Chelsea’s surprise defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday has suddenly changed the shape of this Premier League season. Tottenham Hotspur now have a reasonable chance of lifting the title, not least because Sam Allardyce’s side exposed the fragility of Antonio Conte’s system; it only took one absentee, Victor Moses, for Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 to become unstuck.
Manchester City were bizarrely chaotic and unfocused for most of their 2-2 draw with Arsenal, but the flaws in Chelsea’s tactics still makes victory for Pep Guardiola possible. This is a season-defining match for the hosts, and a second successive league defeat is on the horizon.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of the game on Wednesday night:
1) Will Sane cause panic on the left flank in Moses’ absence?
Chelsea were outmanoeuvred far too easily by Palace on the counter-attack last weekend, largely because Pedro struggled to play right wing-back. This in turn pulled N’Golo Kante out of position (see below) and saw Conte’s immaculately organised formation suddenly crumble. With Leroy Sane in outstanding form from the left, this will surely be the main danger area on Wednesday.
In a V-shaped 4-5-1 formation, with dual false-tens (Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva) working the ball quickly into touchline-hugging wingers Sane and Raheem Sterling, City’s 21-year-old Germany international is flourishing. He has five goals and two assists in his last eight City appearances, making brilliant runs in-between the full-back and centre-back that De Bruyne is consistently able to find.
Pedro is not positionally disciplined enough to stop him. In a repeat of Sane’s opening goal against Arsenal, City’s playmakers should easily exploit the large gap between Cesar Azpilicueta and Pedro on the counter. Guardiola will immediately recognise where Chelsea’s weak spot is and instruct his players to constantly look for a through ball down the left channel.
2) Can Sterling exploit new space in the centre, as Zaha did on Saturday?
Pedro’s flailing attempts to defend made both Kante and Azilipcueta play badly against Palace. Both players were drawn out to this side more than they should have been, which is what ultimately created space for Wilfried Zaha in central areas.
Zaha usually sticks largely to the right, but he has floated in a freer role under Allardyce and is picking up plenty of loose balls that drop around Christian Benteke. With Kante distracted (he failed to make a single tackle or interception at the weekend) the Ivorian scored and assisted by making late movements into the gap behind Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Sterling should be instructed to do the same thing. Guardiola has found it difficult to stop Sterling drifting into the centre this season, famously using a piece of chalk on the training ground to get the England international to stay put on the right. For once, he must unshackle Sterling; by making arcing runs into the centre, he can get the better of Kante and become a lethal force on the break.
3) Can Chelsea’s Hazard use the left touchline to draw Fernandinho away from Man City’s well-stocked midfield?
Assuming Guardiola deems the Jesus Navas-at-right-back experiment a failure, we will see Yaya Toure joined by inverted full-back Fernandinho in defensive midfield at Stamford Bridge. The pair will be helped by De Bruyne, who has moved into a deeper role since plugging the Gundogan-shaped hole in the middle during the second half of their defeat to Monaco in March.
This compact trio successfully stunted Mesut Ozil last weekend, and will make things tough for Eden Hazard in midweek unless the Belgian drifts further left than usual. If Hazard plays as more of a traditional winger, then he will force Fernandinho to stay at right-back, which in turn should help de-clutter central midfield (the immobile Toure is hardly adept at defending large spaces).
At both ends, the left wingers must provide as much width as possible to avoid this being a stodgy match in which two midfields cautiously cancel each other out. In this sense, the indirect head-to-head between Hazard and Sane is the key battle of the match.
4) Will Conte be bold with his pressing game and make City look too expansive?
Guardiola’s biggest tactical problem at the moment is that his team are incapable of implementing his 15-pass rule without a confident distributor in central midfield or a ball-playing goalkeeper. The central aim of his philosophy is to gradually shift the entire team up the pitch via short-passing football (because a compressed shape is strong defensively, while approaching the final third as a unit makes it easier to disrupt the opposition lines). However, this simply cannot work without a confident passer in goal and a brilliant playmaker sitting just in front of the back four.
Willy Caballero constantly resorted to long balls against Arsenal (65% of his total attempted passes), partly because he is not confident enough to feed his defenders and partly because there is no reliable midfielder to help him (such as Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich or Sergio Busquets at Barcelona).
Arsenal were very successful in pressing high when Caballero had the ball, which meant City’s midfield increasingly hung up top – even though the back four remained tight to the keeper. Unsurprisingly, this overly expansive formation made City disconnected and incapable of building meaningful pressure on the Arsenal goal.
Chelsea must attempt to do the same. Conte tends to sit back when playing the bigger teams (they held 39% possession at the Etihad, and 38% possession at Anfield), but this tactic is not advisable this weekend. The Italian must be brave and instruct his players to hold a high line from City goal-kicks.
5) Can a resurgent Fabregas feed goal-shy Diego Costa?
If Hazard successfully draws Fernandinho away from the middle, then the most obvious beneficiary will be Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard has improved dramatically under Conte to become a key impact player; he created seven chances against Palace, and has amassed four goals and two assists in his four league starts at Stamford Bridge this season.
If De Bruyne drifts high up the pitch to receive those longer passes from Caballero, then Fabregas may just find himself unmarked in the most dangerous area of the pitch. His clipped through balls towards Diego Costa, who has not scored in three Chelsea matches, will trouble Nicolas Otamendi.
Source: Alex Keble