to defend a counter on the backfoot, City make mistakes. Wolves, Manchester United, Norwich, all teams who have beaten City this season, all teams who have benefitted from loose defending on the break.
Where Lampard got it right, was selecting a team which was both compact, but also threatening.
In the first goal and the build-up to the penalty, Willian and Pulisic used their elite dribbling to put City onto the backfoot. Pulisic found himself behind the defence, whilst Willian found himself tearing through it.
It is also here that the midfield was spot on. Mount, Barkley, and Kante all know exactly what they’re doing when moving the ball forward. They presented the perfect blend of defensive graft and attacking threat.
So, to beat City requires compactness and threat. On paper this sounds easy, but it is worth noting that Chelsea benefitted from a howler from Mendy for the first. No doubt, the teams who beat City tend to benefit from mistakes, but there is without a doubt a style which seems to draw mistakes out more frequently.