After the game had finished on Sunday night, I made a conscious decision there and then not to write anything until I’d had at least 24 hours to calm down. Otherwise, I worried the frustration of having conceded such a soft goal from such a fantastic position would taint my reflection on what was ultimately, a good performance and good result which had left us in a strong position, overall. My plan hasn’t worked. I’m still pissed and I’m pissed for three reasons. Firstly, the already all-too familiar nature of the goal conceded was a huge disappointment. There is a lot to like about Andre Schurrle and he seems to have everything he needs to make a success of himself at Chelsea, but he really isn’t helping himself with these careless errors. Allowing Frank Lampard to make an unchallenged late run into the box is surely the most unforgivable mistake any Chelsea player could make. I mean, come on!
My second and third source of lingering frustration, essentially boil down to the same point. After we went 1-0 up, four minutes after the sending off, we were in a perfect position to change the dynamic of the game, press City back and go for what would have been the decisive second goal. Failing that, we could’ve at least taken extra measures to sure up the defence and protect the lead. But we did neither of those things; rather we just seemed to be going through the motions, passively waiting for the game to end. The equaliser was in no way a shock when it came. But it wasn’t the lack of positivity, or the carelessness which led to goal which I think cost us in the end, it was our indecision over how to react to taking the lead that I thought was really disappointing. Hopefully it’s a mistake we won’t make again this season.
Overall our approach to the game was fairly straightforward. Nemanja Matic protected the back four, while Cesc Fabregas floated around, trying to find space in a congested midfield and feed the ball quickly to Ramires and Willian, who provided trademark tenacity and agility on the counter. Eden Hazard stayed fairly wide on the left, tracking the runs of Pablo Zabaleta, while Diego Costa stayed high-up, where he fought-out an extremely tough battle against their centre halves.
City’s plan to deal with Costa was obvious from the out-set, and although his collisions with Vincent Kompany were entertaining to watch at first, the level of aggression with which the Belgian was afforded to employ against the striker soon began to defy belief. The game was actually another useful demonstration of what Kompany gets away with in this League. So many times yesterday, Zabaleta and Mangala were penalised for indiscretions which Kompany was allowed to commit time and again without being punished. So far his “bullying” of Costa has been widely lauded in the press, despite his marking of the forward heavily pushing the boundaries of what can be considered legal. It’s fine that a team should play aggressively but I think more should’ve been made of how unnecessary City’s handling of Costa was and how it very nearly cost them. For Pellegrini then to come out and compare Chelsea to Stoke was a bit rich also.
City bossed the first half however and started the second half strongly as well, before the game turned following another cynical foul on our frontman. This may have been Costa’s poorest game so far but it is to his immense credit that he didn’t shirk a single battle yesterday, and in the end City were lucky to only end up with the solitary sending off. Man City fans decision to blame the referee and award a standing ovation to Zabaleta, despite both yellow cards being wholly incontestable struck me as an unfortunately moronic ascription of blame, but what are you going to do?
We instantly capitalised with a truly wonderful counter attacking goal that included Eden Hazard producing his best football twice in quick succession. It was the Belgian who carried the ball into their half before playing a lovely cross field pass to Fabregas; it was Hazard again who played the perfect through ball across the box for Andre Schurrle to tap in the opener. It was a wonderful team goal, up there with the best we’ve ever scored but almost instantly City were allowed to reassert themselves and regain control of the game, right up until Lampard’s equaliser.
Opinions are always mixed when it comes to players refusing to celebrate goals scored against ex-clubs – some find it classy, others find it disingenuous. Personally I think Frank showed a considerable amount of class and professionalism by managing to not look absolutely gutted when his shot went past Courtois. It’s a shame his last on field contribution in Chelsea game had to be this way but the ovation which he was given after the game was hopefully a deservedly touching moment for him, and lasting proof of the depth of the relationship he’s formed with the Chelsea fan base.
The key positive point worth reiterating after this performance is the adaptability of this team. Already after just five game weeks we’ve shown we can dominate games against smaller sides; we can go toe to toe with top sides and outscore them and we can pick up good results against the very best with more reactive tactics also. Great teams have the quality and the intelligence to be able to take on specific instruction and adapt from game to game – that we’ve demonstrated this so soon is surely the most promising thing about our season so far.
One final point to make – it was a shame that soon after the game had finished the usual pejoratives about Chelsea’s more defensive tactics came abounding on the phone-ins and on social media. It seems to me now that the Premier League would benefit greatly from supporters no longer sneering at defensive football in this manner.
I’ve never understood these complaints. If you are bored by cagey, tactical games then don’t watch them, but don’t criticize a team for being dull just because you can’t appreciate what they do. Games like City v Chelsea yesterday are what big matches should be like and what they invariably were like 5 or 6 years ago, when the PL was the best league in the world. I thought it was a fascinating game – far more entertaining than Utd v Leicester earlier, which was more of an exhibition than a contest.
Quality defending is just as much of a skill as producing intricate attacking sequences and it’s been embarrassingly absent from English football for too long and managers and supporters who denigrate and criticize sides like Chelsea and West Ham for prioritising defence in some games are all tacitly worsening the problem through their ignorance.
This game could just as easily be remembered as two crucial points carelessly thrown away, or as nothing more than a blip on our way to the title. And though our lead at the top of the table could/should’ve greater leaving Manchester on Sunday, there is still clear water between ourselves and the chasing pack. An undeniably disappointing result, but leaving the Etihad in a better position than when you came is nothing to get too down about.