For Manchester City, Slim Victory at Chelsea Speaks to a Wider Goal

For Manchester City, Slim Victory at Chelsea Speaks to a Wider Goal

“I understood English football the day I saw one game: Swansea against Crystal Palace,” he said later. “Nine goals. Eight from set pieces. Corners, free kicks, throw-ins. That is English football, and I have to adapt because I have never lived that before.”

What he saw in that game, in other words, was that the defining characteristic of English soccer was chaos. In Guardiola’s conception of the game, it is in those moments — when the ball is lofted high in the air, or swept into the penalty area — that planning and preparation and philosophy go out the window, and random chance takes over.

He knew, at that moment, what his job was. “We have to control that,” he said. That is why he was here.

He is not the only one. Guardiola’s arrival in England coincided with that of Antonio Conte at Chelsea, and the return of José Mourinho to Manchester United. Jürgen Klopp had landed in Liverpool a few months earlier; Mauricio Pochettino had taken charge at Tottenham the previous season.

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Chelsea striker Álvaro Morata battled for possession between Manchester City defenders Fabian Delph, left, and Nicolás Otamendi. Morata left the game with a leg injury in the first half. Credit John Sibley/Reuters

For years, the Premier League’s brand had been built on the appeal of its star players: Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona, and many more besides. It remains a place obsessed with gathering as much talent as possible, where a gargantuan transfer fee paid is almost as much reason for excitement as a goal scored or a win recorded.

For some time, though, the planet’s best players had been in Spain, or at Bayern Munich and Paris St.-Germain. Whether by accident or by design, the Premier League had responded by becoming home to most of the world’s finest managerial minds.

Though their methods were different, and their beliefs, too, the challenge they had been set was the same: They had to tame the beast, to find a way to control the chaos inherent in the Premier League.

Slowly, their labors are beginning to bear fruit. The Champions League, perhaps, provides the best evidence: In two rounds of games so far this season, England’s five representatives are unbeaten. Four top their groups; Liverpool, thanks to its boundless generosity to opponents, has performed worst, recording two ties.

That small sample of continental success is not conclusive proof, of course, but it represents a sea change from the struggles of recent years, when England’s teams have toiled in the early rounds and then been knocked out with troubling ease in the spring.

It is not just the bare facts of the results that feel instructive, either, but the nature of them, with Chelsea’s perfectly executed defeat of Atlético Madrid and Tottenham’s artful dismantling of Borussia Dortmund the twin peaks. England’s teams, never outfought but too often, in recent years, outthought, have discovered an intelligence to match their famed and feted intensity, and are the better for it.

That is seeping into domestic encounters, too. City’s meeting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was the first true encounter of title contenders of the young campaign. Often, these games fall into one of two categories: a nervous stalemate, neither team bold enough to be itself, or unbridled mayhem. They tend either to resist the chaos or succumb to it entirely.

Not this time, however. City’s 1-0 victory, secured through a wonderful goal from Kevin De Bruyne, possibly the season’s outstanding player so far, was the result of a game played at that frenetic Premier League pace, but with a dash of sophistication and subtlety that is much less familiar.

Though Chelsea — deprived of Álvaro Morata, its increasingly totemic forward, through injury in the first half — was not entirely without merit, it was City, and Guardiola, who had the better ideas: overloading Chelsea’s right side in the first half, for example, or playing a system that shimmered between a three-, four- and five-man defense. Chelsea could not quite work it out: Its only chance to draw level came from a late free kick, from the chaos. Other than that, City cruised.

This was not the most emphatic win of City’s season so far — Guardiola’s team scored five against Liverpool and Crystal Palace, and six against Watford — but it was, in all likelihood, its most comprehensive performance. Physical and thoughtful, expansive and expert. It was a demonstration of what Guardiola, like all of his peers, has been brought in to do: to find a way to make sense in the chaos, to take all of the noise that makes the Premier League so special, and find a signal.

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