Chelsea have been on something of a roller-coaster for the past couple of weeks. A 4-0 trouncing at Bournemouth was followed by a 6-0 humiliation at the Etihad, which was their worst loss in 28 years. Manager Maurizio Sarri is on thin ice at Stamford Bridge, and a Europa League victory midweek was nothing more than a brief respite. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City await him again on Sunday, this time in the EFL Cup final. Clinching the trophy would do little to ease the underlying problems, but would be a hugely welcome distraction. Let’s take a look at what Sarri can do to clinch his first major honour.
Two contrasting clashes
City visited Chelsea back in December and suffered their first league loss of the season that day. The reverse fixture was strikingly opposite, as Guardiola’s side thrashed Chelsea 6-0. What was the reason for his radical change? Individual performances on the day was obviously a factor, but so were the tactics adopted by Sarri. The Chelsea manager’s gameplan will play a major role in his side’s fortunes on Sunday.
In December, Sarri adopted an approach which did not set with his steadfast philosophy. Chelsea relinquished the ball and handed the initiative to City. They defended religiously and effectively converted their chances to win the game. Sarri changed his approach two weeks ago. Chelsea pressed City and didn’t keep their defensive shape. City cut open them with relative ease numerous times, scoring for fun.
Chelsea’s attack has improved…
Chelsea had just 38.7% possession at Stamford Bridge, a number which rose to 44.2% in the reverse fixture. The pass success rate also rose, and so did the passing numbers. Chelsea completed just 410 passes in the first tie, compared to the 535 they managed at the Etihad. The shots taken went up from eight to 12, and so did the chances created. Surprisingly, the expected goals also went up, from 0.53 to 0.90. Almost every sign points to the fact that Chelsea were a better attacking force. So what is the problem?
…But City’s attack has improved substantially more
Well, as it turns out, City were a much, much better attacking force. The likes of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero had a free reign in the game, finding spaces at will. Chelsea’s defence was at splits, and the lack of organisation was exploited by City. Midfielders like Jorginho and Ross Barkley were poor, failing to cope with the intensity.
City’s xG in the 6-0 win was 4.04, which is tremendously high. To put that into perspective, the xG was 2.76 in the 6-1 win over Southampton, and 3.08 in the 5-0 win over Cardiff. Even though Chelsea have better players than Cardiff, abandoning the defensive shape meant that City handed similar treatment to them. Chelsea played with fire and duly got burnt.
Like Taylor Swift, Sarri should go back to December
Comparing the two Chelsea performances from an attacking standpoint, the latter one was definitely superior. Bafflingly, Chelsea completed more passes in the final third than City in the 6-0 mauling. But playing in an expansive manner opened the gates for City. Instead, why not sacrifice your own attacking freedom if it means that the Guardiola juggernaut can be smothered?
Eden Hazard played as a ‘false nine’ in December, while Willian and Pedro defended diligently on the wings that day. Sarri could go back to that route, even if it means benching Gonzalo Higuain. A defensive approach seems like the best one for Sarri, and Chelsea can defend staunchly with the likes of N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta in their side. A final is just about winning, and compromising footballing ideals is a small price to pay.