Premier League Tactical Preview: Chelsea V Manchester City


Manchester City will go into Sunday's game against Chelsea as league leaders, but curiously they stand as 2.60 outsiders at Stamford Bridge, to the hosts' 2.55.

And considering the instability that we have seen at Chelsea this week, with Roman Abramovich replacing Champions League-winning manager Roberto di Matteo with former Liverpool boss, Rafa Benitez, you have to fancy the away side to bounce back from their own Champions League woes.

The Premier League champions will be aware this will be no easy fixture, even despite Chelsea's recent dip in form. The pre-match hype will surround the sacking of Di Matteo and whether the new manager can create an instant impact on this faltering Chelsea side. The West London club have been leaky at the back without John Terry in the side this season and have also been blunt in attack with lone striker Fernando Torres managing just one goal in his last eight appearances. 

Possible line-ups

Rafa Benitez will probably recall his former Liverpool star Torres, who was dropped for Di Matteo's last chance saloon in Turin on Tuesday. It was Rafa who brought El Nino to these shores in the first place and it was he who helped develop the prodigious young Torres into the kind of striker worthy of a £50million price tag. But Torres' form over the past two years has spiralled into a shadow of what it was under Benitez at Anfield, and any hope that the 52-year-old Spaniard has of rekindling the fire in Fernando's belly may prove somewhat misguided.

Meanwhile, Branislav Ivanovic should be moved to centre-back after a poor showing from both Cahill and Luiz at Juventus. We might see Chelsea set up in more of a 4-3-2-1 with Oscar dropping into centre midfield as Rafa is known for his more rigid defensive tactics that do not suit playing three purely attacking midfielders. 

Seeing the difficulties Chelsea had against Juve's 3-5-2, City boss Mancini could now be tempted to opt for this formation as well. He has tried 3-5-2 out already this season, to varying degrees of success. That being said I think they'll line-up initially, at least, in their conventional 4-2-3-1 formation that brought them so much success last term.

Striking options

The performances of the strikers at either end will be a determinant indicator of the final result on Sunday.

Chelsea have Torres, who is out of sorts, and only really Sturridge to choose as an alternative.

At the same time, City's Balotelli has not scored a league goal this season, but the visitors have an abundace of options in his stead. Tevez and Aguero have been purring of late. The two Argentinians will probably start against Chelsea, with their interchanging movement a key aspect of City's attacks, especially when Nasri and Silva weave their way into forward positions in support.

In addition, City also have the not insignificant option of Edin Dzeko off the bench, the big Bosnian having netted most of his goals as a sub this term, much to his displeasure.

Chelsea have been blunt in front of goal of late, scoring only three goals in their last three games, quite a poor return for a side with so much attacking potential. 

Torres has offered little mobility or desire in the blue of Chelsea; no longer does he stretch the play or make intelligent runs which can in turn create space for others. Torres came off the bench against Juve, for example, and only managed a dismal six touches of the ball, without even mustering a shot.

It would be serious wishful thinking to expect a new manager to fix this jinx, with AVB, Ancelotti and Di Matteo all failing thus far. As such, this game could be won by the simple fact that City have more fire power plus better options from the bench. 

Chelsea's defensive woes

Chelsea have conceded two goals per game without John Terry at the back. Luiz and Cahill have struggled to function efficiently as a pair. The two of them were shambolic in Turin on Tuesday night, regualrly being dragged out of position by Juve's interchanging forward five.

One of Benitez's biggest immediate issues will be finding a way to tighten up at the back in Terry's absence. The skipper may only be out for weeks rather than months as was first feared, but such is his influence that the back four look lost without him. In a wider sense, this could also be the most significant issue facing Chelsea's mid-long term future - Terry isn't getting any younger and yet the team have become ever more reliant on him.

Without Terry in the side, Chelsea could again look very open on Sunday. None of the other defenders have the ability to communicate and organize anywhere near as well as he can. As such, City will feel they can get at the heart of Chelsea's defence.

Rafa will look to tighten Chelsea up in this regard, with a more reserved and counter-attacking approach to the game, restraining his attacking midfielders more than RDM did in the previous ten games. With this in mind, we could be looking at a more compact, patient Chelsea; ironically more akin to the methods that brought them European glory under Di Matteo last term. 

