MANCHESTER — Antonio Conte insisted that he would have been “stupid” to “play open” against Manchester City after watching his team suffer a limp 1-0 defeat against the Premier League leaders.
Bernardo Silva’s goal early in the second half was the only difference on the scoresheet but Chelsea failed to register a shot on target at the Etihad Stadium while City completed 902 passes, more than any other team has managed in a Premier League match since the 2003-04 campaign.
Conte’s deployment of Eden Hazard as a false nine from the start was roundly criticised, with the Belgian isolated up front for most of the match, and his decision not to bring on a true striker until Olivier Giroud replaced Willian in the 78th minute also prompted bemusement.
But speaking after the match, Conte defended his approach, described by Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp as “anti-football” and “a crime against football.”
“I think you have to accept every criticism, but I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and lose 3-0 or 4-0,” he insisted. “If I remember well, two days ago, Arsenal played twice against them and you criticized [Arsene] Wenger a lot because they conceded three goals in only 30 minutes.
“The pundit has to use the head to understand when you speak about tactics because I think you must have knowledge to speak about tactics and not only to speak in a stupid way.”
Conte also praised his players’ efforts despite the gulf in class between the teams.
He said: “They followed my instructions. We prepared the game in this way, [not to] concede space between the lines. When you play against Manchester City you have to use your brain, otherwise you risk to finish the game in a bad way and to lose 3-0 or 4-0.
“We tried to not concede the space to Manchester City for a long part of the match [and it] was good. For sure to concede the goal after 30 seconds of the second half was a pity because then it was very difficult for us to come back.
“I tried to do something with the substitutions. For sure when we decided to play with Pedro, Hazard and Willian [up front], there is a bit of difficulty to have on the bench players to change the game.
“We tried to change the game with two strikers. We played against a strong team, an important team. It is very difficult to keep the balance of last season with Hazard as a No. 10. We needed in this position two players with quality and to run defensively. I thought Pedro and Willian played a fantastic game.”
The defeat is Chelsea’s fourth in their past five Premier League games and leaves them five points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham with nine matches remaining. Qualification for next season’s Champions League now looks unlikely, and Conte pointed to past setbacks as the primary reason for the Blues’ predicament.
“I think that we must have a big regret for the defeat against Bournemouth and against Watford, against [Manchester] United but I don’t think today because I think we played against a team that [has] shown to be a strong team,” he added. “Today they showed the difference between them and us in this moment.
“Twenty-five points is a big gap and I think that we can have regret for the other games but not for this, because I think the effort of the players was an important effort.
“When you play against Manchester City, this kind of team, they are showing fantastic quality but at the same time fantastic mentality. When you match quality and mentality you become unstoppable.”
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.