Our 47th game of the season was a tactical and technical horror show.
Our 4th straight defeat at the Etihad will linger long in the memory. For all the wrong reasons.
The best Chelsea brought to the Etihad lay in the stands, by way of our magnificent support, not on the pitch.
We mustered a miserable 4 shots on goal in 90 minutes (one of those a Frank Lampard Free Kick from 45 yards that missed by the proverbial mile) and just 2 on target (one a Lampard penalty that Joe Hart guessed the direction of and saved). This was not Frank’s finest display but he was not alone.
Gary Cahill’s poor positioning is a drum I often bang but he made countless blocks and interceptions here. He did give the ball to Tevez in the 3rd minute of Added Time at the end with a careless pass but got away with it.
In fairness all of our back 4 were poor bringing the ball out from the back (a real no-no playing 4-2-3-1) as City pressed high and successfully.
Ba was barely used for an out ball, even though his run led to the penalty (a simple Ivanovic diagonal allowing Ba to outstrength Kolo Toure and although heading away from goal, persuaded Joe Hart to bring him down).
The movement of the ball through the double pivot was tediously slow and playing on the counter, too often the ball was carelessly, needlessly given away in the final third.
Hazard can hold his head higher than most. He had Zabaleta fouling him relentlessly and only the leniency of Andre Marriner kept him out of the book for most of the 1st half.
An ABC of playing on the Counter is to make the most of set pieces. Mata wasted 2 corners (both failed to beat the first defender) and a Free Kick in the first half and despite his usual work rate, as against Sparta Prague, was below par (which highlights how dependent we are on him).
Ramires was so bad he could have a whole article: Starting off on the right of the creative 3, his touch and distribution was awful. He was presumably there to support Ivanovic, yet City, not renowned for natural width, marauded down their left almost at will.
Just after the hour mark, he linked with Ivanovic for a sweeping Counter. As the ball was played back to him, instead of continuing to surge forward, he hesitated, allowing Kolo Toure to cover, outstrength him and prevent a shot. Immediately afterwards, City scored their opener.
As the 4th official held up the board on 67 minutes, it initially showed Ramires’ number. He almost sprinted off with relief, before he had to put the brakes on as the wrong number had been displayed: Lampard was hooked for Moses and Hazard for Oscar.
Moses went to the right of Mata, Hazard to the left and Ramires dropped back to the double pivot.
He made little impression there (having already been booked for a knee high kick at Yaya Toure in the first half) and played within himself.
With the arrival of Torres for Mikel on 80 minutes, Luiz was pushed forward, Ivanovic moved to Centre Back and Ramires moved to Right Back.
Unless versatile means being poor in 3 positions in one game, this was just borne of desperation from Benitez.
5 minutes later, from our own throw in, Ramires was robbed by Aguero. The ball ended up with Silva, who fed Carlos Tevez on the edge of the D. He was given the freedom of Manchester by Ivanovic to smash the ball past Cech’s despairing right hand, as not for the first time, we failed to close a player down.
The same Tevez who’s now scored 8 goals in 11 games against us. Couldn’t make it up could you?
We were second best throughout the game, winning far too few second balls and failing to press City even on the edge of our 18 yard box.
On one such occasion, Yaya Toure’s goal came courtesy of Mikel not pressing properly. He waved his leg in Toure’s direction as he eased past him and bent the ball round Cahill into the far corner.
Runners were free to milk the space between the back 4 and the double pivot at will.
City are a narrow side. Surely Benitez, having opted to play on the Counter, would have told Lampard and Ramires to minimise the space between them and the Centre Backs or at the very least, go with the runners.
Rodwell had his own duel with Cech in the first half with 3 decent chances (2 clear headers and 1 hit from 25 yards) with negligible pressure on him.
Cech did all he could to keep Chelsea in the game. He came out twice to force Aguero wide when 1 on 1 and saved well from a Nastasic header from 6 yards early on.
Frank Lampard’s 200th career goal for the club will surely come but his second penalty miss in 4 years against City, along with Ramires’ inability to close the Counter before City’s 1st goal, extinguished any real hope of taking anything from this game.
Which brings us neatly on to substitutions.
However poor Lampard is in a game, he always carries a goal threat. In the double pivot, that often means we are more at risk when he leaves his post but a goal down, risks have to be taken.
Benitez replaced him with Moses and moved Ramires in to the pivot. Effectively, like for like, with a negative twist.
Contrast this with Mancini.
9 minutes into the 2nd half, he took off Rodwell and brought on Tevez. Not only did he “go for it” with an attacking substitution, he did it with over 35 minutes remaining.
To replace Hazard with Oscar was absurd. The one player who had really threatened to commit City defenders was left to warm the bench for the last quarter of the game.
The final substitution was Torres for Mikel. Mikel was admittedly below par (ball watching a particular problem) so why wait 80 minutes and not put Oscar there earlier and keep Hazard on?
Taking Mikel off demolished any remaining shape we had and introduced a player whose mojo has deserted him. it was no surprise when Tevez scored just 5 minutes later.
Luiz surged forward several times in the second half in an effort to create something amidst our creative sterility but it was not his day. One shot well over the bar from a corner and possession conceded on each incursion into City’s half affirmed this.
I could go on and on but I think you’ve got the gist. We were really very poor.
Once the players cross the line, its down to them to execute what they are told to do. Only Benitez will know what that was but it wasn’t good and it didn’t work.
With 11 Premier League games remaining, a top 4 finish is in the balance. Just 3 wins in 8 games see us 19 points behind Man Utd, 7 points behind City.
Behind us, Spurs will take 3rd with a win at West Ham and even Arsenal are only 2 points behind us.
On paper, our next 5 Premier League games are all winnable. To be sure of a top 4 finish, I think we’ll need 25 points from our last 11 games.
With Benitez at the helm, I won’t be holding my breath I’m afraid. As the saying goes, I can cope with the disappointment, its the hope that kills me.
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