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Chelsea maintain excellent defensive control, create countless chances, yet still only draw with Atletico — tactical analysis

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Chelsea with the ball

Every time Chelsea could get the ball into the final third they created problems with their individual dribbling, width, and close combinations around the box. Atletico had their best defensive moments when they could press the ball in Chelsea’s half, where Chelsea would open up wide and high to play with the ball. When Chelsea played long forward passes into midfield, Atletico could win the second ball and counter attack against an organised block to create chances.

When building from the back from goal kicks, Chelsea would face pressure from Atletico’s front three (Koke, Torres, and Griezmann). The objective of the initial pressure was more to close down space, rush the player on the ball (typically Azpilicueta), and options around the ball—to encourage them to play forward. Upon the forward passes, Atletico’s frontline would be joined by their second line, where Saul and Gabi pressed forward passes aggressively and actively trying to win the ball—since the receivers of the forward passes wouldn’t be facing play upon receiving the ball.

In the following situation, Chelsea managed to break the press by Kante moving off the back of Torres (to open himself up for receiving the ball), then keeping the ball under the secondary pressure from Saul, before finding a ball out to Fàbregas which then gave Chelsea the opportunity to play forward and quickly advance to the final third.

In midfield, both Bakayoko and Fabregas were positioned higher up and between the lines, where they would create space for others (drawing Luis and Thomas towards them) or be open to receive when the wing-backs were higher up.

For example, in the following situation, where Atletico were back and Koke tried to pressure Azpilicueta. Since Fabregas was high up, he pinned Luis back, Moses was in space on the right side, which required Koke to shift over to pressure him upon receiving the ball. A return pass back to Azpilicueta then results in Zappacosta free and in space on the other side, since Thomas had been drawn inside to offer extra support to protect the backline against Bakayoko. Zappacosta found himself in these situations a few times, where he could try to take on the defender (be it Thomas quickly shifting back or Gimenez moving out to close him down), before crossing, playing passes behind (Bakayoko and Morata making runs on the inside of the defender pressuring him), or shooting on goal.

Fabregas was also more selective than usual in dropping back for the ball to face play since Atletico were always trying to close him down and not allow him to open up to play forwards. Since he was more selective, he could find moments to surprise them to receive the ball in space and quickly play long passes behind.

Being higher up while Chelsea were in possession (in either the midfield or the final third) allowed Fabregas to be creative in a different way, through joining the box, combinations in wide areas (especially from throw-ins), or putting crosses into the box from the byline. Moving wide to support also helped in breaking down Atletico’s defence, since they would become more of a 541 when defending deep, where Thomas dropped back to cover the width of the pitch and maintain numbers centrally.

Hazard and Morata continued to cause problems with their combinations playing through pressure and in the final third, leading to a good chance for Morata—where he used Hazard’s run on the inside to draw the defenders away, before turning on the outside and quickly shooting towards the near post. Hazard dribbling past players and holding the ball, before switches (Moses to take on and cross), were further ways of creating.

Transitions

Upon winning the ball, Chelsea relied on Hazard’s combinations with Morata as well as his individual skills (turning upon receiving the ball and dribbling to beat players) to keep the ball and launch dangerous counter attacks. In the opening stages Atletico’s defenders were able to outnumber Hazard and win the ball from him a couple of times, but after that he began beating players on the ball, finding passes to support both centrally from Fabregas and wide to the wing-backs attacking space on the outside, creating chances for himself (after beating multiple opponents), and winning free kicks and corners.

When Chelsea broke down the wings and got behind Atletico’s backline, Savic was always quick to get across as the sweeper to block the initial cross—Chelsea would create through drawing him out to cover later on in the match.

Atletico could begin counters with Griezmann’s wide movements to receive the ball deep and wide, drawing defenders towards him, before finding passes inside to break pressure and open up the pitch. Koke would always be central to receive the ball and either combine or quickly look to play passes forward—in particular, passes behind the last line for Torres running behind on the outside of the last defender. Griezmann could also carry the ball forward quickly and closely when receiving it centrally (as well as playing one-touch passes), opening spaces on the outside as Chelsea’s defenders attempted to close him down and win the ball—but Atletico often made mistakes with the ball when they opened up these opportunities, such as poor touches to give the ball away.

Atletico with the ball

With the ball, Atletico played long from goal kicks to prevent Chelsea from having the opportunity to press them in their own half. Upon playing long from the back, Griezmann would drop for the ball to compete for the header in midfield, while both Luis and Thomas were narrow behind him to provide numbers around the ball to support and press the second ball.

