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Breakdown: Wolves expose Chelsea’s Sarri-ball flaws with equalizer

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Maurizio Sarri called it an “accident”, but was it?

Chelsea lost for the second consecutive occasion away from home. The manner of the defeat has raised questions, as much amongst the fans as the team’s management and Maurizio Sarri.

This is a sequential breakdown of Wolves’ equalizer in order to look at each player’s responsibility and involvement in the goal.


I. Wolves play out from the back

Wolverhampton were playing three at the back, with two strikers and a number-ten. Chelsea lined up in the usual 4-3-3, albeit with change of personnel. Fàbregas started in place of Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek got the nod on the left of the midfield, and Christensen came in from the cold on the left of the central defender pairing.

After a long ball over the top straight in Rui Patricio’s hands, a quick throw feeds the wingback Ruben Vinagre whilst the midfield duo of Saïss and former Villas-Boas coveted transfer target (back in 2011) Moutinho come towards the ball.


II. Rotation

This is the interesting bit, as much from Wolverhampton’s point of view as for the questions it’ll ask from Chelsea.

Wolves have played good football this season. This is what is called a “rotation” between three players, in order to dismantle the opposition’s defensive shape and open up space elsewhere. If you want to learn more about the various types of rotations, Jed Davies dissects them thoroughly in “The Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa”.

In this situation, wingback Vinagre pushes high up the pitch so that midfielder Saïss can drop in collecting the ball in an area where he’s hard to be picked up.

  • If nobody closes him down, that’s a platform for him to play someone else (wingback, striker, switch play)
  • If someone does close him down, the team can get pulled out of shape. In this case, Kanté closes down, which consequently pulls the whole team on one side — with Fàbregas and Loftus Cheek keeping correct distances in cover.

Vinagre creates an issue for Azpilicueta who is forced to anticipate and mark him as a potential receiver.

Saïss and Vinagre’s movement create space for Jota to drop inside the field.

In a 4-3-3, the front three’s defensive job against a back-three is usually as simple as picking one man each, with various possible instructions depending on the approach chosen;

  • Not picking up defenders and stay in shape to intervene on wingbacks
  • Stay in front of the back three to funnel the ball wide
  • Stay in front of the back three and try to cut off the pass between wide centre back and wingback to create a “pressing trap”.

Chelsea’s defensive approach has been the latter throughout the game and generally this season, which is exactly how a high-press 4-3-3 is meant to function.

In the above situation, funneling the ball between Willian (cutting off the pass back for Boly) and Kanté (dealing with Saïss) creates a “pressing trap” (for the covering midfielder, in that case Fàbregas).

The point of this is to address the question of whether Chelsea’s implementation of “Sarriball” is still work in progress. In terms of implementation, there’s three things which matter especially from a defensive point of view:

  1. the structural dynamic coherent in terms of defensive distances and shifting
  2. the actual defending (the turn of pace to close down, or actual desire to intercept or get stuck in)
  3. coherence of the previous two in context

The first is the easiest thing to implement with professional players. The second one involves different parameters to make sure the players buy into the idea. The third is a byproduct of analyzing the viability of the approach chosen depending on the opponent and the moment of the game.

Chelsea’s defensive failings have been centered on the second and possibly third points, while the first one has been quite fine since the start of the season.


III. Make them chase

In order to flatten Chelsea’s midfield three, Saïss plays to Jota facing his own goal (closed down by Fàbregas), who lays it back to Boly. The defending from Chelsea’s point of view is correct from a “tactical” perspective.

It’s fair to say nevertheless, that’s it’s a bold approach to commit 6 players in the attacking quarter of the pitch whilst narrowly leading 0-1 away at Wolves on a Wednesday evening after one hour on the clock.


IV. Keep ‘em running

One of the things that has bugged me for a few months now is the amount of running required from Chelsea midfielders under Sarri.

Whenever the ball has been played into one of the pressing traps Kanté or Barkley (or whoever plays LCM) need to cover some ground and high up the pitch, and so does the holding player. In this case, Fàbregas is on the move and the closest player to chase the backpass (considering Willian was positioned to block the pass between Boly and Saïss).

Ultimately, it would have made more sense for Willian to chase in order not to distort the defensive structure. But considering that defending, especially zonal, is based on having the closest player closing down, Fàbregas is the one involved to press here. His pressing run is akin to a “home run” in baseball as he circles the nonexistent based in midfield.

