Manchester City's Sunday stroll against Chelsea more evidence of the shifting balance of power
Bernardo Silva's goal early in the second half moves City 25 points ahead of the soon-to-be deposed champions who are now scrapping to make the top four
If anyone required a snapshot of the way the balance of power in English football has shifted in the last 12 months, this offered plenty.
It was not so much the image of Bernardo Silva celebrating the winning goal as plenty of pictures: of Chelsea camped behind the ball, intent only on defence, having concluded they could not take on Manchester City on their own terms.
The league table suggests they cannot. Chelsea are now 25 points behind City. Next week, it may be mathematically impossible for the defending champions to retain their crown. The more pertinent statistic, however, is the five-point gap that separates them from fourth place. After four defeats in five league games, the Europa League may beckon for Chelsea.
The Premier League title does for City. A 14th straight home win means they only need 18 points from their remaining nine games to beat Chelsea’s divisional record of 95. They show few signs of relenting. This was a sign of how they have demoralised their rivals.
Antonio Conte’s approach was an admission of inferiority. Chelsea did not record a shot on target; they only mustered three off it. City’s domination of possession was almost total.
It is rare to see reigning champions act as such underdogs. They were ludicrously defensive; logically, they may argue. Yet while Newcastle United were similarly negative at the Etihad Stadium, they have the excuse of being a relegation-threatened team packed with Championship players. Chelsea fielded a £250 million (Dh1.27 billion) starting XI. It is probable that Jose Mourinho, criticised for his defensiveness at Anfield, will deem Chelsea still less attack-minded.
And the problem with such tactics is that they require flawlessness. Chelsea’s first major defensive error was punished immediately after half-time. When Ilkay Gundogan chipped a pass forward, Andreas Christensen’s clearance was aimed at his team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta. It bounced off one Spaniard to another, David Silva centring for his namesake Bernardo to bundle the ball over the line.
It has been a fine few days for the Portuguese, an uncomplaining substitute for much of the season but a starter and a scorer against both Arsenal and Chelsea while Raheem Sterling has been sidelined.
City made light of an absentee. Chelsea did not. Perhaps it would have been different had N’Golo Kante been available to hassle and harry. Instead, the Frenchman was ill.
Chelsea’s two central midfielders were the immobile Cesc Fabregas and the ineffectual Danny Drinkwater. They were unable to regain possession. City kept it with predictable excellence. Gundogan completed 167 passes in all. Oleksandr Zinchenko completed more before the break than nine Chelsea players combined and it felt an attack-versus defence exercise.
The most penetrating attacker was Leroy Sane. The German continued where he left off against Arsenal three days earlier, sprinting past defenders at will and veering infield time and again. He almost added another goal, defeating Thibaut Courtois with a shot that Azpilicueta cleared off the line but was struck with such force that the Spaniard ended up in the net.
Chelsea at least kept clear-cut chances to a minimum, though Nicolas Otamendi had a goal disallowed for offside. Courtois also pushed a David Silva shot away but there was no 200th City goal for Sergio Aguero.
At the other end, Eden Hazard was a false nine, stranded alone in attack; even when he retreated deep into his own half, his colleagues went still further back. Specialist strikers were eventually summoned but the only alarm for City was when Zinchenko was perhaps fortunate only to be booked for a lunge at Victor Moses.
And so what should be one of the season’s defining fixtures felt an anti-climax. That, in itself, is an indication of what City have done. But it also highlighted how dull Chelsea were. And as they lost, it felt a self-defeating brand of dullness.
Updated: March 4, 2018 10:24 PM