Sunderland’s deep defending
Similar to Chelsea’s last game, against West Brom, Sunderland set up to defend from deep and to try to disturb Chelsea’s possession.
Like West Brom, Sunderland found their own way of making a six-man backline. Van Aanholt followed Moses on the left, Jones, as the other wing-back, played more narrow to pressure Pedro, while Januzaj moved back to cover the right in the first half—Borini in the second.
Since Jones was pressuring Pedro, and Djilobodji marking Willian, they were able to have a spare man centrally. O’Shea was mostly responsible for marking Costa centrally and pressuring him from behind—when when he went too far away from the backline they would pass him over to one of the two central midfielders. When Costa went towards the right, he would then be marked by Kone, while the spare man would be dictated by the positioning of Willian and Moses.
To aid the pressure from behind when Chelsea were able to get a pass to one of the front three, there was additional pressure from Sunderland’s central midfielders. This clustering of players around the ball, along with the cover in wide areas and numbers behind the ball, made it tough for Chelsea’s front three to create many chances after drawing players towards them.
When Chelsea were able to find space in wide areas, it was difficult to create from crosses. With Sunderland’s spare man and the number of players they were able to get back into the box quickly, they were able to clear most crosses that went into the box.
From the situation in the following image, Januzaj gets caught between not being able to block the pass and being too far away from Alonso to pressure him. Alonso was able to find these spaces on a few occasions in the first half.
In midfield, Chelsea could generally maintain the ball without constant pressure. When Sunderland were able to apply some initial pressure on the ball, they would become more aggressive and push up more.
Borini was often intense in his defending or covering centrally—like when Kirchhoff would shuffle across to pressure the advancing Azpilicueta or Willian moving deep for the ball. Borini’s central positioning would allow him to be closer to Defoe for counters when Sunderland won the ball, but he had few opportunities to do this in the first half. After Borini and Januzaj switched roles at half time, Borini was much better in positioning to prevent Alonso having free space to move into, while Januzaj showed great ability to hold onto the ball and in his movements in the final third to create chances—such as the 1v1 he had at the start of the second half. Januzaj seemed much more comfortable in his defensive contribution from the left as well, where he had some good moments of individual pressing to force Chelsea backwards.
On goal kicks, Sunderland matched Chelsea’s positioning over the whole field. The wing-backs could give themselves some distance from Chelsea’s wing-backs in these situations to allow them to not be in a standing position when competing in the air for the long balls.
Unlike in previous games where Courtois would pass short for the backline to have the ball under pressure before playing long, he chose to go long from most of these situations. It created good opportunities for Alonso to head the ball onto Pedro, moving into the space behind.
The best opportunities Chelsea were able create in the game usually came after winning the ball—either in open play or defensive set pieces.
Sunderland’s long play from the back created some opportunities for both Chelsea and Sunderland upon winning the second ball. They would play long to Kirchhoff, advancing on the left, or Jones on the right. During goal kicks Sunderland were most successful at winning the second ball and attacking quickly. Pickford also tried to play long quickly when he won the ball from corners, up to Defoe, but Chelsea were excellent at controlling these situations to both win the ball and have enough numbers around it to prevent Sunderland from pressing them.
When Chelsea were able to prevent Sunderland from advancing with the ball from midfield, and forced them back, they applied pressure on Pickford and looked to win the second ball. As the back-passes were rushed by pressure from Costa, and the outfield players didn’t have enough time to organise themselves, Sunderland’s setup to compete for the long ball and the second ball wasn’t as organised as when they played long from goal kicks. As a result, Chelsea’s goal came from one of these situations, where they were able to win the second ball and face a disorganised defensive block with the ball.
If Sunderland’s defenders were able to move forward with the ball from midfield, they often mis-controlled the ball or played poor passes. When winning the ball from these deep areas, Chelsea reacted quickly to find the front three in different ways. They could find them to feet for them to turn quickly and run at Sunderland’s backline, or they could use Cesc to play one of his trademark long passes behind the defence for Costa. On many occasions Sunderland were saved by their backline, where they were able to either block the last pass behind the defence or outnumber Chelsea’s attackers to delay the attack.
Counters from defensive set pieces were an additional area where Chelsea were able to create chances. Willian made movements to the right, Pedro to the left to give early forward passing options. Kante carried the ball forward quickly on a couple of occasions, while Moses, Alonso, Costa and Cesc were all quick to break from the box.
The changes made in the second half gave Chelsea fewer offensive options with the ball, but the extra height was important to deal with defensive set pieces towards the end of the game. Although Chelsea were unable to finish off the game with a second goal, they, most importantly, managed to see the game out—aided by two excellent saves from Courtois.