Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are two of the world’s finest managers. They both played at the highest level, but the pair will go down in history for their work on the training ground and from the dugout.
Though the pair have been influential upon European football, their matches are a meeting of contrasting football philosophy. Conte is closer to pragmatist than philosopher, while Guardiola is a footballing ideologue. Both have their detractors, but both have lifted silverware at a relentless rate throughout their managerial careers.
Conte’s Chelsea were clear champions last season. Their campaign started in disaster this time, though things are looking pretty comfortable domestically at the moment. After an emphatic win at Stoke, this is a definitive moment in their season. Ground must still be made up to the Manchester clubs, and there will be no better chance than this.
It is definitive, too, for Manchester City. Having scored 21 and conceded only two so far, Guardiola’s side have been almost flawless. Their football has been what we all expected when the Spaniard was hired. This is an exam of their credentials, however. They look certain to dispatch all teams outside the top six with ease, making their clashes with fellow top six teams the only stumbling block en route to the title.
Everton were lucky to pick up a 1-1 even when they were down to 10, and Liverpool were thrashed once Sadio Mane was sent off. Chelsea are an altogether different proposition. Should City brush them aside without their defensive frailties coming to the fore again, they become the sure-fire favourites to lift their third Premier League trophy.
Blues’ denesive dilemma?
Chelsea are without David Luiz this weekend, but Conte has an array of options at the back. Andreas Christensen was superb at the Bet365 Stadium last weekend, and is the favourite to play as the middle centre-back. Gary Cahill will miss out in that case, as the impressive Antonio Rudiger looks likely to keep his place on the left. Rudiger, along with Cesar Azpilicueta, provides mobility to Chelsea’s back three that should – in part, at least – aid their efforts at handling the red hot wing duo of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
Whatever the setup for Manchester City, we know David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne will be in the line-up. It’s likely only one of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus start, too, as the form of Sterling and Sane should make them guaranteed picks. The youthful wingers provide pace, and should be key components as Guardiola plots a means of finding holes in this Chelsea defence, which has conceded only once in their last four league matches.
Restricting the influence of Silva and de Bruyne has to be Chelsea’s priority, however. They are the heartbeat of this City side, and will provide the service for the wide pair – who could tear Chelsea apart within half an hour. Feeding Sane and Sterling in behind the defence allows them to get to the byline, opening up cutback opportunities for high-quality chances.
This is where the match will be decided.
Chelsea’s midfield duo of N’golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko should be accompanied by Cesc Fabregas in a 3-5-2. Kante and Bakayoko will be charged with limiting any pockets of space for City’s creative core. Compressing any gaps between their lines, Kante and Bakayoko must not allow either de Bruyne or Silva to release quick passes towards the channels.
Simply put, Chelsea will be in need of significant fortune – as they were at the Etihad Stadium last year – if they let Silva and de Bruyne have the space they have enjoyed – and created for themselves – so far this season. Fabregas will be charged with monitoring Fernandinho, and the Spaniard serves a similarly important role in slowing City’s recycling of the ball.
If the Blues can do that, they are in with a chance. Few teams in Europe are equipped better than Conte’s side to repress this seemingly irrepressible Manchester City attack.
Could Chelsea expose Man City’s defensive fragilities?
Chelsea are at their most dangerous without the ball. We know they will relinquish the majority of possession to the visitors. The Blues’ rapid attacking transitions are as devastating as any in the Premier League at the moment, and could quickly expose the defensive fragilities that City showed against Liverpool earlier in the campaign.
If Chelsea can snatch the ball and spring counter-attacks – probably through Kante – how quickly their wing-backs can advance up the pitch will be a telling factor. City’s full-backs will be high and could force Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses to sit too deep to be able to contribute offensively. Alonso and Moses are Chelsea’s out balls, and need to be contributing in attacking transition if Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata are going to trouble Ederson.
A City victory leaves Chelsea six points off the pace. A Chelsea victory will reopen the debate about City’s defence against their top six rivals. And the conclusions will be drawn based on the middle third, even if it’s likely to be players at either end of the pitch who dominate the headlines.