Chelsea’s risk-averse approach to Man City less extreme upon deeper review

Antonio Conte is under more fire than usual for the manner of Chelsea’s loss to Manchester City. However, his tactics were different only in degree – not in kind – from several other matches this season, including the reverse fixture against the Citizens.

Jamie Redknapp coined the phrase that was on many Chelsea fans’ minds on Sunday. The SkySports pundit called the display a “crime against football,” as Chelsea had no ambition or even interest in balancing their game. They maintained a rigid 5-4-1 on defence, never pressed City’s ball-carriers and allowed City to control every aspect of the game in order to limit their hosts to a single goal. Not even Bernardo Silva’s goal changed Conte’s approach or challenged his thinking.

However, even though the match felt like a new and unwelcome form of Chelsea football, Sunday’s match was not as extreme as many thought at the time (I may have said some things). The Blues played a more restrictive and more conservative form of football, but on several key measures they had more extreme outings earlier in the season.

Three earlier Premier League matches presaged the trip to the Etihad. In week two away to Tottenham, week seven against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge and week 22 away to Arsenal, Chelsea played similar tactics.

Each game presented a unique package of reasons for such an approach. Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas both received red cards in the season-opener against Burnley, suspending them for the Tottenham game. Adding to Conte’s selection woes, Eden Hazard was still recovering from his broken ankle from the summer.

This brought Andreas Christensen into his first Premier League starting XI at Wembley. Conte turned to David Luiz to reinforce the back-line while also being a source of long-ball passes by playing as a deep-lying central-midfield destroyer.

The Blues held 32% possession and made only 280 passes: more than 100 fewer than they did against Manchester City. Chelsea won, courtesy of a Marcos Alonso brace overcoming a Michy Batshuayi own-goal. The defensive schema depended greatly on Thibaut Courtois, as Chelsea allowed Tottenham 18 total shots, including 10 within the penalty area.

Five weeks later, Chelsea welcomed the already-prohibitive favourites for the Premier League title to west London. Thirty-five minutes into the game, Alvaro Morata limped off the pitch. Antonio Conte replaced him with Willian, giving Chelsea a 3-5-2 with Eden Hazard and Willian up top. He has never repeated this formation.

Chelsea had 38% of the ball and used it to make 395 passes, three more than they did this past Sunday at the Etihad. The Blues took four shots, putting two on Ederson. A typically Manchester City goal by Kevin de Bruyne via Gabriel Jesus gave City the 1-0 win.

OpponentPossessionTotal passesShotsResult
Tottenham (A)32.328092-1, W
Manchester City (H)38.139541-0, L
Arsenal (A)41.7422192-2
Manchester City(A)28.839231-0, L

Chelsea went to Arsenal for their first game of 2018. They had played nine games in December, and this Premier League fixture was the first of three meetings with Arsenal in January. Conte had the overlapping concerns of squad rotation, tactical variation and competition triage. Chelsea’s possession and passing, though, were only slightly higher than against Manchester City at home: 41.7% and 422 passes. The Blues took 19 shots, and were leading 2-1 until a stoppage time lapse in concentration allowed Arsenal to equalize.

Of the four games under consideration here, the fixture at Arsenal was the only one where Antonio Conte started and finished the game with players of his choosing. No players were unavailable for the match through injuries or suspension, nor left injured during the game.

Chelsea’s play against Manchester City at the Etihad stood out for how much time Chelsea spent pinned deep in their own zone. This came at the expense of their activity in the final third, not in midfield. Against Tottenham, City at home and Arsenal, the Blues had no more than a 9% difference between the percent of passes in the defensive third and the final third. This gap widened to 25% against City away: 19% of Chelsea’s passes were in the final third, while 44% were in the defensive third. Their ratio of passes in the middle third – 46% – was nearly identical to the earlier games against Arsenal and Manchester City.

OpponentDefensive third pass percentageFinal third pass percentageBackward pass percentageLeading passer
Tottenham (A)24.333.233.2Marcos Alonso
Manchester City (H)35.731.941.5Cesc Fabregas
Arsenal (A)29.932.537.2Cesc Fabregas
Manchester City (A)43.618.940.6Cesar Azpilicueta

In the most recent game against City, Chelsea’s leading passer was Cesar Azpilicueta. This is the only instance of the four where a defender led the team in passes. But even though Chelsea appeared to make many back-passes to Thibaut Courtois, their percentage of back-passes was again comparable to these other games.

Manchester City deserved to win on the (im)balance of play and the gross imbalance of ambition. However, they still needed a tandem error from Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso to get that win. Had Chelsea held on for a goalless draw, Antonio Conte would be resentfully sneered at for being even more negative in pursuit of a point than Jose Mourinho. And if Chelsea had won, he would be the genius who broke Pep Guardiola.

Tactics tell the story of these four games, but individual mistakes explain the results. The Blues only took four points from them, with an individual mistake costing them the full three at Arsenal and Michy Batshuayi’s mistake nearly costing them the win against Tottenham.

The tactics may be a bit anti-fragile, making football even more a game of margins and moments than usual. And Antonio Conte’s refusal to change tactics after going down 1-0 so early is worthy of criticism. But the tactics he employed were scarcely extreme and certainly not an outlier in his approach to big games with a compromised squad.