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Tactics Board: Man City's quality in transition proves the difference as Lukaku disappoints

Shane Keegan examines where Saturday’s Premier League clash at the Etihad Stadium was won and lost.

Updated Jan 17th 2022, 8:00 PM

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IN MID-DECEMBER, we appeared to have a three-horse race for the Premier League title.

One month later and we’re all but done and dusted.

Defensively, Chelsea did very well, becoming the first team this season to restrict Man City to an xG of less than one.

But both managers knew that one particular element of this game would most likely prove crucial, and it was here where City won the game.

Quality in transition proves the difference for City

manchester-england-15th-january-2022-ngolo-kante-of-chelsea-challenges-kevin-de-bruyne-of-manchester-city-during-the-premier-league-match-at-the-etihad-stadium-manchester-picture-credit-should Kevin De Bruyne is closed down by Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The best starting point for analysing the key tactical aspect of this game is by actually taking a look at both managers’ post-match comments.

Thomas Tuchel is consistently the most insightful manager in the Premier League when it comes to shedding light on his team’s performance and Saturday was no different.

He knew how important the transition would be in this game and accepted that his side were nowhere near good enough in those moments.

“We had eight or nine offensive transitions, but we had zero touches in the box from them,” Tuchel explained. “That was our big problem today.

Offensive-wise there was simple a lack of precision, a lack of timing and a lack of composure. On a level like this we lost too many balls too easy.”

If Tuchel hadn’t already summed things up nicely for us, BT interviewer Des Kelly’s follow up question gave him further opportunity to hammer home his message.

“You put (Romelu) Lukaku up front today,” commented Kelly. “Was he getting the service he needed? It didn’t seem that way.”

But Tuchel knew what he had seen and didn’t hold back.

“Sometimes he needs to do the service. I think he is included in the problems we had today. He had many ball losses in situations without any pressure and many ball losses in very promising circumstances. And he had a huge chance.”

“Of course we want to serve him, but he is part of the team and the performance up front needed to be much much better because we had so many transitional opportunities.”

So let’s take a look at some of the moments Tuchel is referring to.

Inconsistent Lukaku needs to offer Chelsea more

Having played with a back four in their mid-week cup game against Tottenham, Tuchel reverted to a five here.

The main reason for this was that the extra defensive body gave their outside centre backs the freedom to step forward and deny City’s attacking players time on the ball in those half-spaces that they so often like to operate in.

Kevin De Bruyne remarked in his own post-match comments how challenging it was for him to find space in the final third.

Below, we see a good example of Chelsea’s shape when defending in their own half of the field. Aymeric Laporte looks to fire a ball through the gap between N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic but the latter gets across and intercepts it.

Had he been successful though, Malang Sarr was ready step in from behind and close the space.

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As Tuchel hinted at above, these turnover moments would have been key to the offensive game plan his side had prepared on the training ground all week and he would have hoped for real quality.

Kovacic finds Kante who then plays forward to Lukaku. Had the Belgian’s first touch been good and allowed him to open out off his left shoulder then he and Hakim Ziyech would immediately have found themselves in a 2 v 1 scenario with John Stones on the halfway line.

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Instead though, his touch bounces away from him and allows Laporte to step in and take the ball.

Within seconds, it is City who are creating the goalscoring chance as De Bruyne delivers a fantastic cross that Raheem Sterling just fails to connect with.

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Later in the game a similar situation arises. This time, it is Kante who does well to step in and take the ball from De Bruyne before clipping the pass forward onto the chest of Lukaku.

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However, the centre forward’s decision-making lets him down. Having controlled the ball, he should fire the pass out left and release Marcos Alonso but, instead, he opts to spin right and dribble.

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This is all the opportunity that Rodri needs to get back and nick it away from him. Within two passes, Sterling is running at Sarr while Alonso is out of the equation.

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Sterling creates enough room to get his shot off from inside the box but sees it fly just wide of the far post.

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Unsurprisingly, Chelsea’s best opportunities of the game came from the two situations where they did manage to show quality in offensive transitions.

Below, we see Christian Pulisic get back and put enough pressure on Joao Cancelo to force a rare misplaced pass.

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Kovacic is quickest to react and his brilliant first touch takes both Rodri and Bernardo Silva out of the equation.

