Chelsea faced a Sheffield Wednesday side with a deep and organised defensive block, found it difficult to increase the speed of ball movement and the attack in general, and were unable to get to the byline to create good crossing opportunities.
Kovačić, starting on the right of the midfield three, was the player to drop most often for the ball next to Ampadu (rather than the left central midfielder as normally happens). Chelsea would thus focus most of their attacks on the right, where Hudson-Odoi maintained his width and looked to take on the fullback while Azpilicueta was always looking to run behind, on the outside or on the inside. However, most of the crossing opportunities that Chelsea were able to create from these positions (by going inside or crossing from deep), would be played into the box with numbers of Sheffield defenders ready and organised to clear the ball. Normally in these sorts of games, Chelsea rotate fullbacks to Emerson and Zappacosta, who can consistently get behind the opposition backline, which makes their crossing more effective since the opposition defenders are still reacting and repositioning themselves.
Higuain gave Chelsea had a new option to use in the final third with his well-timed short-depth movements diagonally behind the last man into the box. This gave Chelsea a direct central option (compared to the predominantly wing-focused attacks this season) and they played the ball into these runs on a few occasions to create opportunities inside the box — something which the central midfielders haven’t had the opportunity to do often this season.
Sheffield Wednesday had difficulties getting out with the ball when they recovered it with their team in a deep and closed block. Chelsea could recover the ball high on most occasions and sustain their position for their attacks, but since Wednesday wouldn’t open very quickly to break, Chelsea ended up just facing the same defensive block they had been attempting to break down over and over again.
Direct long play to the front three offered Wednesday some good second ball positions to pressure and try to recover the ball high inside Chelsea’s half and start an attack. But while they won the ball in some dangerous positions during the match, they couldn’t turn these opportunities into shots on goal.
xG map for Chelsea - Sheffield Wednesday pic.twitter.com/bQNfZnLmBS— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) January 28, 2019
In the second half, Kovačić and Ampadu switched positions. This opened up opportunities to play more long and diagonal passes behind the Wednesday backline from the base of the midfield — one such switch from Kovačić early on in the half had Willian taking the ball past the defender to the byline and putting in a low cross into the path of Alonso and Higuain in the box (the former touching the ball away from the latter).
Willian became much more involved in the attack and switches to the left, which provided the needed variation to Chelsea’s game. With the option of Willian going on the outside or moving inside with the ball from the left (to combine, shoot, or switch to Hudson-Odoi), Chelsea could create better opportunities when switching the ball to the right.
Longer passes from Chelsea’s central defenders were more effective in the second half as well — best example being the second goal where Christensen moved forward with the ball and opened up onto his right foot to find Hudson-Odoi in the box, who then finished off the chance to double Chelsea’s lead.
Giroud, who replaced Higuain late on, took advantage of these long passes as well with short runs off the back of the opposition backline and improvised first-time shots.
Wednesday switched to a 4-4-2 fater going two goals behind, where the front two pushed up to pressure Chelsea’s central defenders, the midfield line moved up to close down Kovačić and Chelsea’s fullbacks. This gave them more numbers forward earlier on counter, but left open with spaces behind and between the lines. Willian and second-half substitute Loftus-Cheek both took good advantage of these, including on Chelsea’s third goal, where Willian moved inside with the ball, combined with Giroud who had pushed the defenders back to open more space, and finished first-time to collect his brace.
Chelsea struggled to move the ball quickly in the first half, and maintained a lot of possession without being able to create many chances. Higuain provided a different option inside the final third with his short depth movements centrally, and did create a few opportunities. The second half saw Chelsea switch Kovačić to the center of the midfield, which allowed them to play long switches with greater efficiency, bring Willian into the game, and provide greater variation to the offsense — not just attacks from the right. Long passes from Chelsea’s central defenders were more effective in the second half and saw Chelsea extend their lead before Willian combined with Giroud to finish off the scoring.