By scoring early in the game, Chelsea prevented Stoke from being able to dictate the state of the match early on. When Stoke are able to create the state of match they want, their momentum can be difficult to stop. Playing direct, forcing Chelsea to clear the ball or find Morata isolated against two defenders, sustaining pressure around Chelsea’s box, and the crowd creating an intense atmosphere—they would be able to build such a state later on in the game, but the lead Chelsea were able to build helped them manage these moments.
Chelsea scored the opening goal through the typical Azpilicueta to Morata pass—this time from a deeper position than usual. Morata made his movement between the two defenders; Martins Indi was in a high position and Johnson conceded some depth, which Morata used to remain onside. His first touch then slowed the ball down enough to open his body and shoot quickly—preventing Martins Indi from having the chance to recover his position.
With the ball Stoke had some good offensive options. Allen could make runs behind Chelsea’s midfield and into the box with good timing to get into shooting positions; Diouf could get into the box and use his speed to make runs inside; Jese and Choupo-Moting could move freely and switch positions, as well as find space in the box to shoot; Ramadan could take on his man (though he always did this on the outside and Moses could thus anticipate them); and Shaqiri could always find space moving across the field to make passes behind the defence or to dribble with the ball or to shoot.
Whenever Chelsea created the opportunities to play the final pass behind the defence (through their passing patterns or counters) they kept failing to find the runner. Kante’s two passes, over the top, to Pedro were close; Willian had a few opportunities to play through after carrying the ball or after combining with others, but couldn’t find the open line. With Chelsea unable to find ways to either keep the ball or make the accurate pass in-behind, the game became stretched.
Stoke would target the wings after Chelsea lost the ball through their passing combinations, since Pedro and Willian were high and narrow and the wing-backs had pushed up as well. Stoke could thus get the ball around Chelsea’s box often, pushing Chelsea back into their own box, which forced Chelsea into unceremonious clearances and blocks to stop their attacks. Additionally, it meant that Willian and Pedro had to cover large distances to get back, before trying to counter (carry the ball forward, dribble past players, or make long runs off the ball), or support Morata chasing down clearances.
Long balls behind the defence to Morata (running into wide areas) had some success, but he’d receive the ball against multiple opponents and he’d do well just to hold the ball up and find a teammate, let alone create any actual danger. Direct to Morata’s head was another situation where Chelsea had some success, but that again required a lot of energy from Pedro and Willian. If Stoke were able to win the second ball in these moments, Pedro and Willian would move up to press (making up a lot of ground), but Stoke often had enough players around the ball to evade their pressure and attack down the sides again—now with more space since Pedro and Willian were up and unable to recover.
Second half changes
Conte’s first substitution nullified the risk of Alonso getting a second yellow. At the same time it moved Azpilicueta out to left wing-back, replaced by Cahill in the middle, which meant that Chelsea had the extra strength in the air to compete with the imminent arrival of Peter Crouch—making early jumps to win the ball ahead of him, or holding him back, when tight in the box, to prevent him getting to the ball.
Bringing Crouch on when Stoke have momentum, controlling the balls to Crouch (in the air) inside the box can cause real problems for any defence, so having both of Chelsea’s tallest and strongest heading defenders was critical to manage this moment. Having a goalkeeper who can comfortably go out and claim crosses as well as Courtois can was another great help in controlling the danger posed by Crouch in the air during set plays.
The next two changes would switch Chelsea’s formation to a 352—Fabregas moving back when Hazard was brought on. Hazard was excellent at maintaining possession and moving freely to support the player on the ball—in a front two he didn’t need to cover as much distance to track back as Willian and Pedro had to while in a front three in the first half. From the deeper position, Fabregas was able to have the ball centrally and facing play in Stoke’s half, where, after circulating possession in Stoke’s half, he could play passes behind the defence with precision to create the chances to extend the lead—such as the pass for Azpilicueta for Chelsea’s fourth goal. In bringing these qualities onto the field Chelsea were able to take advantage of some of the situations they also created but couldn’t take advantage of in the first half, namely holding the ball in high areas to maintain attacks, before finding accurate passes behind the defence.
A good result against a side that had already beaten Arsenal and drawn against Manchester United—albeit without the same defensive problems. When Stoke began causing Chelsea problems in the second half, the quality of changes Chelsea were able to bring on from the bench allowed them to stretch their lead and kill off the game instead.