Sarri’s first Premier League game started well and ended even better as Chelsea overcame Huddersfield’s direct and aggressive approach.
With Chelsea now using a 433, they were able to take advantage of some situations where they had problems last season — such as being able to push up from the middle to press and get the wing-backs pinned back — but also had to cope with some of the problems that they themselves used to cause the opposition while playing with wing-backs — such as Huddersfield finding space on the outside, and, along with runners from midfield, could get to flick-ons by Mounie.
Early on in the half, Huddersfield were able to maintain a high position, with their wing-backs high to pressure Chelsea’s fullbacks and the central midfielders and backline pushing up. Chelsea attempted to play through this pressure with the wingers and higher central midfielders to receive under pressure and between lines, or to hold onto the ball until they break the press. However, Huddersfield’s pressure was consistent and limited Chelsea’s ability to play through them.
With the ball, Huddersfield moved the wing-backs high early onto the frontline to make their formation 334—mirroring Chelsea’s 433 man-to-man. Chelsea’s pressing and matching of numbers from the frontline and midfielders didn’t allow Huddersfield much time on the ball, and they did not have much opportunity to progress on the ground through the middle either. However, the width and height of their wing-backs would provide an outlet for long passes and direct balls. Mounie, moving to the sides and away from Chelsea’s backline, could receive the ball in the air and play flick-on’s behind. Runners from midfield (plus Pritchard) stretched Chelsea’s backline and forced Chelseas’s midfielders to drop back deeper and deeper. Huddersfield’s ability to maintain a high position was also aided by the sustaining of attacks from all of their set pieces.
Long play from the back for Chelsea, a consequence of Huddersfield’s attempts to pressure or prevent Chelsea from playing short, saw Morata moving towards the ball, winning the header and finding runners in good situations. During Chelsea’s long play, Huddersfield’s wing-backs would stay wide and not really be involved in play, while on the inside there was danger from the initial 3v3 against their central defenders (Chelsea’s wingers on the inside) if Huddersfield’s central midfielders didn’t track Chelsea’s midfield runners back completely.
When Chelsea moved up to midfield with the ball, Huddersfield would drop back to a 532, with the numbers to keep tight in the middle and shift to the sides to prevent overloads. However, Chelsea’s fullbacks staying deep, having been pressed by Huddersfield’s wing-backs during high pressing, would now have space and distance to receive the ball, with the potential solutions available for Huddersfield at this point providing varying degrees of risk.
If Huddersfield’s midfielders or front two moved over to Chelsea’s full backs, there was the possibility for space to open inside, or Chelsea would continue circulation of the ball. This scenario would see Chelsea having sustained periods of possession without being able to create, but, at the same time, Chelsea could sustain the position high up the pitch and, with Huddersfield’s wing-backs deep (the same pinned back problem Chelsea had last season) they were not able to get out to counter or move up out of their half when they won the ball — Huddersfield sacrificed attacking play for greater defensive control.
If the wing-backs pushed up, they would leave space on the outside for Chelsea’s wingers and for central midfielders to cause problems for Huddersfield’s wide central defenders by making runs behind from the inside, but it would also provide the opportunity to pressure the ball and push up as a team, and force Chelsea back through pressure — higher risk defensively to have the opportunity to push up and attack with numbers.
The two first half Chelsea goals then made a big difference, since now the more conservative scenario for Huddersfield to defend from midfield would run the risk of Chelsea running the clock down and patiently waiting for an opportunity, without needing to score ... and Chelsea’s increased comfort and confidence could see them create more consistently if the hosts pressured more aggressively and opened up.
Huddersfield switched to two strikers at half time, but this change had little effect initially since the quality of their long passing from the back was poor in the second half, with few reaching any Huddersfield player.
Chelsea dominated possession in the second half, and that saw them create some good situations with movement on the wings (rotation and switching of positions) and with passes to feet from the central defenders between lines (wingers, central midfielders and Morata there to receive), while sustaining a high block thanks to quick reactions when losing the ball.
Huddersfield’s change later on in the half made an instant impact, with Diakhaby replacing Lowe and switching to a 442. This allowed them to have more players higher up to pressure the ball and push Chelsea back, increasing the defensive risk at the back in their attempt to recover the deficit.
With the ball in the final third, Huddersfield could now create opportunities to cross with both fullbacks joining attacks — two in wide areas to work the ball into the two strikers in the area — and they also won set pieces to again have more opportunities to put the ball into the box.
Huddersfield didn’t have too many problems defending with one less at the back initially, until Chelsea introduced Hazard. With Hazard playing freely and in the middle, his ability to dribble with the ball past multiple opponents would see Huddersfield’s defence break, especially when they were exposed to quick Chelsea attacks while they still had numbers forward. Hazard would go on to create Chelsea’s third goal for Pedro in precisely such a condition.
Huddersfield’s direct and aggressive approach to the game was a good test for Chelsea’s new way of playing both offensively and defensively. Chelsea’s first half goals were key to making the team comfortable, before their ability to keep possession and position for prolonged periods in the second half saw them create chances, run the clock down and prevent Huddersfield from causing problems. Huddersfield’s change to a 442 later in the half swung the momentum in their favor and offered the possibility of getting back into the game, but the quality Chelsea could bring on from the bench exposed Huddersfield’s stretched defence to extend the lead and stop their momentum.