They continued with a narrow approach to pressing the second ball when playing direct from midfield, where Savic, Gabi, and Gimenez could look to find Torres in the air (Koke and Griezmann close support) and flooded the midfield with numbers to pressure Chelsea back into the corners or to Courtois and force him to play long. Here they could win throw-ins high up and continue pressure on the edge of Chelsea’s box to maintain their field position.

Where Atletico struggled was creating with the ball against Chelsea’s deep and narrow defensive block. While Luis provided width on the left and Thomas and an overlapping Gimenez provided width on the right—Griezmann and Koke moving to the sides in support—this only provided a few opportunities to cross the ball into the box, usually after prolonged possession of the ball on the outside of Chelsea’s defensive block—crosses which Chelsea could clear every time.

Central attacks on the floor didn’t create much better chances either, with Griezmann and Koke moving between the lines and closely supporting Torres on the edge of Chelsea’s box but unable to find the right passes. They were often forced into pressuring or recovering a loose ball start another attack all over again. Long shots were also blocked, though one did create an early chance as Atleti recovered the loose ball and Torres quickly shot on goal, winning a corner.

Second half

Chelsea had a fast start to the second half, creating a number of chances through corners as well as Hazard’s move to the left to receive the ball and take on defenders. On the outside, Hazard could take the ball up the line, drawing Savic out, to open more space in the box for crosses; on the inside he could beat the defenders with turns and almost scored from picking the ball up in midfield.

During Chelsea’s good moment, Atletico created their best opportunities through corner and from winning the ball from Chelsea’s possession (after opening up) inside Chelsea’s half.

Their first good chance came from Moses playing the around-the-corner pass up to Morata, where Chelsea had numbers forward to attack in Atletico’s half. But on this occasion the ball bounces back into Chelsea’s half, where Koke does excellently to hold Kante away from himself with his body position, before finding Luis to start the counter attack. From there, Atletico have numbers to attack quickly and create the chance for Luis’ shot against the post and Saul’s rebound.

Following that, possession in open play from the back gave Atletico a good opportunity to press high—especially as Chelsea’s organisation was different than in the first half. Fabregas was deep in midfield, while Luis pushed up to press Moses (instead of being pinned back by Fabregas) and Lucas stayed tight to Hazard. In doing so, Saul was now free and didn’t need to cover two players as he did from Chelsea’s short goal kicks. Instead, he could double up on Fabregas with Gabi to win the ball in the middle—which led to them winning the corner from which they scored.

For the goal, Torres nudged Zappacosta away (Alonso may have made a difference) before quickly attacking ahead of the near post to win the flick on—he was great at winning these headers at Chelsea, too. Saul got around the back of Bakayoko, who didn’t have hands on Saul to know where he was moving (while watching the ball at the same time), and to hold him back slightly and either delay him from getting to the ball or at least allow himself a chance to compete for the ball. Instead Saul could run freely off the back and have a free header to score.

Reaction

Chelsea reacted to conceding by making changes similar to the Liverpool game, where Conte gradually introduced more attacking players onto the pitch one at a time—to not open up too much too early in the game.

Pedro was the first change, as Chelsea continued to attack on the left and could make use of his dribbling to beat the defenders on the outside, dribble into the box, and put crosses in.

Quick corners produced more chances for Chelsea, as well as Hazard dropping to receive the ball deeper on the left, before switching to Moses to go past multiple defenders and put the ball into the box for Pedro’s flick.

Willian’s introduction moved Pedro to left wing-back, with Willian playing centrally. They could continue the attacks on the left with another attacking player, hold the ball to draw Atletico over to the left before switching to the right (creating the chance for Azpilicueta’s cross to Morata), and, since they had more attacking players on the pitch, pressure Atletico high in the left corner to retain possession in Atletico’s half.

After Chelsea equalised, Atletico made their own attacking changes. Thomas moved to right back in a back four, Correa joined on the right, Carrasco moved to the left, with Griezmann and Vietto as the two strikers and Koke and Saul as the two central midfielders. They attempted to press with intensity as much as they could, but this only opened space for Chelsea to bypass their pressure and create more problems on the left, where they could beat Thomas and draw Savic out 1v1 with Hazard to create space in the box for Willian’s chance—Moses was also always in space at the far post. Batshuayi was Chelsea’s final change, and he was great at receiving and laying off the ball from his chest.

Conclusion

Chelsea maintained excellent control defensively throughout the game, where only losing the ball against pressure and mistakes from a defensive corner gave away chances and a goal. Chelsea were always dangerous when they had the ball to create chances through dribbling, combinations, counters, and corners—and in the second half, they missed countless chances to win the game.