Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Man City

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LONDON — Maybe Manchester City aren’t going to stroll to the title again this season…

Chelsea beat Man City 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to not only blow the title race open but also breath new life into their own campaign. Pep Guardiola‘s injury hit City were blown away by Chelsea’s press, as the reigning champs had only trailed for 12 minutes all season long before this defeat.

Goals in each half from N'Golo Kante and David Luiz did the damage, as City were left stunned. They now trail Liverpool, who are top of the Premier League table by a point.

Here’s what we learned from a wild encounter in west London.


FIRED UP CHELSEA KEEP TITLE HOPES ALIVE

Maurizio Sarri said he was “very worried” after Chelsea’s midweek defeat to Wolves. Don’t worry, Maurizio. Things are much better now. Chelsea became the first team to defeat Manchester City in the PL this season, as the Blues beat the reigning champs at their own game on Saturday. Sarri’s men hunted in packs and showed the same hunger they had at the start of the season, as well as the clinical edge. Marcos Alonso recovered from a poor first half, Kante was back on form and so too was Jorginho.

Having Eden Hazard back to his best was a big reason why they defeated City, but Sarri slightly altering his approach paid huge dividends. Choosing to start without a recognized center forward was a masterstroke from the Italian coach, as Hazard, Willian and Pedro pushed high on City’s defenders whenever they could, aided by Kante not far behind them and often in front of them. Chelsea’s bite returned, especially in the second half, and so did their faint hopes of winning the title this season. They are still seven points behind City and eight behind leaders Liverpool, but Chelsea needed this win to prove that Sarri’s project is still moving in the right direction after two defeats from their previous three games. With this victory they also gave Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool hope that City can be stopped this season.


WASTEFUL CITY LOSE UNBEATEN RUN

When Guardiola decided to not start Gabriel Jesus on Saturday it sent out a message to Chelsea: we are going to toy with you. They did just that in the first half, and Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez saw plenty of the ball and created plenty of chances. They failed to take them. Sane, Sterling and Mahrez were all denied in the first half as they tried to pick the perfect pass or finish. Had Sergio Aguero or Kevin De Bruyne been on the pitch, it may well have been a different story. For just the second time this season they fired a blank (the other was at Liverpool) and it was only the fourth time in the last two seasons that City have failed to score in a game.

Yes, injuries are mounting up for Pep all over the pitch and City didn’t have a cutting edge on Saturday which shows just how important Aguero is to them. Gabriel Jesus came on early in the second half, but it was more in desperation than anything else as the goal on half time gave Chelsea all of the momentum and inspired their victory. City’s first defeat of the season came after 23 games last season. They only lost once after that on their way to a record-breaking title win. Guardiola will be hoping this defeat has the same galvanizing effect on his players this season.


CHELSEA DO NOT NEED A NO.9

For Chelsea much of the talk this season has been about whether or not they need to start Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud. Morata wasn’t in the 18-man squad on Saturday, while Giroud came off the bench late on. Hazard was frustrated for most of the first half in a false nine position, throwing his arms in the air when passes didn’t go his way, but with Pedro and Willian buzzing around him they gave City’s defense all kinds of problems and denied them time to play out from the back. Hazard may not enjoy playing in a central striking role, but this performance and the balance it gave Sarri suggests that Chelsea no longer need a No. 9. Playing a 4-3-3 with a false nine in certain games, especially against the top six, is the way forward for the Blues.

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Fulham

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Fulham 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Claudio Ranieri‘s return to his former club ended in a defeat.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Chelsea weren’t at their best but goals in each half from Pedro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek did the damage, as Fulham had their moments but failed to take the few chances which came their way.

Here’s what we learned from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea remain in the top four but are still seven points off leaders Manchester City.


SUBDUED CHELSEA STAY IN TOUCH

Chelsea weren’t at their best on Sunday, but after a week where their progress under Maurizio Sarri was questioned heavily they proved they can grind out wins. The defeat to Tottenham suggested that Chelsea were far from genuine title contenders this season, and Sarri has admitted as much all season long. Yet they remain in the chasing pack behind Man City and Liverpool and finishing in the top four this season would represent a big success. Chelsea started brightly on a Sunday morning at a largely sun-drenched Stamford Bridge but whether it was doubts creeping in about their poor display at Tottenham or the fact they’ve played three games in seven days, Sarri’s men were a little subdued throughout. The likes of Marcos Alonso, Olivier Giroud and Jorginho were poor, while Alvaro Morata missed a glorious chance after jumping off the bench.

