Chelsea misuse Pochettino’s tools against lethargic Manchester City

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Stefan Ortega;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Stefan Ortega</a> saves a point-blank header from Nicolas Jackson.</span><span>Photograph: David Klein/Reuters</span>

Manchester City were dragged into a strange, unfamiliar, uncomfortable place at the start of this FA Cup semi-final. It felt chaotic, uncontrolled, almost as if it had been designed for Conor Gallagher, who was stationed on Chelsea’s left as a hard-running, counter-pressing irritant-machine whose main job was to fry Kyle Walker’s mind.

Credit goes to Mauricio Pochettino for a positional flex that flummoxed City for long spells. Pep Guardiola, all flapping gestures and nervous energy on the touchline, would soon be engaged in frantic conversation with John Stones about some minor tactical detail.

Related: Manchester City reach FA Cup final after Bernardo Silva’s late strike sinks Chelsea

This, it must be pointed out, was not for show. City were loose. Chelsea had joy on the break. Their plan was working. Nicolas Jackson, raw and frustrating while still managing to carry a constant threat, was a handful. If only he had confidence in his left foot.

There were plenty of oh-so-close moments for Chelsea during this 1-0 defeat, none more so than when Enzo Fernández released Jackson, whose reluctance to shoot did little to explain why he tried so hard to take a penalty off Cole Palmer against Everton. All the while, the sense with City was of a team running on fumes after losing on penalties to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Even their thinking seemed to be off. Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri looked in need of a good sleep.

The challenge for Chelsea was to take advantage of the lethargy; to forget about the non-performance against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final. Pochettino, with an approach based heavily on energy and mobility, gave them the tools to win. The question was whether Chelsea could execute. Against the run of play, City found a way. The ruthlessness arrived late on. Jérémy Doku, impressive as a substitute, caused problems. De Bruyne produced one last surge and crossed for Bernardo Silva to send the holders through.

Chelsea only had themselves to blame. Jackson is a striker of many qualities. He terrified Stones in the first half, repeatedly turning and stretching the centre-back. He even edged a couple of races with Walker. But when it came to finishing, the doubts rose. Jackson had to score when Palmer picked him out at the start of the second half. Andy Carroll would have headed the keeper into the net. Jackson headed straight at Stefan Ortega from three yards out.

The mind went to all the times that Pochettino has said that football is about the players. Chelsea’s head coach is not really one for deep tactical discussions. He was a little cold when asked about always being the underdog against Guardiola on Friday, saying that the Catalan has always worked at big clubs. Get out of here with your talk of systems. As Harry Redknapp supposedly said to Joe Cole at West Ham, just play like Zola.

And so to Palmer, the maverick that Guardiola moved on last summer. Facing his old club, his 29-minute perfect hat-trick against Everton fresh in the memory, this was a big moment for Palmer. City are not short of attacking options. Here they lined up with Jack Grealish, De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Silva behind Julián Álvarez, a world champion reserve deputising for Erling Haaland.

Related: Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: FA Cup semi-final – live

Would Palmer have played so much if he had stayed at City? Would he have exuded such main-character energy from the bench? Would he have come into this game on 25 goals? Probably not. Finding his way and seizing responsibility in this developing, often wild Chelsea side has probably freed Palmer. At City, the structure comes first. Guardiola’s view was that Palmer did not quite fit. Chelsea pounced.

Everything revolves around Palmer, to the extent that Pochettino has even suggested he doesn’t mind if the youngster is a little workshy off the ball. No wonder Palmer tried to score from 40 yards after picking Álvarez’s pocket during the first half.

Chelsea looked confident. Gallagher was relentless on the left, Fernández and Moisés Caicedo purposeful in the middle. It was hard to fault any of Pochettino’s players. Noni Madueke was positive on the right. The defence was good. Palmer produced a lovely piece of skill and tested Ortega with a low shot.

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Once again, though, Chelsea left Wembley with regrets. It felt ominous when Jackson fluffed his lines. The finish was elusive. Palmer embarrassed Manuel Akanji and released Caicedo, who wafted a weird cross-shot wide. Ben Chilwell spurned a chance to tee up Raheem Sterling at 1-0.

Nobody can be that wasteful against City. It was out of Pochettino’s hands. There are doubts over his future but he is not the problem at Chelsea. The owners, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, cannot have watched this game and concluded that finding a new manager is the way forward. Pochettino is clearly making progress. He needs time to see the job through. The rest is down to the main actors: the players.