If the title race was back on after City beat Liverpool, it’s dangerously close to swinging in City’s favor now. Thanks to victories over Arsenal and Everton, City are once again on top of the Premier League, though Liverpool will have a chance to wreck that before City’s match with Chelsea kicks off on Sunday.
This is one of City’s three remaining games against top six sides, and of course the reverse fixture of one of City’s few losses this season. In that game, a delightful long ball from David Luiz releasing Pedro led to Kante eventually scoring and a Luiz header from a corner polished off the win.
Assisting both of those goals was one Eden Hazard. Chelsea’s leader in Twelve’s rating, he also somehow both tops the team in progressive passes and runs made and progressive passes received. Another way to highlight his involvement is his Usage Rate, where he is by far the top player for Chelsea, using (that is, involved in the final action of) 18% of his team’s possessions.
And yet despite that, I’m not sure Chelsea are really getting the best out of him. He’s still only averaging three shots per 90, which is low for a player of his obvious talent. In Maurizio Sarri’s system, he’s too high usage to be Chelsea’s Callejon, too good on the ball to be their Mertens, and doesn’t get enough shots to be their Insigne.
To be honest, the same could be said about a lot of Chelsea players. N’golo Kante’s goal against City is proof he’s not exactly a fish out of water in a more advanced role, but it still isn’t the one best suited for him. Marcos Alonso is a perfect wing-back, but his defensive limitations are more exposed in a back four. Fabregas, Morata, and Moses, all of whom played 2000 very competent minutes last year, have been jettisoned.
Both the roster churn and players adjusting to unfamiliar roles is somewhat expected since we are still in the first year of Sarri’s management. Despite that though, he’s kept a very settled side, with just 14 players getting more than 500 minutes (and two of those are Giroud and Morata, both made expendable following Higuain’s arrival).
This may be causing some problems for Chelsea now as teams learn how to read their attacks, particularly how dependent they are on Jorginho in the buildup and Hazard in the final third. Though the Huddersfield win was convincing enough, their xG has dropped precipitously over the prior five games.
City should know how to combat their standard system as well, having largely nullified Jorginho (just 37 total passes compared to his usual 96) and preventing the creation of good chances in their last meeting. However, Chelsea’s counterattacks down the right side proved effective, perhaps because Sarri’s teams, and Chelsea in particular, are typically very left-dominant.
It will be interesting to see if Pep keeps the three-and-a-half at the back formation he used against Everton and Arsenal. While it did work reasonably well against the Gunners, the transitional nature of the centre-back sliding into midfield in possession is concerning when facing quick counters from Hazard and co. Regardless of system though, Aymeric Laporte (a goal-scorer in midweek) will be critical in holding the left side together and kick-starting City’s attack.
I’d also expect Gabriel Jesus to play a large role in the game. In the previous meeting between the sides, Raheem Sterling was moved into the middle with Leroy Sané and Riyad Mahrez on the wings. Though his finishing woes have been wildly overblown, it is still far from his best position as his runs from wide positions are much more dangerous.
Given Aguero started the last two matches in just a four-day span, I’d expect this to be Jesus’ turn to shine. His uptick in form couldn’t have come at a better time and I think he’s perhaps better suited to help harry Jorginho than Aguero. With Sterling back in his natural wide position, De Bruyne and Silva available to provide service, and the home comforts of the Etihad, I think Jesus may be just the man to help City to victory.