They got the job done rather easily despite some pressure from Fulham in the second half and moments of magic from N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard were enough to get them over the line. But a few defensive lapses could have allowed a more clinical side than Fulham to score and there are still plenty of ways the Blues can improve. All in all, a pretty routine day at the office for Chelsea who remain among the PL frontrunners but there are enough cracks appearing to suggest their showdown with Manchester City next Saturday will be a lot tougher than many believed it would be a few weeks ago.


UNIQUE KANTE SILENCES DOUBTERS

After Chelsea’s defeat at Tottenham last weekend, plenty of the talk surrounding their poor performance was centered on how their central midfield tandem of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante just wasn’t working out. Kante is being played in a new role by Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri who said that he needs to improve many aspects of his game. While Jorginho, the man Sarri brought with him from Napoli in the summer for $72 million, is no doubt the fulcrum of Chelsea’s entire team and is a guaranteed starter in Kante’s old role. Instead of playing Kante alongside Jorginho in a holding role, Sarri plays him just ahead of Chelsea’s true holder and it is probably the best place for the man who won the World Cup with France this summer. We are talking about a player who won the Premier League in two of the past three seasons, was the PFA Player of the Year in 2016-17 and is perhaps the most lauded defensive midfielder in recent history. The fact he’s been forced to change his role proves

Chelsea’s first goal summed up all that is exceptional with the former Leicester City midfielder. He anticipated where the pass was going, snuck in to win the tackle and then drove forward before setting up Pedro to score. That is exactly why Sarri is using Kante in this position. He is using Kante as the trigger for the entire team to press higher up the pitch and force the issue. It may take some time for Kante to impact games in his new role as he did in his old role, but as long as Sarri is in charge at Chelsea he will not return to a holding role. With his display against Fulham, Kante silenced those who seem to be doubting his versatility.


FULHAM’S DEFENSIVE ISSUES IMPROVING

Fulham are the only team in England’s four professional leagues to not keep a clean sheet this season. And that right there is why they sit bottom of the Premier League table. But under Claudio Ranieri things are already improving if you analyze their narrow 3-2 win against Southampton last to this narrow defeat at Chelsea. For much of his return to Stamford Bridge Ranieri barked out orders to his team and urged them to stay in their shape and not be too eager to engage Chelsea’s players when they had the ball. It worked, to a degree, but it is clear the Italian tactician still has plenty of work to do to drill his team into the strong defensive unit he hopes they can become. Wherever he has gone he’s stuck to his solid 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 system and prides himself on being hard to beat. It will be hard for him to mold Fulham into that kind of team.

Fulham’s sloppy passing when they did win the ball back will concern him, especially in the first half, but their play with the ball and the attacks they launched at Chelsea suggest they will create chances against any team in the league. Calum Chambers twice forced Kepa into fine stops in the second half after Ranieri tweaked his personnel and tactics with Aboubakar Kamara and Floyd Ayite providing more power and pace down the flanks after coming on at half time. This will take time for Ranieri to turn around, as he told Pro Soccer Talk, but a few weeks into the job you can see Fulham are more organized defensively and have a gameplan to launch counters. Still, the 35 goals they’ve conceded in their first 14 games of this season is a club-record high for a top-flight season and the Cottagers improving defensively is the main reason Ranieri was brought in. The result at Chelsea won’t please him but the performance will give him hope.

Three things we learned: Italy v. USMNT

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GENK, Belgium — The U.S. men’s national team lost 1-0 to Italy in Genk, Belgium on Tuesday to finish off its 2018 schedule with a defeat, as they conceded in the 94th minute.

[ MORE: Sarachan out as USMNT head coach ]

Matteo Politano struck with 30 seconds left to condemn the USMNT to a second-straight defeat of this international break, as they closed out the calendar year with a disappointing performance and, eventually, defeat.

