In a game that had almost everything, it might seem rude to start by pointing out something that No will happen in Chelsea 4-4 Manchester City. But here it goes: there was not a single deep pass in the entire game.
In an eight-goal thriller between two adventurous and technically proficient teams, not once was there a pass between defenders for an onrushing attacker, according to Opta. For comparison, there were 12 through balls in Chelsea’s equally eventful 4-1 win over Tottenham last Monday.
Yesterday’s game was one of 10 Premier League games this season that have not featured a through ball, the majority of which have involved less adventurous Premier League teams. On the other hand, there has only been one Premier League game this season (West Ham’s 3-1 win at Brighton) that has featured more counterattacks.
This might seem like mere statistical trivia, but it tells you something about the nature of this game: the style, the pace, the way these teams attacked. Once upon a time, an open match between these teams featured relentless incisive balls behind from Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, from David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. But in some ways, the game has moved on.
That doesn’t mean that passing quality wasn’t shown yesterday. But the quality of the pass came almost solely from deep. The players who made the most passes were Ruben Dias, Rodri, Axel Disasi, Manuel Akanji, Thiago Silva and Josko Gvardiol, five defenders and a holding midfielder.
But how did these movements develop? How did Chelsea and Manchester City manage to pass the ball so frequently to attacking players in dangerous positions? Here are nine different ways.
1) Play with pressure
This is the classic way modern teams approach a challenge like this. Instead of being scared by the opposing press and trying to get around it with long balls, teams actively invite the press by playing short and then quickly moving the ball across the lines.
On this occasion, Chelsea beat two City players in different ways: first with Reece James making a one-two with Thiago Silva to beat Bernardo Silva…
…and then get to the ball just before Gvardiol and pass it beyond.
Chelsea finish with a five-on-four, with Cole Palmer dribbling into the box.
2) The second ball
When Pep Guardiola first arrived in English football, what surprised him most was the number of second balls (flick-ons and clearances from crosses or long balls when the ball is still to be won) his team had to fight for. In December 2016, he dedicated an entire training session to the concept of grabbing second balls before a match against Arsenal.
With few long balls in this game, there were relatively few of these moments. But sometimes they proved crucial. Chelsea’s second goal came when Kyle Walker attempted to clear the field after Chelsea had gone long, and Enzo Fernandez struggled to get to the ball first…
He played it to Palmer, who waited for an overlap from James…
…who slid the ball across the six-yard box for Raheem Sterling to return home in precisely the manner he usually did during his time at City.
3) the press
With both teams putting intense pressure on their opponents in the midfield, a mistake in possession could have been fatal. Here, Dias passes the ball to Phil Foden, Fernandez quickly jumps over him and moves forward, passing the ball to Conor Gallagher.
He, in turn, feeds Nicolas Jackson…
…who tries to make a pass between Dias’ legs for Gallagher to run, but the pass is blocked.
4) The dribble
Immediately after the previous move, Walker stops and assesses the situation. At first, he is tempted to slow down the pace of the game. But then he sees a chance to break up, so he changes his mind…
…dribbles past Jackson and passes the ball to Bernardo.
He then carries the ball and passes it to Erling Haaland, who passes inside and beats Thiago Silva, but his shot goes too close to the goalkeeper.
5) Distribution of goalkeepers
It was a difficult match for the goalkeepers, who were attacked with shots and also had to act as reliable distributors from distance. And while Sanchez has made mistakes this season, and Ederson might have been unhappy with his save for Jackson’s goal in the second half, neither man made a mistake in possession.
The goalkeeper’s best pass of the game came shortly before half-time, when Sánchez put the ball into Gallagher…
…who received it on the turn…
…and played it to Sterling, who entered the box and had a decent effort towards the goal.
City’s third goal came, unusually, from a throw-in from deep in their own half. But this is arguably the best opportunity to avoid multiple opponents, who are trying to “lock in” the side with the throw.
Gvardiol throws the ball back to Bernardo…
…who throws it straight at Haaland, who converts Disasi instantly, and suddenly Chelsea only have two defenders between the ball and the goal.
Haaland plays it to Foden, who waits for Julian Álvarez’s run, and Haaland turns towards the far post in a slovenly manner.
7) The classic counter
Sometimes attacks in end-to-end matches like this are considered counterattacks. But often this is not the case: the team starts with the ball and simply avoids pressure before breaking. That is not a counterattack, because the opposition was not on the attack in the first place.
But there were real counterattacks at Stamford Bridge. Here, when Fernandez makes a careless pass, Dias slides in to throw the ball to Foden.
He passes Marc Cucurella and reaches Haaland…
…who turns and throws a long ball towards Jeremy Doku, in acres of space on the left. He finally cuts inside and makes a decent effort towards goal.
8) The trick
A piece of midfield skill can be very valuable in a game as demanding as this one. Here, Akanji passes the ball to Bernardo, who senses Moisés Caicedo approaching…
…and he lets the ball pass over his right foot, controls it with his left foot behind his right leg, then turns smartly past Caicedo and goes on the attack.
He then passes the ball to Rodri, who knocks it out for substitute Jack Grealish, and City break five against four.
In a game where neither side was in control, this move summed it up nicely. Disasi attacks Foden and the ball jumps into the air.
Five seconds later there is another big tackle, as Grealish slides towards Gallagher.
Chelsea have won a tackle, City have won a tackle, but the ball falls into the hands of Palmer, who has options left and right. He beats his pass to Jackson and Akanji intercepts.
At full-time, Mauricio Pochettino was apparently furious with the referee for blowing his whistle when Chelsea were on attack, but it was a fitting way to end the game: a player dribbling towards the opposition defence.
In some ways, this game seemed like an absurd anomaly: a crazy back-and-forth contest where both sides lacked control or defensive solidity. But in reality, it was probably simply an exaggerated reflection of the games between the big Premier League clubs at the time.
The defenders were essentially playmakers, in charge of initiating movements. Deep midfielders were effectively receivers, asked to receive forward passes while under pressure from opponents. Attacking midfielders were almost exclusively dribblers, tasked with carrying the ball into space, rather than passers. And the two number 9s, traditionally (having made just 12 passes each and been on the periphery for long periods but scoring three goals between them) should be considered almost exclusively finishers.
In the big games, this is what the Premier League is all about.
Chelsea 4-4 Manchester City: Old Palmer and Sterling are key, City don’t like chaos, more VAR delays