Chelsea's 3-4-3 wins Antonio Conte's tactical duel with Pep Guardiola
Paul Hassall was at the Etihad Stadium to see Chelsea lay down the gauntlet in the title race and provide proof that their new formation is the real deal.
The notion that no system is perfect has proven credibility in science and politics - but try telling Chelsea fans that right now.
The Blues notched up an eighth win on the bounce at the home of one of their major title rivals to pass an acid test of their much lauded 3-4-3 system.
It says much about Antonio Conte's standing as one of the game's most astute tacticians. The Italian had endured some concerning teething problems in the early stages of his Stamford Bridge tenure and candidly admitted he needed to find solutions to his team's problems in the aftermath of their 3-0 humbling at Arsenal on September 24.
“The pitch is the truth," he said. "It is the most important thing for us, not the words and not the paper."
How right he was. The Blues have been almost flawless since the change of formation he opted for following the post-mortem at the Emirates, scoring 22 and conceding just two in the ensuing eight league matches.
The turnaround hasn't been achieved against lesser lights either. Chelsea have demolished Manchester United and Everton as well as beating Tottenham in that time. But this was the big test according to Conte in his pre-match press conference.
City had not lost at the Etihad since March and Chelsea had been beaten in their previous meetings with two potential title rivals in the shape of Arsenal and Liverpool, prior to Conte's tactical switch.
Manchester City's Pep Guardiola shakes hands with Chelsea's Antonio ConteReuters
It was also a battle that saw him go toe-to-toe with a fellow super coach in Pep Guardiola. The Spaniard looked to match Conte's line-up like-for-like, but it again felt like the former Bayern Munich coach was trying to make up for the defensive deficiencies within his own ranks, more than a tactical masterstroke that would outmanoeuvre Chelsea.
It didn't pay off and although Guardiola insisted the defence wasn't the reason they lost this clash, they have now managed just two clean sheets in their last 17 league matches.
On another day, City's firepower may have moved them out of sight prior to the visitors' comeback from 1-0 down, but it was clear Guardiola still has some work to do to fine-tune them into the side someone with his all-conquering CV demands. It's obvious the Spaniard is still unsure about his best XI given he has made a league-high 46 changes to it.
In contrast, the 3-4-3 system suits Chelsea's personnel and stands them out amongst the pacesetters at present. They all know their roles and it gets the best out of their stars. The triumvirate of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa have flourished under Conte's tutelage and the Blues boss has stuck with a winning formula, naming the same line-up in six of the previous seven matches.
Chelsea's Eden Hazard celebrates scoring against Manchester CityReuters
He made just the one enforced change at the Etihad with Cesc Fabregas coming in for only his second Premier League start of the season. The midfielder cut a forlorn figure in the 3-0 loss at Arsenal, but his impressive performance here was symbolic of Chelsea's rise since the change of tactics. It was his sumptuous pass that picked out Diego Costa to equalise and his impact will not have been lost on Guardiola, who signed him during his time in charge of Barcelona.
The Costa-Fabregas link-up was key in Chelsea's title success two years ago and could yet have a role this season after a spell in the shadows.
The Blues will now head into a packed December fixture list top of the table and with an emboldened belief that they are on the right path. They face a run of very winnable fixtures against West Brom, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City prior to the turn of the year.
It's highly conceivable they will still be top of the pile heading into 2017 and, while there will come a time when their new system falls shy of being perfect, Conte and co will be quietly confident they have found the formula for Premier League glory.
Chelsea's Antonio Conte celebrates a goal against Manchester CityReuters