The most fascinating tactical battles are between sides similar in terms of ability but completely contrasting stylistically, and this was a perfect example: Chelsea's counterattack versus Manchester City's ball retention.
Both managers selected a starting XI that emphasised their strategy: Eden Hazard, Oscar and André Schürrle is José Mourinho's most devastating trident on the break, whereas Pellegrini's decision to bolster the centre of the pitch with three central midfielders, plus David Silva and Samir Nasri drifting inside, ensured City dominated possession. However, the concept of possession dominance was not significant considering Chelsea's approach, and it was no surprise City saw 58% of the ball in the first half, with Nasri and Silva helping to overload Chelsea in central positions.
Pellegrini's decision to play an extra central midfielder was not just about possession, of course. It was also because he was scared of Chelsea's counterattacks. The combination of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho has looked vulnerable to quick breaks this season and, while Javi García is yet to convince either as a centre-back or in his favoured position as a holding midfielder, at least he was another body for Chelsea to break past. Aside from one smart turn by Oscar midway through the first half, allowing him to carry the ball forward, City were rarely opened up through direct breaks.
However, while the approaches of the two sides differed, their most promising route to goal was similar – they both wanted to attack the space behind the defence. With a revitalised Fernando Torres and a menacing-looking Sergio Agüero at either end, neither side was likely to base its approach around crossing – this was about through-balls and well-timed runs.
Chelsea's best three chances at 0-0 came from simple lofted balls in behind the defence: Gary Cahill's early volley, Torres's strange attempt with his chest and then the Spaniard's blazed shot over the bar – both from Ramires passes. The goal was something different – a Torres burst and a Schürrle tap-in – but Chelsea always looked dangerous attacking City's back four when they were not being protected by the midfield.
City put together some magnificent passing moves in the first half – and it was not that they lacked penetration. It was that Chelsea were defending so deep that the penetration put City in shooting situations only from difficult angles. Silva broke through a couple of times down the left and Agüero had two attempts from very narrow positions on the right.
The Argentinian's equaliser was also hit from an improbable angle but it was a much more presentable chance than his first-half efforts – City's passing move had been direct, featuring two consecutive forward passes with Nasri playing a wonderful assist, and City had cut through the Chelsea defence swiftly. Agüero, had he wished, could have taken the ball forward and shot from a better position. It was the type of pass both he and Torres love receiving.
The winner, of course, was a freak goal – but in the sense that it arose from a simple lofted ball over the top and featured Torres running on to it the 90th-minute goal neatly summarised the approach of both teams. The home side were counterattacking, the away side were playing on the break, but their best chances depended on getting their striker in behind the opposition back four.