The game began with Sheffield United pressing Chelsea in wide areas from their midfield block and going on to take an early lead from a well-worked corner.
Sheffield United played to their strengths with the ball. McGoldrick, their direct outlet from deep areas, is an exceptionally strong target man and Zouma had to compete physically for the first ball and to be cautious about giving fouls away — a foul would give the opponent what they wanted from the outlet in the first place.
Long diagonals from the corners are their second strength. They know how to use their overloads on the wings (holding onto the ball and waiting for the opponents to leave space for a cross or to be beaten with the ball) and attack the box with numbers, along with being able to sustain high attacks with the numbers in and around the box.
Winning set pieces is the final strength of their attacks, where they can have a number of physical players inside the box to attack the ball and options from short corners to create from the wings in the same way as they do in possession, but with fewer numbers and more spaces to exploit — case in point: taking Ziyech and Kanté away from the corner to open up the space (clever pass to exploit it) for their goal.
Chelsea responded well. With the ball, their central defenders and Kanté had the overload to maintain possession against Sheffield United’s front two, who were looking to press and isolate the player on the ball. Sheffield United would push up on the wings from their wide central midfielders shifting to the sides to pressure Chelsea’s fullbacks upon receiving the ball. Chelsea’s wide central midfielders would drop for the ball in the fullback positions and allow for rotation on the wing (drawing Sheffield’s wing-backs forward to close Chelsea’s fullbacks advancing), before looking to play switches to the far side where there was space for the opposite winger or fullback to move into the final third.
Chelsea created by finding passes behind Sheffield’s backline, and playing switches to generate opportunities to cross the ball into the box. They achieved this by moving the ball around the backline for long enough until Sheffield’s midfielders couldn’t shift quickly enough to close down spaces (fullbacks or midfielders dropping to play passes), or they would have to increase the risk and potential for reward by playing through pressure into midfield. In doing so, Chelsea could get Ziyech into the game.
Ziyech is very aggressive and is always looking for the killer pass. During the opening stages of the half the negative side of this quality came to the fore, where the balls over the top came to nothing and gave possession away. However, given enough opportunities (and improved understanding with teammates running behind) he can cause the opposition all sorts of problems. Ziyech finding Kovačić’s run behind created the chance for Abraham to equalise, followed by a short corner where Ziyech found Chilwell’s run perfectly for Chelsea to take the lead.
The second half saw more spaces begin to appear in midfield, and so Chelsea became more fluid in their positions and roles to go looking for spaces to exploit with the ball, rather than collective patterns. Chelsea dominated the half in large parts and were always threatening, but Sheffield United’s deep defending and blocks at the back ensured they stayed in the game.
The danger of this half was that Chelsea would become too comfortable with the one goal lead and leave the door open for Sheffield United in the final moments of the match. However, Ziyech was again involved in deciding the game with another quality delivery into the box for Thiago Silva to score his first goal.
Ziyech’s ball in-behind for Werner, clear through on goal but hitting the post, followed quickly thereafter. Werner was then quick to rectify the miss by getting on a loose ball behind Sheffield’s backline to score Chelsea’s fourth and final goal of the game.
Having conceded early on in the game, Chelsea had the challenge to respond and they showed they were up to it. Ziyech was again paramount to Chelsea, playing passes behind the opposition backline and into the box, and offering quality delivery from set pieces. After taking the lead in the first half, Chelsea dominated large parts of the second half with fluid possession and always threatening Sheffield United’s goal, before killing the game with two goals in quick succession.