Chelsea control midfield
Chelsea were able to control midfield both with and without the ball throughout the game. They maintained stability with the ball through Kanté and Matić supporting the back three—preventing Middlesbrough from limiting options on the ball, pressing effectively, and causing problems to the rhythm of possession. To create further stability in possession, the wide central defenders would move up to support Matić and Kanté in midfield, while Azpilicueta continued his support into the final third—maintaining options for players on the ball. The higher positioning also aided Chelsea’s pressing (closer distances) if they lost the ball in the final 3rd.
The aggressive defensive play from the back three was consistent and effective throughout the match, both in deep block and during moments when they had just lost the ball. On various occasions David Luiz’s aggressive play allowed him to win the ball 1v1 against Negredo, while he was also dominant in the air inside his own box.
Passes into the front three to combine or dribble with the ball (to draw the opposition towards them centrally) before finding switches wide were vital for creating good opportunities for the wing-backs. Alonso and Moses would often receive the ball freely in these situations, as they were poorly followed by Middlesbrough’s wingers and the fullbacks were often either too far away or drawn into one of the front three.
Moses would use his direct dribbling to either move into the box to shoot, or to cross the ball towards the far-post; while on the left Alonso played more low and hard crosses. While carrying the ball forward, there was also the option to combine with one of the front three on the inside or to play passes behind the fullbacks for Pedro or Hazard. When the ball was crossed in from either side, the opposite wing-back could join the box or recover crosses that bypassed the players in the box—allowing Chelsea to maintain the ball and continue the attack.
When Chelsea could get the ball to the front three early (as well as the wing-backs in high positions) they could often create situations where they were 5v4 against Middlesbrough’s backline. This led to a few opportunities, such as Alonso’s shot inside the box in the second half.
Along with circulation of the ball along the ground Chelsea also possess a more direct approach from midfield. Long passes behind Middlesbrough’s backline (from David Luiz, Cahill, Matić and Kanté) were used, where Hazard and Pedro could move to the wings to either support the high wing-backs for the second ball or to run behind for the initial pass. Passes behind the defence centrally would result in a quick change of attitude of Chelsea’s defensive block upon the second ball, where they would initiate high pressing and continue the pressure onto back passes to Valdes.
During these moments of high pressure Gibson consistently did well, where he could move the ball past the first lines of pressure or make good use of bad situations that he was put in.
Chelsea play through Middlesbrough pressing
Another aspect that allowed Chelsea to obtain control of midfield was their building from the back, where they were able to break Middlesbrough’s pressing and open up spaces in midfield to progress into.
Chelsea utilised short goal kicks to draw Middlesbrough onto them, before playing through the pressure. Initially, Middlesbrough prevented early progression—Forshaw with good pressing when moving onto Kanté’s first-time pass out to Moses.
After this, Courtois took the next goal kick earlier and found Azpilicueta higher up. Ramirez continued to press him where he could block the pass out to Moses; however, from this position Azpilicueta was able to pass to Pedro. As the game went on, Boro’s high pressing wore off due to this lack of success.
Upon receiving the ball in these situations, Pedro could turn and either carry it forward or make forward passes. Costa and Hazard would be positioned centrally (Middlesbrough’s narrow backline to cover the central runners opened spaces out wide) and make runs to threaten the depth behind the defence, along with the free wing-backs (not covered throughout the game) causing problems on either side.
During this situation Fábio remained deeper, as following Pedro closely would either allow him to move the ball out of his line of pressure, or pass first-time out to Moses to carry the ball forward into the space behind Fábio on the wing. Later in the half Pedro did the former of the two options, where he then played the ball out to Alonso—away from pressure.
Middlesbrough play direct with the ball
With the ball Middlesbrough played a direct game. Long balls up to Negredo, moving into midfield, were supported by the three central midfielders, while the two wide players stayed high on the last line.
In these instances, Chelsea were able to control both the first ball (David Luiz winning many headers and being successful in his interceptions) as well as being able to either win the second ball or to avoid being directly exposed from it.
When they did win the second ball, Middlesbrough only found stability in possession through the deep players (the back four and Clayton), who were all outside of the Chelsea defensive block.
Chelsea continued to deal with potential threats in these situations, where they were patient in waiting for Costa to find a good pressing situation (to isolate one of the central defenders in a wide area) and the rest of the team pushed up in order to press aggressively.
The occasions where Middlesbrough were able to break the press were mostly from the fullbacks, where they would play diagonal passes over the top to the central midfield runners going beyond the high positioning of the Chelsea midfielders—although this was a rare occurrence.
Clayton was often left free to play passes, which were often long diagonals wide to players under immediate pressure. Upon losing the ball Middlesbrough would apply pressure from the midfielders, but, once again, Chelsea were able to maintain the ball under pressure before finding free outlets to start an attack.
In the final third Boro could play early balls into the box from the fullbacks (where Ramirez and De Roon would join Negredo in the box during their best moments) while their main threat during the game was Traore dribbling with the ball both on the wing—before an unsuccessful cross to no Middlesbrough player attacking the near-post—and during counter attacks. Additionally Ramirez found space behind Chelsea’s defence during counter attacks in the first half.
Chelsea were able to control the majority of the game comfortably. They created well with the ball, didn’t face problems against Middlesbrough’s direct play and conceded few opportunities. In the moments when Middlesbrough were able to create potentially good situations (passes behind in wide areas, Traore dribbles or crosses) they either made errors with the ball or lacked the last pass to create a good opportunity.