We’ve seen Jorginho do this frequently as well season — this is clearly something instructed (and not something left from the previous managerial regime).

Question is whether the risk of having your anchorman involved so high up pays off at the end. Only time will tell.


V. Bypassing the press

Coady plays an accurate mid-length pass towards Doherty (which bypasses Eden Hazard – positioned between right centre back Bennett and wingback Doherty).

This is the situation Chelsea have struggled with this season. Once the high press is bypassed, opponents can progress down the wings and find options centrally in our own half.

Chelsea’s midfield three has been bypassed and nobody’s covering the coveted Area 51 in front of the defence. That leaves space for attackers like Mané or, in this instance, Gibbs-White to roam and show for the ball between the lines.


VI. Bypassing the midfield

Fàbregas is about to complete his circle around the bases. Kanté has tucked inside as much as he possibly can (the far edge of the centre circle is usually the limit for the player on ball far side; some coaches use the far post as a reference point).

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is easily bypassed by a simple chipped square pass. This has happened a few times and not just this season — it’s one example of why he’s been deemed a defensive liability by Sarri and previous Chelsea managers as well.


VII. Exposing the back-four

Fàbregas ends up wrong side of Gibbs-White, which is typically the kind of situation in which Jorginho frequently finds himself (highlighted in my big Sarri article). Different player, same dodgy situation. It’s hard, if not impossible, to nick the ball from that situation without conceding a free kick and possibly get cautioned.

That leaves the back four exposed (i.e.: the only remaining players between the direct course of the ball and the goal are the defenders, with space in behind).


VIII. No good choices

N’Golo Kanté is still the closest midfielder possibly able to intervene, which is an illustration of his trademark, almost superhuman ability to find himself in position to tackle despite being out of the picture moments before (and not playing strictly in the center anymore).

But Gibbs-White’s first touch is positive (loses Fàbregas completely), and is able to keep the ball under pressure from Kanté as well. Meanwhile, Jiménez starts to run in behind in the coveted gap between Christensen and Marcos Alonso.

Obviously, Marcos Alonso “should” have stuck narrower to Christensen than he did here in order to force the pass wide. But that’s not what cost Chelsea the goal. Staying tight to Christensen would have opened a pass from Gibbs-White to Doherty and a simple first-time “dump” in behind for Jiménez. One situation, two options, either of which end up being the wrong one because the opponent will play the other.

In such a situation, you want the back four to back off and retreat at least until the 18-yard-box, which is what they do, so that they stay as long as possible between the ball and the goal.


IX. Raúl Jiménez once was a highly promising Olympic gold medalist

The ball still reaches the Agüero / Lacazette area inside the box. It’s not an easy place to score from, it’s a genuine skill to be able to shoot hard and low and beat a keeper.

At first sight looks like a cheap goal from Arrizabalaga’s perspective, maybe he could’ve blocked it with his foot. But for me it looks a fine finish with the ball popping neatly off Jiménez’s foot.


The following question marks remain:

  • Can Chelsea get away with committing so many players high up the pitch when pressing, especially away from home?
  • The way Chelsea’s midfield triangle distorts itself, requiring midfielders including the holding player to chase players high up the pitch leave Chelsea really open when they’re bypassed
  • Opposition still find joy down the flanks, mostly on the right wing (Chelsea’s left). It would be daft to try to attempt to break through on Kanté, Azpilicueta and Rüdiger’s side when the other side is so exposed. Nobody’s made the LCM slot his so far, be it Kovacic, Barkley, Loftus Cheek or Fàbregas (or Drinkwater!) — they’re all similar defensive liabilities. Marcos Alonso has not been Chelsea’s best defensive performer so far, but it’s fair to say he’s been exposed like few Chelsea fullbacks have been over the years, possibly even as much as Bosingwa used to be.
  • Having opposition players taking on Chelsea’s back four on such a consistent basis is a real concern. Having to retreat with runners in behind is the worst situation for defenders.
  • The only thing world class about Kepa Arrizabalaga is his transfer fee. Otherwise and maybe for the first time since 2004 (possibly since the turn of the millennium in Carlo Cudicini who was a fine goalkeeper), Chelsea don’t have a world class goalkeeper able to “win points for his team”.

On Saturday it’s Manchester City at the Bridge. The last two permanent Chelsea managers won their first League encounter against them. Agüero did score via Area 51 in the Community Shield, but Chelsea fans are desperate for an ugly, hard-fought big game win against the odds against the best team in the country by Saturday.