Up against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, Chelsea played a nearly perfect game.
Those last three words have been thrown around a lot since the match took place, and it may be overkill to hear them constantly. But in a season where this kind of praise for Chelsea has been rather scarce, we might as well enjoy them before they swing back the other way.
Let’s back up the general consensus with a few stats as well. (NB: Chelsea stats on the left — or orange in graphics — and Barcelona on the right — or blue on graphics. We didn’t choose these colors.)
Clashes between Chelsea and Barcelona have often been ones of opposite ideals, on and off the pitch. This time was no different, with the two sides putting on yet again another battle of clashing styles.
As expected, the ball was kept well by Barcelona, who dominated the possession aspect. They had more than double Chelsea’s touches with 1045 to 498, as well as 886 attempted passes versus 325 from the home side.
However, Valverde’s Barcelona seemed to emulate the years of Spain’s national team under Vicente del Bosque. Their lack of incisiveness with the ball, especially when facing a team with a defensive posture such as Chelsea’s, had all of their possession go to waste.
Knowing that the battle for possession was lost, Chelsea made up for it with hustle and directness. The Blues posted the better numbers in every defensive statistic, and were also better in dribbling. Surely those defensive numbers are helped by the quantity of possession that Barcelona had in the game, but the dribbles completed — 14 to Chelsea, 11 to Barcelona — versus the number of touches on either side show that the Blues were intent on stinging their opponents.
Funnily enough, the visitors from Spain won more aerial duels than the home side from England, probably because they didn’t insist on lobbing high balls up to their short forwards, unlike Chelsea.
The shots breakdown illustrates just how inert most of Barcelona’s possession was, as they were out-shot by a significant margin despite having 73% of the ball. Chelsea recorded 11 shots total, compared to Barcelona’s 7, with both teams finding the target just twice (Willian’s goalposts count as off-target). While Chelsea were obviously quite willing to shoot from distance, we still just about matched their output for penalty area shots and created the same amount of shots from open play just a little over a third of their possession.
Another thing to note is the volume of shots coming from set pieces, with Chelsea managing to create 5 attempts from these plays. This might be something the Blues could look to explore and exploit in the return leg.
Despite having four central midfielders and no recognized wingers, the flow of Barcelona’s attacking game was concentrated on the flanks. Clearly, their tactics were quite fluid, but Chelsea still did very well to to neutralize their threat — especially Messi and Suarez up front — by playing narrow and forcing Barcelona wide into less dangerous positions.
In turn, Chelsea also heavily utilized the flanks, especially Willian’s as Pedro often dropped very deep as he hounded Messi for large portions of the match. Willian in fact dominated all of Chelsea’s offensive statistics but one: fouls drawn. That is where Eden Hazard will always be the king.
On the other side, the statistics are far less kind to the visitors, with Messi especially not quite living up to the top billing he’s been receiving since his lucky goal. Only 2 dribbles completed in 6 attempts, 4 dispossessions and 4 unstable touches — if it wasn’t for the goal scored via Andrés Iniesta’s pass, he would have been a nearly anonymous figure throughout the game.
Outside of distribution duty, neither Thibaut Courtois nor Marc-André ter Stegen had much to do. Ter Stegen’s distribution was much better than Courtois’, but that is something expected from 1) a goalkeeper whose main strength is knowing how play with his feet and 2) a goalkeeper playing in a team which utilizes this strength to its maximum.
Courtois could have gone to the short distribution a bit more often since Barcelona were not too keen on pressing the back line (despite various Premier League opponents proving that to be very effective), however that likely would have gone against Conte’s matchday instructions.
Still on the theme of opposites, the passing stats show more than ever the contrast between the two sides. Overall, 15.8% of Chelsea’s attempted passes were long ones, as in passes of 25 yards or more as per Whoscored.com. Meanwhile, Barça went long on only 6.9% of their attempts.
Another thing to note is the areas in which the passes were played. With a more direct game plan, Chelsea’s passes had the midfield as their target 43.8% of the time. Barça, who were more inclined to simmer along with their exchanges, looked to keep the ball in midfield almost 60% of the time.
The concentration in the action zones, which means players touching the ball in those areas of the pitch, is almost all thanks to Barça. We can expect that to remain the case, or worsen, for our trip to Camp Nou next month.
As usual whenever he is on the pitch, Cesc Fàbregas was Chelsea’s main outlet in possession. He was also responsible for the sole through ball attempted by the Blues, in the 38th minute of the game — just barely missing Eden Hazard who was making an excellent diagonal run behind the line.
The stats also showcase what has been one of Antonio Rüdiger’s strengths his season: his long, diagonal balls launched deep from one flank to the other. Surprisingly, Andreas Christensen was credited with just as many attempts, though it’s unclear from the numbers whether these were diagonals as well or perhaps just long passes straight up the pitch.
Meanwhile, Barcelona did what Barcelona do. Their central defenders and midfielders had astonishing passing totals, though obviously a lot of that is useless padding. They can clearly do this all day long however, which will come into play in the second leg where they don’t need to score and Chelsea do.
Barcelona dominating possession and actions in the game meant Chelsea having to do more defensive work at their own ground. And they were very effective in doing so, with Victor Moses completed all 5 of his attempted tackles and César Azpilicueta intercepting 6 balls from our Wednesday opponents.
Also, praise be to Pedro! His diminutive size may have been caused him to lose the only aerial challenge he had in the entire game, but his work rate was a real throwback to his days at Barça.
As for Barcelona, defensive actions were concentrated on Sergio Busquets who completed 6 of his 10 attempted tackles. His partner Ivan Rakitic was not nearly as effective, going 1 for 5 and recording at least two fouls that should have had him sent off in the first-half already.
Unfortunately for our purposes, the two maps above show position based on actions with the ball and do not include off the ball positioning. If it had, we would probably see Chelsea way deeper into their area with Barcelona still the same, cluttered in a bubble in the middle of the pitch and having little to no idea how to get to our 18-yard box.
In the current footballing environment, there are maybe one or two teams that can meet Barcelona at their level and playing style, and with some luck, edge out a win in the meeting. Chelsea are not one of those, but we played excellently considering the limitations driven from this predicament.
Surely this is not the way Chelsea should play week in and out. At home, a more proactive style, even when meeting one of the top six rivals (with maybe the exclusion of Manchester City tniss) would be preferred. But lessons such as our defensive organisation and tactical application is something that should be carried onto the rest of the season, especially with two big games against the Manchester sides coming up in the next two weekends.
As for the match-up to Barcelona at Camp Nou... Cutting out the mistakes would go a long way, while focusing on pieces might be beneficial. A similar performance to Tuesday should set up the Blues very nicely for a chance at the quarterfinals.