Heart Of Football

Blues likelier to park the bus in the City than return to the 19th century

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is confident their £49 million signing Raheem Sterling will excel, especially against big teams like Chelsea.
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is confident their £49 million signing Raheem Sterling will excel, especially against big teams like Chelsea.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Here's a question, a genuine football question, that may have been submerged by the latest Chelsea soap opera concerning Medic-gate:

If the English Premier League champions' defence could not cope with the speed and movement of Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Ayew and Jefferson Montero at the Bridge last weekend, how on earth are they going to pin down Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Raheem Sterling today?

The answer, probably, is that Jose Mourinho will have instructed his three first-team assistant coaches, and even the goalkeeper coach, to prepare "football from the 19th century" for the Etihad Stadium this evening.

That description was the Mourinho's withering criticism of the way West Ham stifled Chelsea to a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in January last year.

Nineteenth century is euphemism, and a not particularly accurate one, for Mourinho's other disparaging phrase "parking the bus" for overly defensive tactics on the ground of feared opponents.

Freedom of expression, to an Eden Hazard or a David Silva, could raise it to a memorable encounter, albeit one that comes far too early in the season to imagine it as being decisive on the title that will not come until next May.

Chelsea's own bus has been parked at the Etihad for the past five visits in all competitions. Put another way, Chelsea have gone there and scored 0 - 1 - 0 - 1 - 1 in those five contests, and squeezed a win and a draw in Manchester on the last two.

These are the two biggest spending clubs in English football history, and this summer Manchester City has been rather more active in the buying market than Chelsea. It figures that, as very convincing champions last season, someone at the Bridge might have felt that the London Blues had a powerful enough, and young enough, squad to retain the title - particularly since at one point last season Chelsea had 26 players out on loan at other clubs.

City, in contrast, finished only second. And that loosened the Abu Dhabi owners' purse strings to the point where £49 million was paid for Sterling, and a similar sum is being offered for the former Chelsea player, Kevin de Bruyne from Wolfsburg in Germany.

"Maybe we were criticised for the amount we paid for Sterling," said City's head coach Manuel Pellegrini on Friday. "But I am sure he will demonstrate, especially against the big teams, why we value him so much."

Pellegrini thought deeply, as he is apt to do before adding: "If you are playing with good players, you will improve in the same way that Sterling did with (Luis) Suarez and (Steven) Gerrard at Liverpool.

"Here, he will play with Silva, Aguero and Yaya Toure. They will improve him, a lot."

How simple it sounds. Players as the key to performance. Good, or great players motivating and improving themselves by the actions of their peers.

The coach, in this sense, is a mere conduit. He sets the pattern, and instructs the tactics, but the players are the important figures in a team sport.

That has been true since the 19th century when, from what we read, football started in England and Scotland as a more attacking game. The strait jacket of modern coaching is what brought in the overly defensive tactics.

This evening, about £1 billion (S$2.1 billion) worth of talents will be on the field. Fear of defeat - the managers' fear - could reduce that to a yawning draw.

Freedom of expression, to an Eden Hazard or a David Silva, could raise it to a memorable encounter, albeit one that comes far too early in the season to imagine it as being decisive on the title that will not come until next May.

Let's pretend that the game at the Etihad will be just what the players make it. Let's shut out the noise from the benches, the brooding, the sub-plots and the excuses.

Hazard earned last season the vote of his fellow players as the star man in the EPL . That is a marvellous accolade, especially for someone who, at 24, is not yet at the pinnacle where athletic prowess dovetails with experience.

Against Swansea on the opening Saturday of the new season, he looked a man in form amid a team strongly disunited. Vincent Kompany, the City skipper who is hoping to recapture his own indomitable form that deserted him last season, says he hopes that Hazard has diarrhoea and throws a sickie before today's game.

He meant it as a joke, and a compliment. He shares Hazard's nationality. They are Belgians who went to the World Cup together, and the City captain observes when Hazard is on song he takes three, even four, opposing players out on one dynamic run.

You might expect Kompany to be more concerned by his own immediate opponent, Diego Costa. Give or take a tweak on his hamstrings, Costa is fearless, combative, belligerent and a big- game player if ever there was one.

But it remains Hazard's twinkling feet rather than Costa's elbows that put the fear in Kompany and Co.

In that sense, Toure's return to full power must concern Chelsea. Throughout last season, following the World Cup and the death through cancer to his kid brother, he was a subdued character.

The critics wrote him off. Looking at his disjointed gait, they perceived that, at 32, his best was past him. Pellegrini begged to differ. He, and others, still see in Toure the most athletic midfield presence since Patrick Vieira.

There are those who think he attacks too often and defends too reluctantly. Maybe Pellegrini tolerates that because his notion about football is to outscore the other team.

Truly, Toure is unlikely to smother other team's creativity by shielding the back line as Nemanja Matic does for Chelsea. Or usually does - the big Serb was below par last week when John Terry, Gary Cahill and particularly Branislav Ivanovic looked vulnerable to direct speed and running.

Unless that shield is reinforced, they face even greater quality today. Sterling's pace, Aguero's guile, and the magic of Silva are very definitely an upgrade on Swansea. Expect Chelsea to park the bus, with Ramires, Cesc Fabregas and Willian at times helping Matic to stem City's flow.

And one tip: If Chelsea get ahead, or need to play out time towards the end, put your money on Mourinho's medical staff sprinting onto the field to eat up some minutes.

MANCHESTER CITY V CHELSEA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Blues likelier to park the bus in the City than return to the 19th century'. Print Edition | Subscribe