​​Manchester City’s Chelsea stumble highlights their obvious flaw

<span>From left: <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Chelsea;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Chelsea</a>’s <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Raheem Sterling;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Raheem Sterling</a> and Nicholas Jackson troubled <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> with their pace in a frustrating draw for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Erling Haaland;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Erling Haaland</a> and Pep Guardiola.</span><span>Composite: Getty</span>

The assumption had been that Manchester City would beat Chelsea on Saturday and follow that up with victory over Brentford on Tuesday to move top of the Premier League table. They had won 11 in a row and there seemed no reason to think that would not become 13 and more; that’s just what City do at this time of year.

The only hope for their challengers seemed a tough run of games in March, when City face Manchester United, Liverpool, Brighton, Arsenal and Aston Villa in successive league games; perhaps that run was a hurdle that could hinder City’s charge for a fifth Premier League title in six years. The question was how far ahead they would be by then. Now, though, so long as Liverpool beat Luton at home next week, City will not start that vital run of games with a lead.

Related: Was City’s Chelsea draw just an off day for Erling Haaland? – Football Weekly podcast

Perhaps that doesn’t much matter: the key will still be City’s games away at Liverpool and at home to Arsenal next month. Win those, and the title should still be theirs. But that’s where the detail of Saturday kicks in: City weren’t actually very good. It’s true they won the game 2.6 to 1.4 by Opta’s xG model, and true also that Erling Haaland missed a hatful of chances (1.7xG’s worth, according to Opta), but it’s also the case that they conceded chance after chance on the break – in just the way Pep Guardiola teams always do when they’re vulnerable.

Nicolas Jackson and Raheem Sterling both missed one-on-ones in the first half before Sterling scored. Ederson made an excellent save to keep out a Sterling effort from a Jackson cross in the second half. And there were other moments when a more clinical team than Chelsea might have created opportunities: Ben Chilwell, in particular, had a golden chance to feed Jackson or Sterling an opening before half-time, only to duff his pass when he was under limited pressure.

This is the nature of pressing with a very high line. When it works, an opponent feels suffocated, unable to release the pressure, but it doesn’t take much to go spectacularly wrong – as happened to, say, Liverpool in the 2020-21 season. Chelsea, with the mobility of Jackson and Sterling, are perhaps unusually well-adjusted to taking advantage of any space behind City’s defensive line – as they did in the 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge in November. (And with that in mind, Brentford, despite their rocky recent form, may think they have an opportunity on Tuesday; thanks to their runners on the counter, they were the only team to beat City home and away last season and, although they ultimately lost 3-1 against City earlier this month, they did take the lead in that match).

But that leads to another question, which is why City’s pressing glitched. That is a hugely complex issue but to an extent the answer is that it is an inevitable risk of the Guardiola style. Last season he found protection in the repositioning of John Stones, who stepped into midfield from the centre of defence. As Stones recovers from injury, though, Manuel Akanji has had to take on that role and the truth is that he just isn’t as good at it. And with Ilkay Gündogan joining Barcelona without being replaced, there is a lack of a balancing option in midfield, placing great responsibility on Rodri, particularly given he is the player City now seem to need to score vital goals. Even with Stones, albeit operating at right-back, City showed similar vulnerabilities against Everton the previous week and might have been punished by a more mobile or confident striker than Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

At the same time, City struggled to gain any real fluency in the first half against Chelsea, as Cole Palmer tucked in to double up with Malo Gusto on Jérémy Doku with Moisés Caicedo adding an extra layer of protection, filling the space between Gusto, who tended to stay wide, and the right-sided centre-back Axel Disasi. Which is one of the beauties of football: the best way to counter Guardiola’s immensely complex schemes is strikingly simple: pack men behind the ball and then go direct to a couple of quick forwards.

Related: Rodri provides a test against the best for Chelsea’s middle men | Will Unwin

But with Julián Álvarez going through something of a dip, particularly in his deeper role, City became frustrated; it was only when they started sending in more crosses in the second half that they began to create significant quantities of opportunities – and that, of course, is why Haaland ended up having so many headed and volleyed chances. Haaland is a very fine header of the ball, but by some quirk has not scored with his head since the Manchester derby in October.

It’s two dropped points. City were the better team even before you get to all their bleating about supposed penalties they should have had (neither claim at all convincing). They had just won 11 in a row. They remain favourites for the title but the evidence of Saturday is that it may be a little trickier than had been widely assumed.