[ MORE: Pulisic on captaincy, Dortmund future

Dave Sarachan named the youngest U.S. lineup in the modern era (since 1990) with an average age of 22 years and 71 days, while Christian Pulisic became the youngest captain in that era. Italy’s team was a mixture of youth and experience as Ethan Horvath made several fine stops but couldn’t preserve the shutout for the USMNT.

Here’s what we learned from a tight encounter in Belgium.


HORVATH, PULISIC, ADAMS STAND TALL

Three of the USMNT’s standout performers in Genk were captain Pulisic, midfielder Tyler Adams and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath. The former looked on a level of his own among players wearing a U.S. jersey, buzzing around the Italian defense and trying to make things happen. A superb run and cross down the left and then a lovely scooped pass, both to Josh Sargent, showcased his quality on the ball. The only problem for Pulisic was that he didn’t see enough of it. With long balls pumped up to him, Pulisic didn’t win many aerial duels against Leonardo Bonucci but his best work was done dropping off Josh Sargent and picking passes.

At the other end of the pitch Horvath stood tall to deny Italy’s captain Bonucci a clear goal, tipped another dipping effort over and then pushed a dangerous cross in the box away right before half time. And in the second half Horvath saved with his feet as Kevin Lasagna was clean through on goal, pushed Vincenzo Grifo’s shot wide and denied Lasagna again. The Club Brugge stopper enhanced his chances of challenging Brad Guzan and Zack Steffen for the No. 1 jersey, and a year after his horror mistake allowed Portugal to score in Sarachan’s first friendly in charge, Horvath took his second chance and deserved a clean sheet.

In midfield Tyler Adams was brave on the ball in front of the back three, tried to get things going in attack and was the most composed U.S. player on the pitch. The New York Red Bulls midfield, still a teenager, will no doubt be a big part of this team moving forward and he, Pulisic (obviously) and Horvath proved they will be in many USMNT squads to come. The rest struggled a little.


YOUNGSTERS OVERWHELMED

When you name the youngest USMNT lineup in modern history, you’d expect a few bumps in the road during the game. That is exactly what happened. A back three of Cameron Carter-Vickers, Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, plus Shaq Moore playing out of position at left wing-back, was undone by simple long balls over the top as the USMNT dropped deeper and deeper throughout the game. The U.S. only had 26.5 percent possession and were happy to sit deep and try to hit Italy on the break, just like they did against France in Lyon.

Unlike the game against England last week, this was nowhere near a full-strength USMNT lineup and you could make an argument that only two players (Adams and Pulisic) would be regular starters moving forward.

The likes of Zimmerman, Long, Moore and Cannon were decent enough and got plenty of the reps with the USMNT under pressure for most of the game. One thing is now for sure, whoever is in charge for the January camp and beyond: experimenting needs to stop. The past 13 months has shown us what over 50 players can do. Now a permanent coach needs to select his best squad and work with them each camp moving forward.


SARACHAN’S REIGN SUMMED UP IN 90 MINUTES

Dave Sarachan’s record after 12 games in charge of the USMNT reads 3-5-4, as he set his team up for the draw against Italy but didn’t get it.

Just like they’ve done against top teams in the past, and they did against France in Lyon back in June, the U.S. sat back, soaked up pressure and tried to grab a clean sheet. It wasn’t pretty and didn’t work, but it could prove to be a valuable learning experience for Sarachan’s young team.

The past 13 months has seen him steady the ship after the nightmare of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but in truth there are still more questions than answers when it comes to what is next for the U.S.

Sarachan has now handed debuts to 23 players, more than any other U.S. manager in the modern era, and his task was to try and restore pride in the program after the World Cup qualifying debacle. He may have done a bit of that, mostly thanks to putting his faith in youth, but the U.S. has pretty much stood still in 2018. Some players have taken their chances, others haven’t and, perhaps most importantly, the USMNT still don’t have a permanent head coach.

That is the biggest issue of all, but that is no longer Sarachan’s problem.


