Hazard exploits Manchester City's weakness as Chelsea edge to title
A few days after Arsenal and Manchester City showed their flaws as title challengers, Antonio Conte demonstrated the kind of shrewd game management that will surely help make Chelsea champions by late May.
The Blues wobbled in the first half at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday as David Silva pulled the strings, but, having gone 2-1 up, Conte safeguarded the points by shutting down the second half, repelling City with a solidity and efficiency unrivalled in this league.
That strategy had been made possible by the opener from Eden Hazard, who kept exploiting spaces vacated when City pressed high. Yet the City pressure also forced errors, such as when Thibaut Courtois kicked the ball straight to Silva whose shot rebounded to Sergio Aguero for 1-1.
Though Silva kept dominating, Hazard's penalty (scored on the rebound) put Chelsea 2-1 up at half time, at which point Conte introduced Nemanja Matic to strengthen midfield. The hosts then sat deep to keep City at bay, making Conte the first coach to beat Pep Guardiola home and away in a single league season.
City pressing triggers goal
The pressing strategy Guardiola had devised was typically brave. In the reverse fixture, the Catalan mirrored Conte's back three, but here he used a 4-2-3-1 with Jesus Navas at right-back, Kevin De Bruyne on the right wing and Fabian Delph in central midfield.
That created the challenge of how to close down Conte's 3-4-3. Typically the two City wingers would have to track the Chelsea wing-backs while the back four dealt with the front three, which would effectively have left City with a back six at times.
But that was never going to happen with Guardiola. Instead he told his wingers to press the outside centre-backs and his full-backs to confront wing-backs. This could theoretically give City five forwards without the ball if everyone pressed at once, with the two centre-backs isolated against three forwards. Yet there was some conservatism: generally only one full-back pushed up at once, the other tucking inside to form a back three.
While that still represented a considerable risk, City did manage to force Chelsea to go long, and cut off passing angles to Diego Costa, who completed only 11 passes all game. Better still, they equalised by stressing Courtois, whose kick to Silva led to Aguero's 15th league goal of the season.
... but Hazard exploits its weak spots
That said, Chelsea had their moments despite some absentees. With Victor Moses injured, Conte switched Cesar Azpilicueta to right wing-back and used Kurt Zouma at centre-back; and while this weakened Chelsea on the right, Hazard sparkled on the left.
The Belgian was somewhat helped by City's pressing. Since Navas pushed up on Marcos Alonso, Hazard could merely run in behind him and take on John Stones directly. This kind of situation enabled Hazard to square to Costa, who shot wide; on 22 minutes, Hazard set up Cesc Fabregas for a deflected shot that dipped just too late. Just before half time, Hazard ran at Stones again, only for Costa to ruin the move by needlessly dragging down Delph.
The two Chelsea goals had less to do with City's pressing, though the opener may have been prevented had Leroy Sane been in position to track Azpilicueta, who cut back a pass for Hazard to score. On 34 minutes, Hazard added a second from his own penalty rebound after Fernandinho had tripped Pedro.
Silva finds space between lines
At the other end, Chelsea would never be easy to break down. They retreated into their deep 5-4-1 and pressed high only occasionally. In response, Guardiola positioned his three attacking midfielders narrow, De Bruyne, Silva and Sane all looking for spaces in behind the midfield four. That left only Gael Clichy and Navas out wide, who offered little threat, and so City faced the considerable challenge of piercing the crowded central zone.
This is tricky at best against Chelsea, but Silva was in the mood. An indicator came early on, when his neat one-two with Aguero took out David Luiz and enabled the Argentine to test Courtois.
Chelsea got stretched whenever they tried to press, and that certainly happened when they tried to stress Fernandinho, who responded by sending a surgical pass to Silva between the lines. The ubiquitous playmaker duly released Sane in behind the defence, but the winger failed to score.
Conte had also chosen silk over steel by preferring Fabregas to Matic. At one stage Delph bypassed Fabregas with a one-two, then skipped past N'Golo Kante and found Silva, who played in Aguero for a deflected shot. By half time Silva had set up three shots from almost the exact same position.
Conte shuts up shop
Conte was never going to let such fragility persist. At half time Matic came on for Zouma, Azpilicueta returned to centre-back, Pedro became right-wing-back, Fabregas shuffled to right midfield and Matic beefed up the central area alongside Kante.
That signalled a change in attitude and aggression. Chelsea became more cautious and cynical, sitting deep and compact and even dragging Costa down to annoy the City midfielders. They committed seven fouls in the second period (as opposed to three in the first), five coming in the central midfield zone and three hitting Silva, who was gradually forced out wide.
That did not mean he went quiet. He kept popping up near the channels, providing one free-kick outside the box, a corner, and a low cross for Aguero.
But City created far less now. Despite that, Guardiola retained his 4-2-3-1 and made only straight swaps -- Raheem Sterling for De Bruyne, Nolito for Sane. Beyond two decent Aguero chances from tricky angles, the visitors offered little until Stones missed a sitter in stoppage time.
That reflected a tactical triumph for Conte, who later confirmed that Matic had come on to stop Silva between the lines. "In the second half we had more balance and didn't give them chances to score," Conte said. "We controlled the game well."
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