DOSSIER: The two title challengers made contrasting starts to the new season, but will the champions brush aside recent controversies to frustrate City yet again?
“Pre-season is fake,” declared Jose Mourinho during an off-season of toil for Chelsea.
It was a comment that turned out to be truer for some clubs than
others. While the Premier League champions continued their lacklustre
form as the curtain was raised on the new campaign, their shortcomings
quickly buried behind a smokescreen of controversy, Manchester City laid down an early marker as they raced to the top of the table.
Pellegrini’s side had been prematurely written off after a horrific
first-half showing against Stuttgart in their final friendly, conceding
four times within 37 minutes, but delivered the most complete and
dominant performance of the opening round of fixtures to reassert their
title credentials – and that was despite last season’s top scorer,
Sergio Aguero, only being fit enough for a place on the bench.
team looked reborn compared to last season, with Yaya Toure, fully fit
and well rested, displaying the predatory instincts and dynamic play
that many thought he was no longer capable of, while David Silva plotted
and schemed around him and Raheem Sterling provided the direct running
and terrifying pace an ageing side had previously been bereft of as they
forfeited their crown.
The champions, meanwhile, looked
lethargic and leggy against Swansea, and Mourinho’s side-line hysterics
and post-match medical team rantings appear to have been designed as
much to divert attention away from his team’s ails as to ignite a
much-needed spark. His teams have always looked to harness adversity, to
such an extent that you wonder if it has now become a necessary
component of any title tilt.
the two sides meet at the Etihad Stadium in what will provide the first
clear glimpse of how this season’s campaign is likely to unfold; not
just in terms of points – lose and the Blues would be five points adrift
– but also in terms of style and tactics. Last year, Chelsea were a
team of two faces: bold and attacking in the first half of the season,
but restrictive and more cautious as the importance of matches grew.
the biggest sides, and in the biggest moments, the champions have
always relied most heavily on their defensive nous and experience to see
them through, and that has been especially true in matches against
City. It was at the Etihad, for example, that Nemanja Matic first
announced himself to the Premier League, his combative, tenacious,
counter-punching style now the cornerstone of Mourinho’s latest Chelsea
In the four Premier League encounters Mourinho has
managed against City, none of which he has lost, his side have averaged
just 42.5 per cent possession, with over half the chances they have
created coming from either set-pieces or counter-attacks. It is a style
at odds with how City – who have garnered 73% of their chances against
the Blues from open play – have looked to brand themselves, and their
footballing identity, since establishing themselves as an elite side.
is a way to beat Chelsea that has already been executed with aplomb by
Arsenal and Swansea in August alone, but it is a blueprint of
frustration that does not quite fit with City’s style. Soak up pressure,
limit space in behind, double mark Eden Hazard – who, despite
significant investment, remains the stand-out match-winner – and press
aggressively, before springing on the counter-attack and breaking with
speed and incision.
both matches it was a winger who proved the biggest nuisance for
Chelsea, first Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain marauding down the right flank
and scoring a screamer, before Jefferson Montero terrorised an often
isolated Branislav Ivanovic (only one player, the aforementioned Ox,
successfully completed more dribbles that weekend). Fortunately for
City, they have recently spent £49 million on a similarly rapid player.
these are tactics that City have rarely, if ever, attempted under
Pellegrini – even in the Champions League against foes as deadly as
Bayern Munich and Barcelona, the Chilean still looked to out-play his
opponents. Asserting their own dominance has been easier for City
against Chelsea than in Europe, taking control of the ball and
territory, but using that superior possession to create chances, and win
matches, has been less fruitful.
Generally Mourinho has kept
their biggest weapons at arm’s length, limiting them to three goals in
four games, their worst return against any top-tier side. City have
looked to their usual ploy of choking opponents with concerted pressure
and imaginative through-balls, but Chelsea’s compact shape, deep line
and explosiveness on the break has been sufficient resistance.
Wenger had struggled similarly against Mourinho-managed sides, failing
to beat him in 14 attempts, spread over 11 years, until he triumphed in
the Community Shield. It was not a typical Arsenal performance, though,
with the Gunners forfeiting an unusual amount of possession at Wembley
(Chelsea bossed proceedings with 58%), defending deep and playing 134
Mourinho might even have allowed himself a wry
smile at Wenger’s change of tact; though he was not the victor on the
day, he forced the Frenchman to ditch his long-held philosophy in favour
of a more pragmatic approach straight out of the Portuguese’s own
playbook. But if Wenger sunk to Mourinho’s level, both on and off the
pitch as their verbal sparring exploded in the media, Pellegrini, you
suspect, will not.
He may not always show it, diplomatically
avoiding mud-slinging, but the Chilean dislikes Mourinho just as much as
Wenger does – perhaps even more. The Chelsea boss is particularly fond
of “accidentally” mispronouncing Pellegrini’s name and mocked his work
at Real Madrid after succeeding him. Not burdened by a long winless run
against his nemesis, Pellegrini, you suspect, does not merely want to
beat his counterpart, he wants to embarrass him playing the type of
expansive football the Portuguese dares not employ in big matches.
makes Sunday’s contest all the more intriguing. Can City adapt, or will
it be business as usual for Mourinho? Or, should City triumph in the
manner that they dispatched West Brom, exerting full control, could they
reveal a new chink in Chelsea's armour and cast doubt over their hopes
of defending the title? Either way, with the Premier League runner-up
having finished within four points of the champions in five of the last
10 years, Chelsea cannot afford to give their hosts too much breathing
space even at this incredibly early stage of the season.