Stoke’s defensive organisation
Similar to the previous game, against Manchester United, Chelsea faced another team which used: wingers starting in deep positions to follow the wing-backs, a front two shifting to the sides to press Chelsea’s back three, and central midfielders pushing up to pressure Chelsea’s central midfielders during deep possession.
During possession in their own half, Chelsea continued with their 5-v-4 overload, where they would invite pressure by passing side-to-side before finding Azpilicueta as the spare man. Stoke used curved runs from the front two to block the ball back inside to Luiz when pressing the wide central defenders on the ball, while the central midfielders shifted over.
From the following situation early on, Chelsea continue to hold possession on the left before Cahill finds Azpilicueta through a long switch. Azpilicueta could then advance with the ball, draw Allen towards him, and find Kante out of pressure—where, facing play, he attempted to play a pass behind the defence for Costa.
When Stoke’s pressure was more successful, they’d force Chelsea back to Courtois or the ball out for a throw-in.
When the ball was passed back to Courtois, and pressure was continued onto him, Stoke were able to force him to play long on a couple of situations. But the numerical advantage Chelsea had in their own half often allowed Courtois to find options for a short pass—allowing Chelsea to maintain the ball and break pressure.
If the ball went out for a throw-in deep in Chelsea half, Stoke marked Chelsea’s players around the ball in order to compete.
While switching side-to-side allowed Chelsea to bypass the front line of pressure, Stoke’s numerical advantage and aggressive and tight pressure at the back prevented Chelsea from continuing forward with the ball. With the wingers sitting deep, Stoke could defend the width of the pitch to prevent further switches to the wing-backs, while a 4-v-3 centrally (Stoke’s fullbacks usually marking Willian and Pedro, Costa between both central defenders) allowed them to press the ball aggressively with a spare man as cover if they were moved past with the ball. When Chelsea’s front players were unable to beat their man upon receiving the ball, they were forced to delay the attacks, allowing Stoke’s central midfielders to get back and behind the ball, thus forcing a pass back just to maintain possession.
Even with Stoke’s numerical advantage, Chelsea were able to cause some problems through long play, especially in moments where they could draw Stoke’s fullbacks away from the backline (with both Pedro and Willian moving deep for the ball) before playing long to Costa to compete for the ball (2-v-1). When the first ball wasn’t won by Stoke’s defenders, and was allowed to bounce, Costa was often able to box out one of the defenders and win the ball.
Stoke with the ball
With the ball, Stoke’s wingers tended to move inside, with the fullbacks moving up on the outside and the central midfielders remaining behind the ball. Possession was usually maintained by circulating the ball between the central defenders, fullbacks and central midfielders at the back. Neither of these movements were threatening.
The most success they had was when they attacked up the wings instead, keeping Arnautovic and Sobhi in wide positions and using them to take on Chelsea’s defenders before playing the ball in and around the box. Additionally, especially after their goal, they were successful in creating pressure moments with long balls from the back while playing at a quick rhythm. The tempo they were able to impose on the game during these moments caused Chelsea to begin making errors in possession when they were able to regain the ball, allowing Stoke to continue their momentum.
When trying to attack centrally, Stoke created problems at both ends for themselves, which included conceding the free kick for Willian’s goal. With the fullbacks moving up and the wingers moving inside, their backline opened up. Chelsea pressed their front players aggressively on passes to feet, forcing Stoke’s defenders and midfielders to rush their possession and attempt long balls behind Chelsea’s central defenders for the front two instead. Regardless of which route they took, when they lost the ball, they didn’t have the same control through the numerical advantage at the back as they did normally.
The following situation is the buildup before Chelsea’s first goal, after Chelsea won the ball. Allen is in a wider position to support Sobhi, which gives Kante time and space on the ball to turn and find the forward pass to Costa. With Indi pressuring aggressively from behind, Costa receives the ball on the inside of his left foot and facing the outside. He then moves his body across to the left—so the ball is to the right of him—before using the outside of his outside of his right foot to turn and move out of the line of pressure. As Arnautovic had a high and narrow position when Stoke had the ball, he is now out of position. While he is able to recover quickly enough to catch up with Alonso, he ends up giving away a foul. Pedro’s movement inside, with Bardsley closely marking him, created extra space for Alonso.
Stopping Stoke counters were another area where Chelsea had good success. David Luiz was key, anticipating well to either tackle or to intercept early passes forward. After a loss of possession, applying pressure in midfield usually allowed Chelsea to win back the ball quickly, while always maintaining a numerical advantage at the back was sufficient enough to delay counter attacks where they were unable to do so.
Switch to 4231
Chelsea were able to create more situations where Alonso was able to get behind Arnautovic and overload on the last line—through both counters or building from deep—but were unable to convert the chances into goals.
Upon the introduction of Fàbregas, Chelsea switched to a 4231. This switched the focus to a more attacking approach, sacrificing Chelsea’s numerical advantage at the back for more players in higher positions to try to prevent Stoke from having their own a numerical advantage at the back. Cesc would move freely between deeper midfield and higher areas to support, which created situations such as the following, where Chelsea were able to match Stoke numerically and prevent them from having a spare man as cover.
After the next change brought on Loftus-Cheek for Matic, Cesc dropped deeper into the midfield two, but both he and Chelsea continued to attack and finally scored the winning goal—where the final change (Zouma for Willian) was made to go back to a 343.
For most of the match, Chelsea prevented Stoke from creating too many chances, while their own possession game was able to cause Stoke problems when they were able to play through the high pressure. The change of formation allowed Chelsea to nullify Stoke’s cover at the back; then the switch back to the normal 343 formation after scoring allowed Chelsea to defend with numbers behind the ball and look for opportunities to counter.