Manchester City produced a masterclass in counter-attacking football to hand Chelsea their 11th defeat in the league. Fernandinho and Kevin de Bruyne pulled all the strings in the midfield, one defensively and the other in attack, as they showed a sign of things to come against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
How they started
Guus Hiddink made four changes to the Chelsea lineup he used in their last game. Courtois, Cahill, Costa and Willian returned to the starting lineup, replacing Asmir Begovic, Matt Miazga, Pato and Oscar respectively.
In the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, Loftus-Cheek was given a free role behind Costa and he kept interchanging his position with Willian and Pedro throughout the game.
Manuel Pellegrini, with one eye on the upcoming Champions League semi-final encounter against Real Madrid, dropped both Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy from the lineup. Yaya Toure replaced Fernando in the midfield while the injured David Silva made way for Nasri in attack.
Baba and Iva – the recipe for disaster
As a footballer, Jesus Navas is not in the same league as his more illustrious peers in the attack at Manchester City. However, tactically he is crucial to Pellegrini's plans on the pitch. He provides the width in attack and mostly refrains from drifting infield like David Silva, De Bruyne, or Nasri. His tactically rigid role allows others to be flexible around him. Balance is always more important than symmetry.
Navas' role meant that most of City's attacks came down their right wing, with de Bruyne and Aguero joining him to outnumber the opposition down the flank. Add to that, City played with two of their most attacking fullbacks in this game, who provided a lot of impetus going forward.
With Man City pushing down the right, Chelsea's left half of the defence came under a lot of pressure. With Hiddink using Ivanovic as the left centre-back and Baba as the left back – perhaps the weakest defensive pairing one can come up with in the Chelsea squad at the moment – their left side of the defence was a disaster waiting to happen.
The warning signs came very early on in the match. In the third minute, de Bruyne ran behind Baba and Ivanovic with Navas playing him through with a fantastic pass. Chelsea were let off the hook in that occasion with Azpilicueta and Cahill doing just about enough to prevent Aguero from scoring from de Bruyne's cut back.
Just three minutes later, de Bruyne once again ran behind the defence and this time, it was Aguero who played him through. KdB's shot was saved by Courtois at his near post, but it was just the sign of things to come. In the 26th minute, Nasri exploited the space between Ivanovic and Baba, however, Courtois came to Chelsea's rescue once again.
So it was not a surprise that both of City's field goals came down their right flank. The first arrived in the 32nd minute, when Baba failed to contain de Bruyne from a counter-attack. The second came in the 52nd minute, with Baba caught out of position.
Staggering space between Chelsea's midfield and defence
Chelsea were the epitome of a team lacking cohesion on the pitch. While Mikel and Fabregas pushed up the pitch, Cahill and Ivanovic dropped deep. This created a lot of space between the defensive midfielders and the centre backs, and Manchester City exploited this space throughout the 90 minutes.
Mikel, who was supposed to be the holding midfielder, was caught out of position far too often. He was ineffectual in his role of a destructive midfielder while his partner Cesc Fabregas was ineffective his role of the deep-lying playmaker.
In contrast, Fernandinho's holding role master-class
Fernandinho did exactly what Chelsea needed Mikel to do. The Brazilian is one of the most complete midfielders in the Premier League, equally adept at playing the role of an anchor as well as that of a box-to-box midfielder. His role changes depending on whom he partners in the midfield. While playing alongside Fernando, he takes up a more adventurous role, but when partnering Toure he drops deep and allows the former Barcelona man to move forward in attack.
Moreover, both the City centre backs, Otamendi and Mangala, are aggressive in nature. The duo often steps of the backline to close down and tackle opponents higher up the pitch. When either of them moved forward to do so, Fernandinho was at hand to drop back and take his place in the back four. His presence allowed Mangala the luxury to follow Costa, even when he dropped deep to gather the ball, and render him ineffective.
To add to his stunning performance in the defensive half of the pitch, Fernandinho also ran through the Chelsea defence in the 78th minute before he was hacked down by Courtois – which led to the red card and the third goal. A stunning performance from a hugely underrated player.
'How to counter-attack' by Man City
Pellegrini's men provided a class to Chelsea on how to counter-attack an opponent. They did it against PSG in the Champions League, however, this performance was more refined and every time they broke forward with the ball from the back it seemed like a poetry in motion. The transition was swift, precise and lethal.
The first goal arrived in the 33rd minute when Chelsea's corner was broken down by City. De Bruyne and Aguero tore down the pitch, with the Argentinian applying the finishing touches. Their second goal arrived in the 53rd minute, and it started at the back with City breaking down another Chelsea attack, before De Bruyne, and Nasri, carried the ball forward in seconds with Aguero finding the back of the net. The Chelsea centre backs could not live with the pace of the City attackers on the night, and were found wanting throughout the game.