Three things we learned: England v. USMNT

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LONDON — England beat the U.S. men’s national team 3-0 at Wembley on Thursday, as Gareth Southgate‘s much-changed side started strongly and held the young Americans at arms length for much of the contest.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Match recap ]

First half goals from Jesse Lingard and Trent Alexander-Arnold set England on their way, while Callum Wilson scored a debut goal to make it 3-0 in the second half. Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood had great chances to score in each half, but Dave Sarachan’s USMNT didn’t really get going in front of almost 70,000 fans at the home of soccer.

Here’s what we learned from a rough outing for the USMNT as Wayne Rooney said farewell to England with a win.


PULISIC LOOKS A LITTLE JADED

In the build-up to this game, Christian Pulisic just didn’t seem too happy. He met with various media outlets in the UK to discuss how he is the future star of U.S. Soccer and how the hopes of a nation are on his shoulders and so on and so forth, which is nothing he hasn’t heard before. But maybe it was the fact he was an unused sub for Borussia Dortmund in their big 3-2 win against Bayern Munich before the international break, or maybe he, like most U.S. fans, is struggling to get excited about this program right now.

Pulisic — who was playing for the U.S. for the first time since May and just the second time in 13 months — could have been the hero for the USMNT at Wembley. In the 24th minute he was clean through after a mix-up in the England defense but when faced with Jordan Pickford one-on-one, his strike lacked conviction and Pickford saved well. Pulisic then switched off for England’s first goal, just moments later, as he allowed England to find Lingard on the inside left channel and the Manchester United winger curled home. He played on the right in the first half but drifted inside in the second half and got on the ball more, with a few more clever flicks and crosses, but his touch looked off and he didn’t have that spark we’ve seen time and time again.

There is no doubt that this is still Pulisic’s team moving forward, but the USMNT’s 20-year-old sensation seems a little jaded right now. After several injuries early in the 2018-19 campaign, you can understand why.

Ahead of the game Pulisic told Pro Soccer Talk, among other U.S. outlets, that a new head coach should be “someone who has a plan and someone who has an idea of how we want to play moving forward.” Right now the lack of direction is clear for the USMNT as Dave Sarachan has done the best he can on an interim basis, but Gregg Berhalter’s impending arrival should be sped up as quickly as possible. Pulisic and the other USMNT youngsters need to know what the plan is moving forward.


3-5-2 BEST FIT FOR THIS USMNT SQUAD

Antonee Robinson going down with an untimely injury ahead of this game could have changed Dave Sarachan’s tactical plan considerably. Away at France in June the USMNT played in a 3-5-2 formation and looked solid in a 1-1 draw. Yes, they suffered tough moments defensively but they stood tall and grabbed a draw. Against an England reserve team, they never really looked in this. Before Pulisic had his big chance England could have had at least two goals and they got behind DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana way too easily.

The two USMNT fullbacks may not be totally to blame for that as Pulisic and Weah ahead of them did not dig in and do their defensive work in the first half. Julian Green looked totally off the pace in support of Bobby Wood in what turned into a 4-4-2 formation at times. Tyler Adams (somehow left out of the starting lineup) alongside Wil Trapp and Weston McKennie in central midfield would give the U.S. a better balance, while Robinson and Yedlin down the flanks as wing backs allows them to be at their attacking best without worrying about tracking back too much. Against the so-called elite teams, a 3-5-2 formation should be the go-to setup for the USMNT moving forward.


ENGLAND SHOW WHY ROONEY WAS RIGHT TO RETIRE

Wayne Rooney came on after 58 minutes for his 120th and final cap for England and was given a wonderful reception by the home fans at Wembley. Before the game England’s all-time leading goalscorer was given a guard of honor by both sets of players as he walked out onto the Wembley pitch with his children and was applauded. Rooney has more caps than the entire England starting lineup put together, as the magnitude of his service over the years was clear for all to see.

The way this England reserve side performed in this game, especially in the first half, proved why Rooney was right to call time on his international career in August 2017. The pace and power of Sancho, Lingard, Wilson and Alli ripped the U.S. defense apart and if you think that Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane are in reserve, it shows you the incredible depth of England’s attacking options. None of them are quite like Rooney, and his unique skillset is still valued in the game. But Southgate’s young Three Lions side are now about pace and power rather than the cerebral beauty of Rooney’s passes and touch.

