1) It was back in January 2018 that Manchester City were one of the first high-profile victims of a trait that would characterise Liverpool’s recent dominance. The two sides were level at Anfield after 58 minutes, only to be separated by three goals ten minutes later as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah swept them away on a tidal wave of irresistible forward momentum.
“We did a good performance apart from a few minutes,” said Pep Guardiola after a 4-3 defeat. “After the second goal they scored two in a few minutes and it is hard to recover from that.”
That was what Liverpool have been capable of at their most devastating over the past two years: rendering any and every opponent utterly obsolete through their own sheer brilliance with a constant barrage of suffocating attacks in a short period of time; casting themselves as the blinding headlights and the other side as helpless deer. Those sharp bursts would sap teams of their collective belief. Manchester City, for all their excellence, have really struggled of late to build on leads in such a morale-crushing manner.
It took them two minutes and 35 seconds to double a deserved lead at Stamford Bridge, and just 13 minutes more to make it 3-0. They have so often frittered away long periods of dominance due to profligacy at one end or a lack of solidity at the other. It should worry every other title contender that they finally seem to have knitted those two aspects of their play together.
2) Not since last January had Manchester City scored three first-half goals in an away game in any competition. This match seemed won long before Kevin de Bruyne netted their third just after the half-hour mark to cap a thoroughly impressive 20-minute spell, yet it is worth underlining just how breathtaking they were.
From the 16th minute to the 36th, the visitors had ten shots, 65.3% possession and as many passes into the final third as Chelsea managed forward passes overall (55). A blocked Hakim Ziyech attempt was all the hosts had to show for their efforts as whatever discernible shape they started with collapsed under admittedly magnificent strain.
In those 20 minutes alone, Manchester City had 14 touches in the opposition penalty area. Chelsea had 23 all game. The difference between a team playing with confidence and one that can buy everything but that was laid cruelly bare.
3) Chelsea were dreadful, offering nothing in terms of resistance at either end in a performance that might well represent the nadir of Frank Lampard’s reign. The pre-match discourse was dominated by debates as to who was playing the false nine in Guardiola’s system but the only discussion to be had during the match concerned the entirely ethereal team his contemporary put out.
These players should not escape criticism. Edouard Mendy has to do better. Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva, too. A coach can only really do so much. At some stage Mateo Kovacic has to be expected to have basic positional awareness and Cesar Azpilicueta must know he is 427 years old and thus should not keep inviting players into races down his flank. That is not on the manager – or at least not completely.
4) Yet much of that bleeds into Lampard’s role. It is a manager’s job to devise systems and approaches that mask any deficiencies in their squads and accentuate the strengths. He surely realised within minutes that Manchester City were pressing only one of their centre-halves in possession, targeting Silva and leaving Zouma free as he is considerably worse on the ball. He must have noticed that De Bruyne was shadowing N’Golo Kante diligently, thus shutting down Chelsea’s other passing outlet from deep. He could not possibly have failed to see that his defence and midfield was little more than a mirage and any semblance of an attack essentially boiled down to letting Timo Werner or Christian Pulisic run with the ball for 30 yards with no support whatsoever before passing the ball to no-one.
If he could not identify and rectify those problems, if he even tries to reduce this thrashing to an issue of attitude, fitness or any other vague and immeasurable platitude, then what is the point of him being there? Chelsea’s matchday squad cost £567.7m. Their starting XI contained six players signed for £30m or more. But they still have a managerial novice in charge pretending that he would not eviscerate such displays if he were in the pundit’s chair instead. He ought to be incredibly thankful that Manchester City treated the whole second half as a warming-down exercise because this could have been even worse.
5) Some of his decisions really were baffling. Callum Hudson-Odoi should have started, even excusing the glare of hindsight that was his consolation goal. Kante played with all the verve and energy of a midfielder starting his sixth consecutive match in 22 days. So too did Mason Mount, completing 90 minutes for the seventh game since the start of December.
As for the substitutions, not making a change after that first half sent out a disastrous message. It was likely a motivational ploy to spur those who started on to improve and atone for their mistakes, but second chances should not come so easily at this level. Chelsea have invested so heavily in this squad that under-performance is able to be punished ruthlessly with little drop-off in quality. And Chelsea have invested so heavily in this squad that under-performance from the manager is expected to be punished ruthlessly with, in this case, a potentially substantial upgrade in suitability. They can clearly do so much better. The same cannot be said of Lampard.
6) To think that the game started with Manchester City nervously misplacing passes and ceding possession. Chelsea were not at all great either but it was a damning indictment that they failed to capitalise on those moments of uncertainty from the visitors when they had the chance.
Rodri was particularly culpable, losing the ball on the edge of his own area to Kante and only winning it back by barging into Werner. He then played a pass straight into Ben Chilwell’s path but was rescued as the referee brought play back for a foul. A few minutes earlier his backpass was picked up by Premier League debutant Zack Steffen to concede an indirect free-kick and subsequent corner, both of which Chelsea wasted. That was the only point at which Manchester City would be there for the taking.
So many missed passes and lost balls. Strange considering the amount of quality on the pitch.
— Cesc Fàbregas Soler (@cesc4official) January 3, 2021
7) That indirect free-kick was allowed to be taken outside of the box for some reason. Don’t know why. It was weird.
8) In fact, that was one of two particularly bizarre officiating moments, the second of which came late on when Werner seemed to injure himself taking a short corner that was inexplicably allowed to be retaken despite there being no apparent infringement. If anything, the referee let Chelsea have another go out of sheer pity, which summed the game up neatly.
9) It is to Manchester City’s great credit that they showed the collective mental resolve to overcome their early stutters. This team has so often crumbled when things have gone against them and decisive moments did not go their way. Guardiola has quietly instilled a greater belief, it seems.
