Chelsea were unable to score a goal for the third consecutive match, setting a remarkable record of a third straight 0-0 draw in all competitions. Unlike previous efforts, there was no mistaking this one — a terrible overall performance, even after Leicester were reduced to ten men halfway through the second-half.
Given Leicester City’s counter-attacking prowess and Chelsea’s recent goalscoring troubles, most expected Antonio Conte to revert to last year’s tried and true 3-4-3 setup instead of the 3-5-2 favored lately. But the Chelsea head coach kept faith in the latter, with only minor changes from the goalless draw midweek. Gary Cahill was restored, though in place of Christensen in the middle instead of Rüdiger on the left side of the defensive line, while Tiemoué Bakayoko rotated in for Danny Drinkwater, who had started both of the previous games in the week.
For the visitors, Claude Puel had his charges line up in the familiar 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 from their title-winning season under Claudio Ranieri two years ago, with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez taking central attacking roles once again — and perhaps for one of the last times, with transfer rumors intensifying around Mahrez once again.
Despite being the visitors and expected to sit back, today, they were the ones who got off to a much better start, putting pressure on the Chelsea backline straight away, utilizing the tremendous work-rates of their centre-forwards Vardy and Shinji Okazaki. Chelsea’s reaction to this was the worst one possible, and our constant giveaway and turnovers repeatedly invited Leicester further and further into our defensive third.
The absence of assured passer Christensen (or David Luiz) was quite telling already, with Cahill and Rüdiger taking it in turns to give the ball away in new, creative, and chaotic ways. It didn’t help that the entire defensive unit, centre back and centre midfielders all, were letting Mahrez slice through them like hot knife through butter. In fact, Leicester’s initial plan of pumping long balls up to their forwards soon changed into quality interplay, possession, and chance-creation, with Mahrez, of course, pulling most of the strings. The Foxes could have scored two or three goals, easy, if only they had managed to get more than 1 of their 12 shots — an Abramovich Era record for shots conceded in a half — on target in the first-half.
Meanwhile, Chelsea were trending in the opposite direction, seemingly intent on missing passes, challenges and first touches at every opportunity.
The Blues were getting exposed all over the pitch, with the three-man midfield finding new ways to be ineffective — Kanté committing fouls, Fàbregas forgetting how to pass the ball, Bakayoko practically disappearing under the searing floodlights — and the attacking duo isolating themselves from the rest of the team as well as each other. Chelsea’s usually smooth, silky, and technically superb passing and interplay was nowhere to be found, except for a half-chance created in the first minute of the half and a solo effort by Morata a full 30 minutes later.
As it often happens to teams pressing relentlessly, Leicester had to reduce their intensity and save their stamina as the half wore on, but even then, Chelsea were unable to take advantage of the space afforded and the visitors maintained control of the game.
Cahill’s untimely exit due to an apparent hamstring injury, and the subsequent introduction of Christensen in the 33rd minute improved our passing from the back, but it was far from enough to change the tune of the game. Chelsea remained terrible as a unit. Only in the final five minutes of the half, after Leicester created two or three more clear chances to score the opener, did the Blues finally register a decent shot, but Kasper Schmeichel easily saved Fàbregas’s long-range effort.
In line with the way the rest of the match was going, Chelsea’s usual second-half improvement was another aspect missing entirely from the defending champions’ game.
We’ve gotten used to Chelsea taking the initiative after half-time even on days the first half effort had been lacking, but this time, the opposite was taking place. Leicester were back on the front foot, pressing intensely, and cruising towards what seemed like an inevitably opening goal.
At times in the first 10 minutes of the second half, the visitors looked more like Manchester City than Leicester City — Wilfred Ndidi doing a very good Fernandinho impression in the center of the pitch — stringing passes effortlessly, winning the ball back immediately, and moving through Chelsea’s lines seamlessly.
In perhaps the most telling sign of the depths Chelsea’s game had sunk to, Conte used his remaining two substitutions just before the hour-mark — he usually waits until 75’ for the first sub! — in a double-switch that saw Eden Hazard and Cesc Fàbregas depart and Pedro and Willian enter the fray. Safe to say this is something rarely, if ever seen at Stamford Bridge, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Conte was wrong. Both of Chelsea’s two most important creative players had bad days at the office, to say the least.
The substitutions injected some much-needed tempo, endeavor, and impetus into Chelsea’s attack, and it looked like we might actually snap out of the malaise, put the pressure on the visitors, find a goal, and change the developing scoreless narrative. Leicester started to entrench themselves deeper and deeper around their own penalty area, while increasing the strength and intensity of their tackling. The latter led to a yellow card for Okazaki, and then consecutive bookings for left back Ben Chilwell who until then had been combining quite well with Marc Albrighton on the left flank. Chilwell “did not see Moses” and “didn’t mean it” of course, but there was little doubt about his second yellow.
Having Leicester reduced to ten men should have been the turning point of the match for Chelsea. Instead, what we saw was basically just a continuation of what had taken place in the first 70 minutes, with Willian and Pedro getting in sync with the team’s lackadaisical rhythm rather than the other way around and the rest of the team coming up to their levels.
Leicester dropped as deep as they could after the red card, leaving Chelsea plenty of space in midfield but denying any space in the area. Chelsea made it easy for them with no proper plan about how to tackle this new advantage — ironically, the two players who might have benefitted the most from the changed game situation, Cesc and Eden, had already been withdrawn.
A few token efforts from range was all Chelsea could muster, and even when Willian won a free kick in a highly promising position, Marcos Alonso’s shot was not good enough to beat the goalkeeper. One of those days, and then some.
Technically, Chelsea finished the match with seven-times as many shots on target as Leicester (7-to-1), but created barely half of Leicester’s quality chances (0.66 xG vs. 1.28 xG). The only team to put in anywhere near a winning shift in this one were the visitors, and unlike the previous draws in this streak, when Chelsea had the upper hand and just failed to finish chances, this time Chelsea were throughly outplayed. The former may not have been concerning yet; the latter is certainly an alarming sight.
Plenty of questions in need of answer for Conte and his coaching staff after this one...
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