Even by this season’s standards, it was a strange start at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester City went 4-4-2 despite the notable handicap of having no strikers. Stand-in goalkeeper Zack Steffen seemed to forget the back-pass rule. Chelsea started without Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham but felt looping Hakim Ziyech crosses was still the best Plan A. Kevin De Bruyne, for the 34th time in a row in the Premier League, failed to score with a shot from open play.
When City suddenly, imperiously took control as Chelsea froze in the bitter London cold, you wondered if those bizarre but competitive first 18 minutes had been conjured up by broadcasters to throw the stay-at-home viewer off the scent, a Premier League narrative directed by the Coen brothers.
All at once, City were City again. Passes were fizzed into feet, Phil Foden killed the ball softly to Ilkay Gundogan, and it was beyond Thiago Silva’s foot and Edouard Mendy’s left fingers in a flash.
Two minutes and 37 seconds later, Foden had convinced the watching Gary Neville that he was Marc Overmars reborn: one driving left-wing run pulled Chelsea’s defence out of position so badly that, by the time De Bruyne finally slipped him the ball to score, he looked like he’d been standing in the penalty area so long he was trying to remember where he’d buried the suitcase of money.
There was so much to unpack about the third goal, an assembly of ill-conceived plans at the mercy of a maelstrom, like that tornado at the end of A Serious Man. It also prompted all manner of questions: why did Chelsea have every outfield player in the City half for a free-kick? Why did N’Golo Kante hoof a loose ball straight at De Bruyne’s head? Why did Raheem Sterling not score after rounding Mendy – and why did nobody try to take the ball off him once he hadn’t? It was such an implausible turn of events that, when Sterling’s eventual shot came off the post and nestled at De Bruyne’s feet for a tap-in, you had to wonder if that had been the plan all along.
4 – Kevin De Bruyne has now scored four goals against Chelsea in the Premier League; the most a former player has netted against the Blues in the competition. Vengeance. pic.twitter.com/Aatitn60eW
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 3, 2021
Of course, what City’s emphatic 3-1 win over Chelsea tells us is actually not that strange at all. A visiting team with preparations and line-up ruined by a coronavirus outbreak still, at every turn, looked like they were following a plan. Frank Lampard’s men looked every bit a team that had managed just one win in their previous five league outings coming into the contest.
If there was thinking behind his selection, Lampard’s methods seemed less precise with every hopeful ball aimed towards every uncertain Timo Werner run. The disconnect between midfield and defence was so stark that Kurt Zouma tried to play in both positions at once and managed to be successful in neither. They were picked apart with the same ease as they were at Arsenal a week ago, by the same City set-up that destroyed Manchester United in an EFL Cup first half last January, but Chelsea didn’t look as though they had learned a thing.
26 – Chelsea have three points fewer after 17 league games than they did last season (29), whilst in the Premier League era, the Blues have never finished higher than 6th when amassing a maximum of 26 points at this stage of a campaign. Pressure. pic.twitter.com/jEAFvPa1Pr
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 3, 2021
Perhaps the real enduring strangeness of 2020-21 is the hasty assessment of these teams’ trajectories. When Chelsea moved top of the table by beating Leeds United 3-1 on December 5, many of the 2,000 home fans allowed into the stands must have thought Lampard’s £230milllion-plus investment had created a team of title challengers.
When an unadventurous City were held in the Manchester derby and then by West Brom last month, even Pep Guardiola talked of “the gap between this year and previous years”.
Yet the fact remains City are the strongest challengers to Liverpool’s supremacy. Until Callum Hudson-Odoi’s injury-time consolation, they had conceded once – an own goal – since losing at Tottenham 11 matches ago. They are four points behind leaders Liverpool and United with a game in hand, having lost once since September. And they are now three points above Chelsea, who have played twice more and who in turn are only three ahead of an Arsenal team tipped for a relegation fight three weeks ago.
It would be odd indeed to see Chelsea as true title contenders now, or to pretend that Lampard, for all his enduring credit among players, fans and directors, would not be right in thinking: ‘Damn, we’re in a tight spot.’