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Chelsea’s quick, aggressive start key to nullifying Stoke City’s defensive match plan

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Chelsea’s quick start

In addition to dealing with injuries and Kurt Zouma’s ineligibility, Stoke made a number of changes to their starting lineup in order to prioritise their efforts for their next match instead, against Newcastle two days later (UPDATE: it didn’t work, since they lost that as well). With this in mind, their plan was to play defensive, stay in the game as long as possible, and frustrate Chelsea. This was however quickly crushed by Chelsea’s quick and aggressive start to the game and scoring in the opening minutes of the game.

Stoke would retreat to defend their final third and box, with the wingers dropping to join the backline and staying goal-side of Chelsea’s wing-backs, which allowed the back four to remain narrow to protect against Chelsea creating numerical equality upon forward passes (4 defenders vs. 3 forwards).

With the wingers deep to cover the width of the pitch, the three central midfielders would try to apply pressure as Chelsea entered the final third, but there were still spaces on the outside for Pedro and Willian to drop wide of the central midfielders to collect the ball in space—not followed by the fullbacks and wingers pinned back—and then look to either play forward passes or carry the ball forward and dribble with the ball.

Through switches, Chelsea could create direct 1v1’s on the wings with their wing-backs up against Stoke’s wingers, which Moses took advantage of to win the free kick early on that Chelsea converted into the game’s first goal.

After scoring, Chelsea continued to try to create to quickly score the second, which saw Azpilicueta getting into positions to put the ball into the box for Morata, Alonso playing in the middle (and in the box for crosses), and Pedro (or Willian when they switched sides) moving wide to the left to provide Chelsea with dribblers on both wings to take advantage of any 1v1 situations.

Passes between lines would be met with pressure, but Chelsea’s front three could either dribble through this or play around with combinations to create chances around the edge of the box, or to open spaces wide for the wing-backs. Furthermore, Drinkwater provided a good mixture of short passes (patience to wait for the right moment to create) and long passes behind the defence to offer variation to Chelsea’s possession game—diagonals to the wing-backs in the first half, and some passes behind for Pedro and Morata in the second half.

Stoke with the ball

With the ball, Stoke had a couple of counter attacking threats to go along with the occasional ability to keep the ball among their midfielders and defenders when they could prevent Chelsea from pressuring them high up.

Their direct play caused Chelsea the most problems, particularly after winning the ball from Chelsea attempting passes into the middle, where Adam could play long passes with precision behind Chelsea’s defence for Diouf and Berahino making runs to take advantage of their mobility. They created chances to score from such attacks both in the first and second half, but were unable finish any of them.

They played long from goal kicks to the right, where Diouf and Berahino would move to compete for the first ball. When they could play the ball into Chelsea’s half and have numbers forward they would attempt to press high around the ball, but this was mostly beaten with Chelsea’s numbers to find solutions.

If Stoke couldn’t play long or direct with attempted counters, they would often lose the ball. Since Diouf and Ramadan would quickly move forward to try to provide support during these counters, Stoke were left weaker at the back to defend if Chelsea used their numerical advantage to regain the ball and quickly attacke.

Stoke did have a few moments when they were able to keep the ball among their midfield three and back four, where Chelsea failed to match them with pressure and numbers, or force them to play forward into pressure. In Chelsea’s attempts to push up in wide areas to win the ball, they opened themselves up a little, such as Diouf finding space on the outside of Chelsea’s back three when Alonso pushed up to press, but Stoke would typically only circulate the ball outside Chelsea’s defensive block.

Since Chelsea were defending from midfield, when they won the ball they could attack quickly with space to exploit ahead of them. Through counters they created some clear cut chances, but their finishing let them down and kept them from increasing their lead even further.

Conclusion

Chelsea’s quick start to the match was important to prevent Stoke from frustrating them through their defensive approach. By having such a quick start to the game, Chelsea created a number of chances, took a 3-0 lead inside of 25 minutes and effectively killed the game well before halftime.

Pedro and Willian both caused problems when receiving deep and on the outside of Stoke’s central midfielders, between lines, and when they switched with Alonso to move to the wing—which Stoke couldn’t find solutions for. Stoke had a few opportunities from counters, but Chelsea caused Stoke plenty of problems with the ball, creating a multitude of goals and even more chances.