A massive De Bruyne chance came and went from Joao Cancelo’s sumptuous through ball. Soon after, Raheem Sterling played a one-two with the right-back before drilling a cross that deflected off Silva and into Mendy’s grateful arms. Then came the breakthrough: Gundogan’s delightful turn and finish after Foden’s equally sublime assist.
Those four touches – one from Foden to control Oleksandr Zinchenko’s rasping delivery, another to tap it to Gundogan who Cruyff-turned Silva into another dimension and fired past Mendy – were instinctive excellence. Gundogan in particular is playing with real conviction, improvising a flick from Foden’s cross just before half-time that almost beat Mendy again. He really is a delightful player to watch and, in this more advanced position, arguably Manchester City’s most important right now.
10) That’s what makes Manchester City so captivating to watch at their apex. Their tactical fluidity and the flexibility of the players makes it a game to figure out who goes where before a ball is even kicked. Cancelo has been sensational as an inverted full-back in possession. It is always worth remembering that Zinchenko was formerly an attacking midfielder by trade, morphed into a left-back due to necessity. Then ahead of him is Gundogan, Bernardo, De Bruyne, Foden and Sterling, each capable of fulfilling different roles within the same game. When it works it is wonderful. Watch that first half back for proof.
11) The second goal was spontaneity at its best, too. De Bruyne found Foden’s searing run, only for Silva to block the Englishman’s path. But Manchester City’s captain had the ball again and this time played it through Azpilicueta’s legs to Foden, whose finish deserved far more praise than it received on commentary or from the pundits at half-time. To sort of clip it into the only space Mendy was unable to reach took no little skill.
The same can be said for Manchester City’s third, De Bruyne cushioning the ball as it ricocheted off the post from Sterling for the Belgian to finish. But the defending from Chelsea on both counts was abysmal.
They had six players in the penalty area yet could not prevent a five-yard pass from De Bruyne to Foden. They staged a Gabriel Martinelli tribute act by leaving Kante back as the only player within 70 yards of his own goal while attacking a corner at 2-0 down. They gave Lampard millions to spend on a new goalkeeper and defence and are left dissecting the same systemic and structural issues that were present after his first few months in charge. That third goal was almost the exact same as one Chelsea conceded 12 months ago, save for Sterling’s roundabout route. A manager that wilfully ignores those same weaknesses is no manager worth keeping at this level.
12) Chelsea’s final two attacks before Hudson-Odoi’s goal summed up the dreary fare on their part. Pulisic led yet another one-man attack that ended with him trying to poke a ball through to the onrushing Zouma, before the American tried to capitalise on a poor Steffen throw with something that barely registered as either a shot or a cross.
That front three alone cost £136.3m, two-thirds of which Lampard himself bought. It is quite clear that they did not work together so quite what he has seen in training is a mystery. The fact remains that he has spent an incredible amount on an attack that barely needed reinforcing and his most effective forward is a 34-year-old underwear model he has tried to sell at least once.
Lampard’s management of Hudson Odoi and Olivier Giroud has been really strange.
— LTArsenal™ (@ltarsenal) January 3, 2021
13) Guardiola described the stoppage-time goal as “unfortunate” but it should not impact assessments of John Stones and Ruben Dias too much. The sample size is small but that has the makings of an incredibly successful central-defensive partnership.
While Stones really has been something of a revelation upon his return, Dias alongside him is such a calming influence. The Portuguese managed three interceptions and six clearances, blocking four shots in a real standout display. Manchester City have found themselves a leader there.
14) Bernardo, by the way, was really good. There was no better player in this calibre of fixtures a couple of years ago but the return and reintegration of De Bruyne has seen his form suffer. Guardiola is reluctant to use both in similar positions and De Bruyne as a centre-forward was the perfect solution on this occasion.
That left Bernardo in a more reserved central position and without him Manchester City would not have been quite so dominant. His work ethic is spectacular and his ability on the ball is such that he can either keep pressure on the opponent with a well-chosen pass or use his dribbling to maintain possession and create space when outnumbered. The man never stands still.
Most of all, he sets the tone off the ball. His intensity and even the way he leads the press to stifle passing lanes is easy to overlook. Let that not dilute his importance because if Manchester City can properly harness the talents of an in-form Bernardo, they might be title favourites.
15) This is their longest unbeaten run since April 2019 (11 games). Their aggregate score since losing to Tottenham is 22-3. They have the joint-most clean sheets (13) of any club in Europe’s top five leagues, along with Atletico Madrid.
Guardiola has addressed the myriad defensive issues that were exposed by Leicester and Spurs. This individual game – only 90 minutes though it was – suggested a possible attacking fix beyond signing a striker this month. They are in the sort of stirring form that not even a virus outbreak can stop. As hilarious a sentence as this is, Wednesday’s game might be the single most important League Cup semi-final in modern history.
16) The timing of those reports is no coincidence. Lampard did actually speak well after the game yet that was even more of a meaningless consolation that Hudson-Odoi’s tap-in from Kai Havertz’s fine cross. This is a man who took over a team in third, was praised and nominated for awards after dragging them to fourth, has spent money on every single position and now has them eighth after almost half his second season.
It is difficult to work out which should be the source of more embarrassment: being behind Everton and Aston Villa; being ahead of Southampton and West Ham on goal difference alone; being three points clear of Arsenal; being four points clear of Crystal Palace. This is not company Chelsea are accustomed to keeping. Other managers have been sacked for less.
And if the argument is that you have to stick with a manager eventually, then why one who is clearly out of his depth at this stage of his career? Lampard has shown more than a few glimpses of tactical ingenuity and coaching prowess but with this squad and the one he inherited it would have been a genuine achievement not to. Patience is a virtue and Chelsea would be foolish to finally show it now after all these years.