Every time he got the ball England’s fans urged him to shoot, and Rooney came close twice late on, but in the end this night showcased exactly why he stepped away from the Three Lions after 13 years of playing for them. A legendary career came to an end at the appropriate time.

Four things we learned from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — Manchester City beat Manchester United 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, with Pep Guardiola‘s men moving 12 points ahead of United in the process and regaining their spot atop the Premier League table.

[ MORE: Player ratings

Goals from David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva did the damage as Jose Mourinho’s men succumbed to the fluid, almost unstoppable, City attack.

Here’s what we learned from the Manchester Derby.


STERLING LEADS IMPERIOUS CITY

The past few months have underlined just how good Sterling is. After agreeing a new long-term contract at Man City earlier in the week, the 23-year-old put in a superb display which showcased his main areas of improvement. Passing and movement.

For City’s first goal his cross was weighted perfectly to unlock United’s eight-man defense on the edge of their own box, as he outrageously picked out Bernardo Silva with a stealthy swing of his right boot.

In the past Sterling could be guilty of unnecessary dribbles and wayward passes, but there is now so much more purpose to his play. His improvement under Guardiola in the past two years is stark, with only Mohamed Salah involved in more PL goals than Sterling since the start of last season.

With veterans Aguero and Silva on the scoresheet to help deliver the win, City know their attack is in safe hands for the future as Sterling will lead the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez in the future. The scary thing is, he still has plenty of room for improvement as he was guilty of not shooting as he tried to set up his teammates.


SLOW START FOR UNITED ONCE AGAIN

Add the Manchester Derby to the list of games where United have started slowly this season. That list is now almost longer than Mourinho’s arm as slow starts against Newcastle, Chelsea, Bournemouth and Juventus in recent weeks has seem them rally from losing positions.

Mourinho’s men were no doubt hampered by the loss of Pogba through injury (more on that below) but there’s no doubting that their slow starts must be eradicated if they’re going to have any chance of at least finishing in the top four. Over the course of a 10-month season at home and in Europe, United have to start getting on the front foot at the start of games. The reason they currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League, seven points off the top four, is because they continue to put themselves in poor positions early on.

What is causing them to do this again and again?

Mourinho will ponder that over the international break but it is clear that many of United’s players are tentative from the get-go and that is a surefire sign of not being comfortable with how they are playing and who they are playing alongside. United’s players grow into games and seem to grow in belief after the half time break, and they did that against City as more attacking players coming off the bench gave them fresh impetus. However, there are only so many times you can launch a comeback and United looked jaded due to their recent heroics and the wizardry of City’s attackers.


RASH EDERSON

Man City’s Brazilian goalkeeper is superb with his feet and he commands his area with ease. But over the past few weeks he has got it wrong. Big time. On Sunday he raced out of his goal and took down Romelu Lukaku to concede a penalty kick in a carbon copy of the PK he gave away last week against Southampton as he took out Danny Ings.

Ederson was visibly upset with his mistake and although Pep Guardiola tried to get his head up and applaud him from the sidelines, some of City’s technical staff in the stand were far from impressed with “Eddie” for another rash decision to rush off his line. Ederson is a forward-thinking goalkeeper and that is exactly what Guardiola wants in his way of playing. But if Ederson continues to make costly errors, a sense of shakiness could impact City’s defenders. Those are the small things which add up and Ederson’s decision making has to be a little better than it has been in recent weeks.


POGBA, DE BRUYNE BADLY MISSED

Two players who can turn a game on its head in an instance were missing for the Manchester Derby through injury and it was a such a shame. Sure, this encounter was a very good spectacle. But with KDB and Pogba, you always know a moment of magic via an outstanding pass or sensational goal are just around the corner.

The midfield battle was a little too predictable on Sunday, with Fernandinho clogging up the gaps and the two Silva’s buzzing around ahead of him playing short passes. For United, the trio of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic did their job but they all struggled to get up and support Marcus Rashford in attack the way Pogba does with his rangy, slaloming runs. De Bruyne and Pogba being back fit and available for the next Manchester Derby will give this intriguing, feisty clash yet another layer.