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Tactical analysis: Chelsea have trouble handling Roma press; can’t build from back; 343 better than 352

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Familiar refrains

Roma pressing

Roma’s pressing in Chelsea’s half, both in open play and from goal kicks, caused problems for Chelsea building their possession. The pressing itself wasn’t highly aggressive—the goal wasn’t to take the ball, but to delay and prevent early passes, block forward options, and force backwards passes often straight back to Courtois.

Courtois’ 51 touches, third highest on the team
WhoScored chalkboard

Chelsea looked to start primarily on the right-hand side, through Azpilicueta. Roma’s left winger, Perotti would position himself by Zappacosta at first, leaving Azpilicueta open for the first pass. Upon Azpi receiving the ball, Perotti would pressure from the outside, leaving Zappacosta free but also preventing the pass to Zappacosta.

With the pass on the outside eliminated, Azpilicueta’s options on the inside were dangerous. Fabregas could move up to the wing (to Kolarov) freeing Zappacosta and allowing the other two central midfielders to move across and act as they would in building with 343—but Strootman and Nainggolan would cover them effectively, while Gerson and Dzeko covered the other two central defenders.

The third forward passing option for Azpilicueta would be the front two, but this was again difficult due to the distance of the pass and Strootman being in position to intercept. Gonalons was supporting Roma’s central midfielders from behind, where he was ready to intercept or pressure any pass to Hazard; further ahead, Morata was up against both central defenders and only on a few occasions was he able to find Fabregas on the wing.

If Azpilicueta played back to Courtois, Dzeko would move up to pressure him (blocking the pass out to Christensen at the same time). With options covered on his right, Courtois’ choices included ground passes into pressure, long diagonals to Alonso in the air, or long to Morata or Bakayoko when under less pressure. The problem with playing these passes was that even if completed, the team was not in position to win the second ball, unless they quickly shifted over from the right.

Chelsea tried a few variations to try to find solutions. Fabregas moving to David Luiz’s position allowed him to be more involved and utilize his close control and consistent one-touch passing out to the free Zappacosta.

Christensen moving up and David Luiz dropping back also was another way to try to break the pressure. Fabregas would slide out to wing-back and Zappacosta higher up the wing (switching from previous attempts to play out), allowing Chelsea to find Christensen facing play with the ball. In the following example however Christensen didn’t anticipate Strootman moving over to Fabregas (both Strootman and Nainggolan would shift over after the first forward pass) and the ball ended up going back to Courtois anyway.

In the second half Chelsea created another situation where Christensen received the ball moving forward. This time he played forward to Morata instead, and only a foul prevented a break with Zappacosta making the run after Morata’s layoff back to Christensen.

Roma possession

Without being able to build their own game, Chelsea found themselves out of possession for large portions of the game. They were able to cause some problems in pressing and recovering the ball in midfield, which allowed them to launch quality counter attacks, but, for the most part, Roma’s width in possession made it difficult to push up and out and press them consistently or effectively.

Chelsea’s press was most effective when they could move over to one side of the field and prevent Roma from playing back or switching to find free players on the other side. By blocking these options, Chelsea could force them into situations where they played forward passes into direct pressure, especially from the wing-backs pushing up.

Roma found success in possession by maintaining their distance from Chelsea’s frontline, using the full width of the pitch, and playing passes back to the player that had just been pressed (as the player pressing him would drop back after pressing) to find spaces to play forward with the ball.

Roma made excellent use of layoffs when advancing with the ball, with all of Dzeko, Nainggolan, and Strootman available between the lines for forward passes or holdup play.

In the final third, Perotti caused problems when he moved centrally to receive and dribble with the ball. Strootman and Dzeko could coordinate their movements to create space for Perotti to turn and shoot (Dzeko running behind Azpilicueta and Strootman moving wider on the left); or Perotti could beat the wide defender to put crosses into the box; or he could freeze the defence by holding the ball and finding the overlap from Kolarov with precise timing and weight on the pass.

When Roma won the ball in Chelsea’s half, they continued to find passes wide, but they would also switch from one side to the other—always with a man on the outside of Chelsea’s back three. Because these situations were results of turnovers, Chelsea’s wing-backs would be up and unable to recover in time due to the speed of the attacks. An example of this was Strootman finding Nainggolan wide of Cahill for his saved shot.

Chelsea switch to 343

David Luiz was as aggressive and intense in his pressing in midfield as he usually is from centre back, and he was able to win the ball on a few occasions. However, maintaining such intensity in pressing and positioning is difficult (especially with Roma switching sides, forcing Chelsea’s central midfield line to constantly shift side to side), and Luiz began to commit fouls. Additionally, the calf injury made it even more difficult to sustain the effort. As a result, he was replaced by Pedro early on in the second half, and Chelsea switched to a 343.

(Ed.note: Conte would later pinpoint his own decision to start in the 352 instead of the more proactive 343 as one of the key reasons for the subpar result.)

Chelsea had greater stability on the wings when defending deep after the change, with better cover from the four midfielders and utilizing Pedro’s speed to block the passing lanes on the inside, but the extra cover on the wings came at the cost of the middle. When Chelsea were deep, Roma could easily outnumber Morata in midfield and find time and space on the ball—a situation that lead to the first Dzeko goal as Fazio had an eon to pick his pass. Space could also be found behind the central midfielders, with Strootman and Nainggolan moving behind them and Perotti moving inside from the wing—creating the opportunity for Dzeko’s header.

With the ball, the third attacked proved crucial for Chelsea as another option to carry the ball towards defenders, play passes behind, make runs behind, support wide areas, and put crosses into the box. Having both Pedro and Hazard as receivers on either side also allowed more stability in Chelsea’s building—they could receive forward passes, hold the ball, and play combinations.

Towards the end of the game, and with Chelsea trying to create with the ball, Roma subbed on Pellegrini, whose pressing and closing down of Fabregas cut off the opportunities he normally has to receive the ball in midfield, facing play and out of pressure, and play long passes behind the defence. Pellegrini’s pressing restricted Fabregas to receiving the ball side on and playing forward first-time. On the one occasion when Fabregas found space in midfield, Roma were deep as a team to control the space behind instead.

Conclusion

Roma’s pressing hurt Chelsea’s natural game and restricted them to defending for long periods and relying on counters to create chances. The quality of the Hazard-Morata front two, with support from behind, did allow Chelsea to create quality chances on the counter, and even score, but their attempts to pressure Roma weren’t always successful and left them open for quick attacks. Courtois had to make a number of crucial saves.

Chelsea’s switch to 343 in the second half allowed them to press more effectively in Roma’s half, provided more creativity with the ball, and allowed them to defend the width with more stability; but, it gave Roma more space centrally to overload in midfield and play long passes (ed.note: miss you, N’Golo...).