Newcastle made a defensive switch to a back five, with key players missing, and their strategy was to stay in the game for a long as possible, while waiting for their moments to swing momentum during counters and set pieces—similar to last season. The switch to a back five isn’t new (many opponents did that against Conte), and they used it twice against Chelsea last season — both in the league and in the FA Cup.
From the start of the game Newcastle’s intention to defend deep in their own half was clear, where they maintained good organisation and could make use of their good physical characteristics. However, unlike in the games last season, the amount of possession Chelsea had, along with the quality of recovery (often 2v1 against Rondon) was crucial to not allowing Newcastle to build momentum and bring the crowd into the game.
Although Chelsea had a high amount of possession, Newcastle’s defence was strong and Chelsea struggled to create many opportunities to score. Chelsea relied upon Hazard’s individual talent to create predominantly, along with: rotations and overloads on the wings; rotations of positions; set pieces; and Jorginho’s reverse passes behind Newcastle’s backline. Meanwhile, when Newcastle were able to win a free kick or corner, they always posed a threat to Chelsea’s goal through both the initial ball into the box or their ability to sustain these attacks towards the end of the half.
Ritchie’s defensive support from the right was great, almost acting as a third central midfielder with his contribution, and his defensive recovery to foul or take the ball from Hazard in space stopped some good opportunities for Chelsea. Similarly, Diame and Ki’s pressing and recovery pressing ensured that Newcastle maintained good control of the space between their lines.
Murphy from the left was often the one closest to joining Rondon as support for counters, using his mobility, but defensively he would leave space for Azpilicueta to join the box, which Chelsea found on a couple of occasions for both Azpilicueta to shoot or cross the ball into the box. Yedlin was also able to support delayed counter attacks through his mobility and stamina to overlap, as well as great defensive recovery speed when they lost the ball.
Since the deep defending prevented most opportunities to play behind (only on occasions where Jorginho was free on the ball in the final third were Chelsea able to attempt the pass) and the lines were close (only quick flicks or run-through combinations available) Hazard often found his space on the outside of Newcastle’s block and moving to the right as a central midfielder, with Kanté moving forward between lines, before making runs outside as Pedro came inside. Even when Chelsea were able to create overloads on the wings the space was often too congested to gain any advantage from it.
The greater opportunities for Chelsea in the half came from Newcastle being higher up the pitch and open: attempting to press high from their own possession and during long goal kicks. Whenever Chelsea could recover the ball in these moments, they would play forward quickly and bypass a number of Newcastle defenders to create an opportunity in the final third.
Chelsea had even more possession in the second half than the first. Their combinations and first time passes between lines improved, which lead to crossing opportunities, and Giroud helped this when he came on, since he took fewer touches to find teammates when the ball was played to him.
Chelsea’s pressing of Newcastle continued, forcing them to play long passes and not use the central midfielders to construct their attacks. As a result, fewer of Newcastle’s forward passes were able to be kept alive, and they were unable to put as much immediate pressure on the ball as in the opening stages of the first half, when they forced Chelsea’s defenders to clear instead of keeping the ball.
After Chelsea took the lead, Newcastle changed their approach to play more offensively and switched to a 4411 with the introduction of Muto. They could now more consistently get out from defence and hold onto the ball to move forward into Chelsea’s half, as well as sustain attacks and a high position with more numbers higher up, at the cost of being open at the back and seeing Chelsea create good chances more frequently with the ball than against the back five.
still in love with this flick from Kanté. pic.twitter.com/81ny7P326e— amadí (@amadoit__) August 27, 2018
From Newcastle’s high play and a long ball forward they managed to score an equaliser, with good movement by Joselu to get ahead of David Luiz when most of Chelsea’s players had switched off expecting a free kick. However, Chelsea were quick to respond and Giroud’s around the back run from Willian’s free kick found Alonso to put them back into the lead with little time to go.
Chelsea win a free kick about 10 yards outside the Newcastle box and Willian shapes his ball to the back post where Giroud meets it and nods it back towards Marcos Alonso whose strike is turned in by Yedlin. 1-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/6nJhyww8yA— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) August 26, 2018
Newcastle’s defensive approach almost paid off, with good control of Chelsea’s attacking talent and always providing an offensive threat through set pieces. Chelsea didn’t allow Newcastle to build any momentum and the kept the home crowd quiet by dominating possession and recovering the ball quickly — how often has that ever been the case for Chelsea at St James’ Park? — but Newcastle’s strong defence limited them to few good chances to score. Mistakes in defence almost cost Chelsea late on, and in the context of the game a draw would have been a poor result, but they were able to find the winning goal when they needed it.