Chelsea with the ball
Chelsea’s chief means of creating in this game was to play passes behind Middlesbrough’s backline, usually targeting the spaces found on Middlesbrough’s right. In order to create these opportunities they would draw Middlesbrough to one side before switching to the other.
Possession would begin from deeper positions by Azpilicueta taking the ball forward on the outside of Fabregas to draw Middlesbrough’s central midfielders towards him. Fabregas would either hold his position or slightly drop back (always checking for the position and closing-down threat of Negredo over his shoulder) which would give him space from Middlesbrough’s midfielders and not be rushed from behind. As soon as Fabregas was free, he would get the ball—Chelsea found a lot of space early when Negredo was in a wide position defensively.
From there Fabregas found different solutions depending on what the situation dictated. When Middlesbrough’s backline was higher, he could play passes behind with precision to any of the front five (wing-backs joining at attack). Middlesbrough were especially weak in wide areas as their back four remained narrow to try to control Hazard, Pedro and Costa, which left their wingers having to get back to join the backline to deal with Chelsea’s wing-backs. For example, on Chelsea’s left, Alonso could break away from Traore both on the outside (to cross) and or on the inside (and drive at goal).
When Fabregas received the ball (still in midfield) and Middlesbrough had a deeper block, Hazard, Pedro and Costa could move to offer for the ball to feet. Here is where moving Middlesbrough’s backline came into use, as Middlesbrough maintained numbers centrally and prevented Chelsea’s front players from holding onto the ball when they received it between the lines—one touch passes were the only way they could maintain the ball, as Middlesbrough’s midfielders and backline would surround them with pressure when they held the ball.
Firstly the movements away from the backline to receive the ball, even if they receive the pass, would narrow the backline through one of the defenders stepping out to mark the Chelsea player player, while the rest of the line adjusted and closed to provide cover behind. In addition to that, holding the ball on Chelsea’s right (Hazard was more useful for this role on the right in this game) would draw Middlesbrough over, leaving Fabregas free to receive the ball in the final third and out of pressure. With a narrow backline pushed to the right (and Traore laving Alonso) Fabregas could then play diagonal passes into the box to the left.
The runners were also important here, where they could run off the back of Middlesbrough’s defenders or run inside to open space for the player on the outside (such as Pedro’s narrow position for the early chance for Alonso, where Fabio remained central to mark him). When the runners then received the ball inside the box they had very little time on the ball, so it was important that they took their chances quickly by controlling the ball with their first touch and being ready to shoot quickly on their second.
During the moments where Chelsea moved possession from the left to the right they had another option in Azpilicueta to arrive on the outside of Middlesbrough’s central midfielders to receive the ball as a spare man and look to play the ball into the box. Usually the possession would go to feet of the central midfielders, with Middlesbrough’s central midfielders moving up to press them, allowing Azpilicueta to have open space on the outside to advance into—when he received it too close to the backline Friend could step out to press him.
Controlling Traore’s runs
Since Middlesbrough usually have numbers back to defend, the outlets they use to allow them to take the ball up the pitch and to hold onto possession are important.
Their key outlet for carrying the ball forward in this game was Traore, and to prevent him from being able to isolate players and take them on, Chelsea made sure that both Matic and Cahill were in close support of Alonso when Traore had the ball. In addition, the rest of the Chelsea backline and midfield could adjust their positioning to Traore as the rest of the Middlesbrough players stayed conservative and were behind the ball at all times—when Friend moved forward, Downing dropped back to left back; Fabio limited his forward runs; only on a few occasions were both De Roon and Forshaw around the box at the same time.
Early passes behind and finding Fabregas in space allowed Chelsea to attack Middlesbrough in a way that caused problems and didn’t play into their defensive strengths. Meanwhile, Chelsea had numbers around Traore to prevent him from causing problems, restricting Middlesbrough’s ability to advance up the pitch and create through crosses and balls into the box.