It’s a little surprising, just a bit, how a team that cantered to the Premier League title and was a Champions League finalist just a few months ago can somehow fly under the radar. But with the noise of Cristiano Ronaldo and his rape accusations landing across town, or Romelu Lukaku giving Chelsea a new dynamic, or Lionel Messi packing for Paris, it seems eyes had been diverted from Manchester City. The club’s failed chase of both Harry Kane and Ronaldo made it seem like manager Pep Guardiola sensed a weakness he was able to dance around last season, but couldn’t manage a second time. And going after Ronaldo, an odd fit, would have suggested desperation in City’s decision-making process. Even after splurging $137 million on Jack Grealish, maybe it was just the fatigue of discussing City as the best as they’ve been most of the past decade.
A pretty drab draw with Southampton last week was yet another bullet, seemingly linked to the opening day defeat to Spurs, which ignored that they’d won their other three matches in the league by a combined 11-0. Or that in their first Champions League game this season they somehow gave up three goals when their expected-goals against for the game was just 0.61. They still won by three.
They certainly reminded everyone yesterday just why they are still probably the best team in Europe.
If it’s possible to pound a team 1-0, City did that to Chelsea yesterday. It could have, probably, should have been 2-0 or 3-0. City held Chelsea to just 0.22 expected-goals for the whole match, and 0.18 in the second half which Chelsea spent most of trailing and trying to equalize. For the non-analytic inclined, that’s getting swirlied for a match. Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target all afternoon.
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Maybe City have to pick their spots a bit more than usual, and they can’t press as furiously as they did to Chelsea in every match. But at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea didn’t have time to breathe. I’d written about how Lukaku gave Chelsea so many more options after they’d utterly swallowed Arsenal whole. One way to deprive Chelsea of those options is to give them no time to try to pass to Lukaku. City’s three forwards and two advanced midfielders, along with their fullbacks, were in Antoine Rudiger’s or Andreas Christensen’s or N’Golo Kante’s or anyone else’s shirt as soon as they received the ball. It’s one thing to have Lukaku posting up right outside the opponent’s penalty box. It’s another to ask him to hold up desperation heaves at the halfway line with no one around him. He wasn’t up to it. The level of intricacy needed to pick through City’s press when it is this souped-up is near impossible for any team, including some of the best in the world, like Chelsea.
This allowed City to recycle possession no more than 30 yards from Chelsea’s goal all match, which is exactly where you don’t want them. Chelsea are still one of the best defensive teams on the planet, but give City enough cracks and they’ll find a hole eventually. As the match wore on, Grealish and De Bruyne and Gabriel found more and more space until Jesus scored an admittedly lucky deflected goal.
City were done something of a favor when Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel opted not to have Kai Havertz in the lineup and Mason Mount, who usually flanks Lukaku, was hurt. Christian Pulisic, as is his way, wasn’t around either. Timo Werner was once again given the chance to rise above his current town jester status, and once again failed. The idea was that he could threaten City and stretch them with his speed and breakaway potential, but when Chelsea didn’t have the time to hit those passes he didn’t really link to Lukaku or the midfield in the way Chelsea’s usual starters do. He spent a lot of time waiting for passes that were never going to arrive.
So the numbers are that City sit second, a point behind Liverpool (though they could be two behind leaders Brighton if Brighton win tomorrow night, which... awesome). They have the best expected-goal difference in the league, and the one goal they gave up to Spurs on the opening weekend is the only one they’ve given up in six league games (looking even funnier as it appears Tottenham may never score again the rest of the season). They’ve comprehensively won what might be considered their hardest game of the season. And if that isn’t it, it’s the next one in a week at Liverpool. And they’re still the team that’s won three of the last four titles. They’ll tell us when they’re not the cream of the crop, not the other way around.