Pep Guardiola would appear to have his rivals where he wants them. Not just below Manchester City in the league table. As he says, we’re only just through September and an awful lot of football is still to be played
No, Guardiola has them where he wants them psychologically. They are unnerved, they are intimidated, maybe even afraid.
The Chelsea team who took on Manchester City at Stamford Bridge were a pale imitation of the side who beat Atletico Madrid so impressively three days earlier.
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea played City with eight defence-minded players on the field .
They did not risk, they did not dare, they played City with eight defence-minded players on the field, becoming nine when Alvaro Morata departed injured and was replaced by a workhorse, Willian, rather than another striker, Michy Batshuayi.
For 90 minutes, Antonio Conte paid Guardiola and City the biggest compliment imaginable. He changed for them. He played a home game as if Chelsea were away; his back three became a back five; the champions took on the mantle of inferiors – and still it did not work.
Chelsea’s set-up suggested they came to Stamford Bridge for a draw, but could not hold out. In the 67th minute, another moment of wondrousness from Kevin De Bruyne settled the match, and it was thoroughly deserved.
Not that Chelsea were poor. In terms of what they aimed to do, they contained City very well. In the balance of play, they could have gone down by four, and lost instead by one. They defended excellently. It was just that City wanted more from this.
They wanted to dominate possession, they wanted three points, they wanted to be the team everybody left talking about, and that’s what they are.
Watford were the surprise package of the season — and then City put six past them. Liverpool were coming off the back of a watershed win over Arsenal, and went down by five.
Chelsea, too, were considered to be hitting their stride after a victory in Madrid that was understandably acclaimed as one of the finest results for an English club in the modern Champions League era.
For 20 minutes in the first half, at least, they had dominated one of the strongest European teams of the past decade, and away from home, too. They were still going forward to the last kick of the match — with which Batshuayi scored the winner. Yet this same group looked utterly daunted by the potential of City.
Conte had clearly decided he could not play them as equals. This wasn’t like Chelsea’s visit to Tottenham in August. Back then, what appeared a negative selection was born largely of necessity. While Chelsea were set up belt and braces at Wembley, they still managed to have the best chances on the way to victory.