Manchester City show Chelsea there is no Premier League top two or top three – only a top one
The title race is over now, apparently. You know, the one that ended a few weeks ago. Manchester City already looked like being crowned champions for a fourth time in five years before this twelfth consecutive league win. After it, it seems a nailed-on certainty. There is a faint and remote possibility of a challenge from Liverpool, now 14 points back but with two games in hand. This was a meeting of the top two, though, and it only reinforced the theory that there is in fact only a top one.
That was demonstrated not so much by the result, a narrow 1-0 victory delivered by the immaculate right foot of Kevin De Bruyne, but by the manner of it. Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel may have had some success against City in the past with the type of cautious, deep-set approach deployed here. It won a Champions League final, of course, and its dress rehearsal here at the back end of last season, but it is a submissive, compliant set-up that reflected the power dynamic between the two sides.
What power that is, too. This is the ninth run of 12 successive victories in the Premier League’s history. City are responsible for four of those and all four have come under Pep Guardiola. This latest one puts the champions-elect on course for a 97-point season. But City’s supremacy cannot only be measured in winning streaks and points projections. On the other side of that equation is the sudden absence of any challenge from their rivals and their collapses over the past month, Chelsea’s in particular.
This was the third defeat of the league season already for Tuchel’s side, when four was once considered the most that prospective champions could afford to lose. More significantly, it was the tenth game in which they have dropped points, and the eighth of the last twelve. Chelsea are now on course for a 74-point season. That has not always been enough to finish in the top four in recent years, let alone mount a serious title challenge.
The champions of Europe may notionally be a grander title than champions of England but you would not have guessed it from the way Chelsea set up. This was not anti-football by any stretch but it was an approach that relied upon the best and most complete team in Europe making a mistake. When you put it like that, you see its limitations. And yet, it could have come off at points.
There was the over-hit Romelu Lukaku pass that failed to play in Hakim Ziyech on one early counterattack. Ziyech was in a carelessly offside position anyway, and was at fault again shortly after for another over-hit pass that failed to properly supply Lukaku. The Belgian again took up that awkward role as a hold-up target man, but fluffed his lines when given a chance to show his prowess at running in behind, hitting a one-on-one straight at Ederson at the start of the second half.
Other than those three glimpses of goal, City had the measure of Chelsea’s reactive approach, particularly down their visitors’ left-hand side where Raheem Sterling was a constant nuisance. Malang Sarr was the closest of Chelsea’s three centre-backs to Tuchel during the opening 45 minutes and, though he did not play especially poorly, was the target of most of his manager’s touchline ravings.
At one point, Tuchel frantically demanded Sarr move wider to spread the defensive line out. A heavy Sarr touch then gave the ball away to Bernardo Silva. Sarr scrambled to try and win the ball back, only to be beaten to it again, and some panicked and half-apologetic glances over to his manager afterwards. It was one of several moments where Chelsea looked vulnerable, perhaps worried and intimidated, and you had to remind yourself that, according to the table, they were supposed to be City’s closest competitors.
The truth is that City have been operating on a different plane from practically everyone else for five years now. The only one of Guardiola’s rivals to ever truly challenge him on a consistent basis once summed up how to do it – or rather, how not to do it. Sitting back and waiting for City to make a mistake is like waiting to “win the lottery”, Jurgen Klopp once said. You have to take the game to them, act as their equals, because anything else is an admission of an unavoidable fact: they are best team in the country, and will eventually find a way to beat you.