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He quickly finds himself in a situation where he has no less than three passing options to create a goalscoring chance, choosing to slide the ball perfectly through to Lukaku.

While Ederson did very well to get out and make the save, you would expect a forward of Lukaku’s quality to have given him no chance.

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The other opportunity came immediately after City’s goal and was a perfect example of what Tuchel would have been expecting Lukaku to do more regularly.

Chelsea win the ball and Thiago Silva passes to Alonso. With six City players descending on his area of the field, he does well to work the ball out as far as Lukaku on the halfway line.

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This time Lukaku does the right thing, using his power to hold off the defender and setting the ball back to Antonio Rudiger.

As Rudiger plays the ball over the top for Callum Hudson-Odoi to run onto out on the left, we can see wing-back Cesar Azpilicueta set off on a long bursting run down the right.

Would he have looked to make this run two minutes earlier when the game was still scoreless?

Hudson-Odoi sets the ball back to Alonso and when he crosses to the back post it’s Azpilicueta who arrives to cut it back to substitute Timo Werner.

Only an excellent block from Laporte denied Chelsea an instant equaliser.

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City continue to be kings of the high press

Guardiola also drew attention to the importance of the transitions with a brilliant one-line in his post-match comments.

After initially praising Chelsea’s structure and set-up, he delivered the put down.

“They were waiting for the transition to punish us, but it was from the transition that we won the game.”

When it comes to converting turnovers into goalscoring opportunities, only Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool get anywhere close to matching Guardiola’s side for efficiency.

The first danger signs for Chelsea came on 38 minutes.

Here we can see five City players looking to press six Chelsea players in one half of the field. Throw in Kepa and it’s a 5 v 7.

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Against almost any other side, Chelsea would take advantage of this numerical superiority to pass their way out and get themselves over the halfway line.

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But it’s a combination of the intensity and intelligence that City press with that makes life so difficult for their opponents.

Bernardo Silva gets to Alonso so quickly that it denies him the opportunity to open out and play forward. As he does so, De Bruyne and Grealish are on the move, narrowing in to close down the follow-up options.

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Once Kovacic receives the pass, the doggedness with which De Bruyne chases him down needs to be played on a loop in the dressing room down the road at Old Trafford.

Here was a world-class footballer hunting an opposition player like a dog, refusing to let him escape his clutches. What would United fans give to see just a semblance of that fight from their players.

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Kovacic, usually so trustworthy on the ball, will know he should have gone back to Kepa and raised his hand in apology soon after.

Jack Grealish is also key in this press. He is getting to grips with the defensive demands of Pep’s system and does well to put himself in a position where he can triple job here.

Having found himself through on goal, he will be disappointed not to have hit the back of the net.

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When the City goal came, it was inevitably started from another turnover.

Again, we see the same 12 players in one half of the field, seven Chelsea and five Man City.

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But City make Chelsea go back to Kepa and Phil Foden, backed up by his team-mates, forces him to go long.

The effort Foden makes to apply pressure here shouldn’t be taken for granted. Would Cristiano Ronaldo or Lukaku have made such a selfless run?

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When Laporte heads the ball in the direction of Rodri, Kante makes the instinctive decision to try and close him down, giving De Bruyne a rare moment of space.

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Nine times out of ten, the energetic Frenchman would still manage to recover his position but the brilliance of Cancelo’s first-time pass and De Bruyne’s determination to ride Kante’s challenge see’s him end up in a shooting position.

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The cleverness of the finish, using Thiago Silva to unsight Kepa, was typical of the player.

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Conclusion

Tuchel’s summary of the game was spot on, but in saying that his forwards failed to make the most of the offensive transitions he was also inadvertently drawing attention to his decision to give Mason Mount only 13 minutes.

Not starting the England international seemed a strange call and made stranger still when Hudson-Odoi and Werner were sprung from the bench before him.

Given how willing he is to speak openly, I had hoped he would be questioned on the thinking behind that.

As for Pep, with the title now pretty much in the bag, he can switch his attention back to the Champions League. Given the outstanding quality of their play, it feels like this may finally be the year he takes City all the way.

The biggest challenge he may have, is trying not to get in his own way.

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