The top half of the Premier League table is too tightly compressed for us to take the respective league positions of Chelsea and Manchester City seriously. Level on points but with City having played two games fewer, both are essentially languishing in midtable – and yet both are startlingly close to a title challenge.
It would only take a couple of wins for either Frank Lampard or Pep Guardiola to get back on track, which counter-intuitively makes Sunday's game both important and not; both eagerly anticipated and likely to be a relatively dull draw. The inherent problem of a squashed league table is that it breeds conservatism, encouraging managers to stay in the race rather than risk it all for a surge to the summit.
And sadly, a draw suits both teams.
CHELSEA'S RE-EMERGING ISSUES UNDER LAMPARD
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard faces fresh scrutiny over his suitability for the job after a run of one win in five leaves him with three points fewer than at the same stage last season. After a lavish summer spend Chelsea were supposed to be on a clear upward trajectory, if not challenging for the Premier League title, but instead they will once again be fighting tooth and nail for a top-four finish.
Roman Abramovich has never shown patience before. Chelsea ought to be among the elite after buying so many top players, but instead they continue to look confused and directionless. These last few weeks have exposed Lampard's inability to coach in-depth tactical battle plans.
Instead, he expects his players to freely improvise, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to the emotional side of the game. When confidence dips the players have very little tactical coaching to fall back on; have no clear scaffolding to help raise their spirits again.
More damning still, Lampard's flaws ought not to show in this most unique of seasons. The pandemic has made 2020/21 a tactically regressive year in which a lack of coaching time and general fatigue has made every club more atavistic – and yet Lampard still cannot arrange his first 11 effectively enough.
CHELSEA WILL SIT DEEP AND STRUGGLE TO BREAK
However, Lampard has shown tactical dexterity when it comes to playing the 'Big Six', copying the template of his former manager Jose Mourinho by sitting Chelsea deep and easing off the press. His side will camp in their own half for long periods on Sunday in an attempt to limit space in behind, allowing Man City to dominate possession and, they hope, lulling them into a low-tempo style of football that helps secure at least a point.
Not that Chelsea will counter-attack with much success. Lampard continues to play Kai Havertz and Timo Werner out of position, deploying the former too deep and the latter too wide, and his inability to understand their roles is symbolic of a deeper issue. Increasingly it looks as though the Chelsea manager cannot organise his attack, with frequent personnel changes leading to unstructured and individualistic performances.
Man City, led by a much-improved John Stones, have conceded just one goal in their last four league games. Guardiola will anticipate easily keeping a clean sheet against a muddled Chelsea attack that will willingly spend large portions of the game away from the City goal.
AGUERO AND CANCELO MAY LIFT SLUGGISH CITY
A 0-0 beckons, then, because throughout this campaign Man City's football has slowed right down. As pressing intensity drops, and with Guardiola insisting on the risk-averse sideways passing of Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri, Man City are increasingly stale on the ball – hence their goal return of just 21 from 14 games, one fewer than West Ham and just two more than Crystal Palace.
Chelsea's low block should be capable of shuffling across to block off the angles; territorially uneven contests like this require the attacking team to play at a high tempo to pull the opposition out of shape, and that won't happen. The most poignant example of the tactical pattern will be Kevin de Bruyne getting suffocated by N'Golo Kante and Jorginho as Chelsea squeeze space between the lines. This points to a pretty tedious affair at Stamford Bridge.
However, Joao Cancelo offers a potential route to victory for the visitors. His unusual positioning as an inverted left-back is difficult to track, and the Portuguese's ability to break the lines in possession may help thread balls into the penalty area – where Sergio Aguero waits for delivery.
Injuries have limited Aguero to just 70 minutes of league football this season but the Argentine returns to the starting line-up on Sunday. His killer instinct may well re-write the story of City's season. After all, they already produce the second most shots per 90 in the division (13.66) and take only slightly fewer touches in the penalty area per 90 (22.28) than Liverpool. Maybe all City are missing is a ruthless goalscorer.
And yet on balance, with Chelsea packing bodies in their own third and Aguero rusty on his return from the treatment table, the most likely outcome remains a dull draw.