Midfield shield

Another area of weakness for Chelsea of late has been their delayed reaction during transitions in midfield. Mikel and Ramires did a poor job of containing Juventus on Tuesday night as the three midfield runners seemed a step ahead, causing a lot of problems as showcased in the run up to the first two goals.

This will be a concern for Benitez, ever the studious tactician, because Yaya Toure and David Silva are experts at exploiting such weaknesses - Silva with his intricate touches and low centre of gravity and Toure with his powerful forward runs. This weakness becomes more obvious when Ramires dashes forward, because Mikel lacks the mobility to screen against midfield runners when left one versus three. Here's Ramires' hea map fromteh Juve game: 

Ramires is not a classic destroyer, but he was stationed very centrally against Juventus, playing in a subdued role. Even so, he often got caught in no man's land - drawn to the ball instead of staying disciplined - as Chelsea were thoroughly overrun in midfield. Vidal, Marchisio and both Asamoah and Lichensteiner ran through Chelsea's centre at will. I expect City to do the same through Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry as well as the more advanced players.

The chief problem, though, is that John Obi Mikel is not good enough. Is he a passer? Or a destroyer? In truth he is neither. Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, for example, completes far more passes per game with a better accuracy, and also manages more tackles and interceptions. Mikel is not good enough at either role to be effective as Chelsea's pivot. This could again lead to Benitez asking Oscar to drop into a deeper midfield role to make Chelsea a midfield three and limit City's space. 

Chelsea will need cover in this area as Toure - king of the transition - covers a lot of ground from deep positions when the game becomes stretched. The big Ivorian can cause problems with lung-busting runs out of midfield, especially on the counter attack. However in games City dominate, Toure sits back, as he did against Spurs two weeks ago and his heat map was thus:

 

Like Ramires, Yaya is a box-to-box type player but he covers a bit more ground and has more license to roam side to side thanks to the security of Barry and sometimes another holding midfielder behind him.

The Chelsea midfield pivot has been an area of real weakness of late and City can benefit from crowding this area and urging men forward. Aguero and Tevez will also look to get into these areas which could cause real problems for Chelsea.

In some instances, Chelsea could find themselves in situations where Toure, Aguero, Tevez, Silva and Nasri are all looking to get at their back line and overwhelm Mikel and Ramires. In this case the West Londoners will have to look to counter attack quickly, which is where Hazard could come in as the false no.9, roaming in the space vacated.

Battle of the playmakers

Both sides generally play a front four, with three attacking midfield/support players behind a striker. With Tevez and Torres the likely forwards there can be a lot of interchange with midfielders and attackers swapping positions at will. This is a key area to watch; whoever wins out of the playmakers will win the game.

Chelsea struggled against Juventus but in general Oscar and Mata in particular have been in fine form this season. Mata is at the heart of everything good Chelsea produce, his heat map here demonstrates his importance to Chelsea as he covers almost every blade of grass in the middle third:

The same can be said of Silva from the game against Villa last week:

Both Spaniards perform similar roles, floating around attacking areas, centrally and out wide. This is what makes these players so hard to mark and allows their sides to attack so fluidly.

One difference for Chelsea will be that Mata drops into deeper areas to pick up the ball off Ramires and Mikel to orchestrate attacks, while Silva tends to rely on the passing accuracy of Barry and Yaya, hence receiving possession higher up the pitch.

Both sides lack natural width because of their use of attacking midfielders, meaning both sets of full-backs will have to work hard to get up and down. Mancini normally opts for more wide attacking outlets on the left, such as Clichy or Kolarov, both of whom love to get forward. Should Benitez entrust his countrymen Azpilicueta at right back for the hosts, the young defender will certainly have his work cut out.  

Conclusion

This is a game Chelsea can ill-afford to lose given the circumstances. The West London club won this respective fixture last season, 2-1, against a ten man City side, but much has changed at the Bridge since then.

The media will be watching closely to see if Chelsea can bounce back under their new manager.

It will be interesting to see whether Benitez opts for a more reserved performance, as well as if City go for a 3-5-2 formation.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and it will be tough for Rafa Benitez - far from the fans' choice - to enforce his methods in such a short space of time. But a victory over City could go a long way to ensuring Chelsea fans warm to the meticulous Spaniard.

Amit Singh is Editor of Think Football, the thinking person's football website. You can follow him on Twitter @think_football