There’s a clip that has done the rounds on social media over the past week. You’ve probably seen it. It shows Manchester City racking up the passes against Chelsea… pass, pass, pass etc. That in itself is unremarkable. Pep Guardiola’s side have, after all, forged a reputation for themselves as the Premier League’s pass masters. What was remarkable was the pressure, or lack of, Chelsea applied in trying to win the ball back.
They didn’t look interested. Willian was deep in discussion with the referee as the passes were played around him. When Cesc Fabregas did get within five yards of the ball, he was completely static. There was no attempt to put a foot in. What’s more, this was when City held a 1-0 lead over Chelsea. This was Chelsea, supposedly, chasing the game.
Antonio Conte’s side might have been the most profile team to have adopted such a passive strategy against Manchester City this season, but they were by no means the first opponents to have played this way against Guardiola’s Premier League pace-setters. In fact, such passiveness in the teams that come up against City has become commonplace.
While Conte may have denied it, Chelsea turned up at the Etihad Stadium already a beaten team. They believed in their own inferiority, meaning they lacked drive and determination during the game. This was evident in their display. They succumbed to the aura that Guardiola has generated around Man City this season.
It was the same during his time at Barcelona. There was a time at which even the best teams felt overwhelmed by the task of overturning the Catalan giants under the charge of Guardiola. They altered their natural games to do things they wouldn’t normally do. This is what many teams are now doing in matches against Manchester City, Chelsea being one of them.
Many tried to sit deep against Guardiola’s Barcelona. This was a misguided ploy, with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi simply picking off whatever team employed such a tactic. Jose Mourinho and Roberto Di Matteo, both in famous Champions League semi finals, were perhaps the only opposite numbers to have any success with this strategy.
It wasn’t until opposition sides started to counter-press Barca that Guardiola’s team started to show weaknesses. With that, the aura that existed around the Camp Nou outfit at that time faded, but not before Barcelona had taken a firm grip of the European game. They set the zeitgeist for a generation not just through their play on the pitch, but by what they did to opponents before they even got to a pitch.
This is a combination that Guardiola has replicated at City this season. It has been left to lower league sides like Wigan Athletic and Wolves, who perhaps had less to lose from facing Man City, to show the way in how to take on the Premier League leaders and at least give them some sort of a test.
Of course, many claimed that Guardiola couldn’t do to the Premier League what he did to La Liga. They said the Catalan would face a much tougher challenge on these shores, that teams like West Brom and Swansea City wouldn’t roll over in the way Getafe and Levante did during his time at Barcelona. How they have been proved wrong.
It’s not just that City are winning so frequently, it’s the way that they are winning. Their passing game sucks the energy from the teams they face. Chelsea are a side of proven winners, yet they were suffocated by what they came up against at the Etihad Stadium last weekend. Guardiola insists that his current Manchester City side are not at the level of his great Barcelona team, but they are having the same effect on opponents.
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