Was Manchester City’s victory over Chelsea the finest Premier League performance of all?
Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0
Sergio Agüero was voted man of the match, but it could have been Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne. It could have been Fernandinho, Oleksandr Zinchenko or Ilkay Gündogan. It was one of those occasions when Manchester City’s line-up could have doubled up as a list of candidates for individual honours. They were all that good.
It was not simply the merciless way that City kept placing the ball in the Chelsea net, particularly Agüero with his latest hat-trick, that so impressed. It was the sustained excellence of all of Pep Guardiola’s players that stood out, and why Liverpool know they are in such a heavyweight title fight.
This was one of the finest team performances in Premier League history: well-organised champions brimming with talents who understood their roles and were determined to make every touch and move count. Chelsea, in contrast, were embarrassingly bereft of fight and belief in their system.
The Guardiola way is, essentially, the application of a supreme work ethic and will to win as well as the recruitment and blending of gifted players into a tactical framework that promotes fluid, incisive movement. It’s also the hunger that sets City apart. It was the relentless way that Agüero kept harrying David Luiz and Antonio Rüdiger and the selfless way that Bernardo Silva tracked back to help out Kyle Walker, an attacking artist putting in a defensive shift too. It was De Bruyne’s unerring passing, his enhanced thought and execution in perfect harmony. It was the irrepressible way that Sterling kept twisting defenders into submission. He came to bury César Azpilicueta.
It was City’s defending as well as the attacking, embodied in the tireless way Zinchenko fulfilled his left-back duties and foraged forward. It was the imperious way that Fernandinho dispossessed Ross Barkley like a head teacher confiscating a pea-shooter from a new boy. It was the confident way that Ederson tipped over Gonzalo Higuaín’s rare volley, the nonchalant way that Ederson dummied the ball round the lonely, ill-served Higuaín and the smooth way that Aymeric Laporte, Ederson and John Stones worked the ball across their area and upfield.
Even off the pitch, it was all City. It was the ebullient way that the home fans launched into a mass Poznan, then taunted Chelsea’s dishevelled defence with “you need Mourinho”.
Weirder things have happened in football, but it would still be a surprise if Roman Abramovich recruited José Mourinho for a third time. We’re not quite in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton country here but Chelsea’s patience with Sarri must be wearing thin, if not yet at breaking point.
There are issues behind the scenes, a disconnect between first team and the fabulous academy, a lack of direction with no technical director and an owner looking to sell. There is no continuity of philosophy, no manager given time to build for the long term, meaning the accumulation of an imbalanced squad.
City looked ingrained in the Guardiola way while Chelsea players seemed at odds with Maurizio Sarri’s. It is one thing being outclassed by a superior, better-coached side but the lack of response, playing for pride at the least, was shameful. Keep the blue flag flying high? If only, Chelsea fans must have sighed. The white flag was run up within 25 minutes.
Chelsea’s travails, particularly on their travels, cast questions over the players’ commitment to Sarri’s tactics, highlighted in the losses away to Arsenal (2-0), Bournemouth (4-0) and this. Agüero has scored more Premier League goals in 2019 than Chelsea have (8-7).
Sarri’s decision to criticise his players recently looks even costlier now. A team with coveted individuals such as Eden Hazard and World Cup-winners such as N’Golo Kanté are painfully less than the sum of their parts. Sarri’s stubborn commitment to one approach and his strange man-management style is a dangerous game at a club where residency in the dugout is institutionally short-term.
This performance was simply unacceptable and Sarri has to be accountable. Not since a Chelsea fan, John Major, was in No 10 have the club suffered a defeat of this magnitude. Not since Chesney Hawkes was at No 1 with The One and Only have Chelsea lost by more, the 7-0 thrashing endured by Kerry Dixon, Andy Townsend and Gordon Durie against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground on April 20, 1991.
When Sarri went straight down the tunnel at the final whistle all the focus was on him supposedly snubbing Guardiola. He hadn’t, he simply forgot the usual etiquette in his frustration and the pair are friends. It was actually far worse him ignoring the fans who had made a long, difficult journey on a Sunday to be treated to this horror-show.
At least David Luiz had the class to go over and apologise to the travelling fans. Hazard, his face a picture of frustration, handed a fan his shirt. Rüdiger received a rebuke from one fan in the away section, who soon shut up when the defender called him out, also pointing out that, “I have come over to say sorry”.
There was plenty to apologise for, starting after four minutes. Fouled by Jorginho, De Bruyne exploited Marcos Alonso’s decision to leave his job of keeping an eye on Bernardo Silva. De Bruyne placed the free kick between Barkley and Hazard, Bernardo crossed and Sterling drove the ball into the net: 1-0.
Agüero then missed one of the easiest chances he will have, shooting wide from three yards out. Agüero held his head in his hands. Sterling assumed the same bemused stance. Guardiola fell to the floor in disbelief.
No matter. After 13 minutes, Zinchenko advanced down the left before Agüero took over. Jorginho and Rüdiger tried to get close but Agüero nudged the ball to his right, opening up the opportunity and curling in a 25-yard strike: 2-0.
On it went, this afternoon of deepening humiliation for Chelsea. Barkley thought he could steer the ball back to Kepa Arrizabalaga after 19 minutes but he foolishly forgot about a lurking Agüero. Seizing on Barkley’s errant header, Agüero accepted the gift, and turned the ball left-footed past Arrizabalaga: 3-0.
City would not ease up. Rüdiger managed to block Agüero’s shot after 25 minutes but the ball rebounded to Gündogan, who placed it low at speed to Arrizabalaga’s left: 4-0.
City left the field to thunderous applause at the interval. A few Chelsea fans slipped out. Barkley did not last long in the second half, making way for Mateo Kovacic. It looked like damage limitation from Sarri. It looked even more hopeless when Sterling was too quick and clever for Azpilicueta, who brought his twisting tormentor down almost out of despair. Mike Dean, the referee, pointed theatrically to the spot, like David Brent pointing the way to the office disco. Agüero sent Arrizabalaga the wrong way: 5-0.
There was time for one more. Bernardo angled a sumptuous pass behind Chelsea’s defence, Zinchenko crossed and Sterling’s left foot did the rest: 6-0.