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Zenit St Petersburg 3-3 Chelsea, Champions League: Tactical Analysis

Simply not good enough

Zenit St. Petersburg v Chelsea FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Chelsea have never lost in Russia and Zenit have never lost at home to an English side in the Champions League. It seemed as though one of those statements would end up becoming old news, but after the dour display from Chelsea on Wednesday, both facts remain true.

The makeshift lineup that Thomas Tuchel fielded was by far the most influential factor in the result.

The injury crisis in our midfield and the need to rest and rotate both our back and front lines have been our greatest vulnerability in recent games, and Tuchel’s experimental fielding of players worked well for ten minutes and poorly for the remaining eighty.

Starting XI’s
Soccerway

On paper, the obvious issue was the left side of Ross Barkley, in as the left sided No.6, Saúl at wingback, and Malang Sarr as the left-center back. Although they were exposed repeatedly, the rest of the players didn’t exactly outshine them, and we conceded goals collectively (although Saúl would also be at fault individually).

But before then, the good feelings were free-flowing with the football in the first ten minutes and our breakthrough goal did not take long to arrive. In fact, it was our fastest ever in the Champions League at just 83 seconds, besting the previous record held by Captain, Leader, Legend, John Terry.

Once again, it came from a corner kick, earned with a marauding run by Saúl after winning possession from a Zenit clearance. Chelsea had clearly identified a weakness in Zenit’s set piece defending, as Ross Barkley was whipping corners into the near post all day. Andreas Christensen had perhaps his greatest contribution on the day and flicked the ball into the path of Timo Werner, whose touch may not have been necessary for the ball to go in the net, but was necessary to boost his confidence.

Christensen flicks on and Werner finishes at the back post

Those first ten minutes were smooth sailing and were actually pretty silky. Chelsea were creating countless chances and had an embarrassment of possession, around 75%. We were close to a second in only the third minute when Christensen jumped onto a poor touch and found Mount in a pocket of space behind the strikers. He turned and slid in Romelu Lukaku who squared a ball for Werner. The Zenit defense intervened and we lost a chance for a free shot from around the penalty spot.

Mount feeds Lukaku, but the final pass is missing

Those ten minutes also showed the defensive solidity that went completely missing as the game wore on. In fact, seeing Callum Hudson-Odoi put in a Reece James-esque tackle, questions of defensive strength were being answered resoundingly early on by even some of the less likely contributors.

Hudson-Odoi putting in work defensively

And then the tenth minute arrived and Chelsea forgot how to play collectively, how to make good decisions on and off the ball, and switched off the pressing, which had worked well to that point. Once the press lost its coordination, Zenit also grew into the game and were finding pockets of space all over the place — all UEFA-approved pitches are a standard size (with rare exceptions), but it sure seemed like Zenit’s was huge. We were sitting off them and giving them time on the ball, surely not part of Tuchel’s tactics.

The 26th minute brought the first of their many chances saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga, who, with the exception of their last shot in the game, had a great night considering the defensive atrocity that unfolded in front of him.

The play begins with a cross from Mount from wide right that’s comfortably handled and transitioned into a counter attack.

Mount’s cross leads to a counter

Without Mount’s presence in the middle and the other two central midfielders also pushed up, there’s plenty of space for Zenit to attack. Wendel carries it forward and gives it to Claudinho, who has time on the ball and plays a switch to Malcom running well beyond Saúl in the transition. They now have a 2-v-1 against Sarr, who decides to track neither player closely. Fortunately, Kepa makes a smothering stop 1-v-1 and we can clear.

Defense at 6’s and 7’s

Having not taken heed of that warning, we’d concede twice before the half. Both goals were easily preventable and came down, once again, to personal errors.

On their first, Saúl makes an absolute mess of a straightforward clearance — one that he didn’t even really need to make as the overlapping run made by Vyacheslav Karavaev had taken him well offside. Claudinho was trying to slip him in past Saúl, but Saúl cuts off the passing lane, clears it backwards, and leaves César Azpilicueta with a difficult play.

Note in the second photo where Saúl’s clearance lands

Azpilicueta does well enough and but clears only as far as Douglas Santos. With an unbelievable amount of time to pick his cross, he plays a great ball into the well-timed run of Claudinho, who’s untracked despite being surrounded by Chelsea players. The lack of communication and leadership on that back line was missing and we paid dearly for it — Christensen and Sarr making a mess of keeping a proper defensive line as we pushed up.

Nobody tracks Claudinho

With their impetus already growing, Zenit would not have to wait long to bag their second. And like Ruben Loftus-Cheek against Watford, this one starts with Ross Barkley turning directly into pressure and immediately coughing up the ball, springing another counter-attack.

Christensen and Barkley at fault for the second

But it’s Christensen who’s comically bad in this scenario. His indecisiveness in whether to close down Malcom (he shouldn’t, that’s Sarr’s responsibility) or track the run and cut off the passing lane to Sardar not only causes him to stumble over his own feet, but also play Sardar onside and leave him with an easy 1-v-1 against Kepa. This is the only 1-v-1 that Kepa loses, with the striker coolly rounding him and passing into the net.

Immediately from the restart — in fact so quickly that the broadcast coverage was still highlighting Sardar’s goal — Zenit had another break. Kepa rescued this bit of shambolic play by making yet another 1-v-1 stop; Sardar this time opting to shoot first fortunately for us.

Defensively stretched

After the break, things improved a bit for Chelsea, and some incisive passing between Werner, Barkley, and Lukaku brought us level.

The play actually begins with Kepa, who finds Azpilicueta on the right side. Two touch football ensues, as he brings it under control and passes to Mount, who receives it on the turn and finds Werner. Werner, who had drifted right and then showed for the ball, now turns and faces the Zenit goal. A quick one-two with Barkley puts him behind their line, where he keeps his composure and squares for Lukaku, who manages to stay onside and slot home with ease.

It was the prettiest movement from Chelsea in the second half.

Some beautiful football brought us level

The stream of substitutions began just past the hour mark, with Christian Pulisic on as wing-back for Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech on for Ross Barkley in the midfield. This saw Mount slide in and take up a deeper role next to James in the double pivot. The game was very open at this point, with each team playing well on the counter and enjoying spells of possession without a final product.

The home side were forced into a substitution with the injury of Sardar in the 79th minute and made a triple change, including bringing on Magomed Ozdoyev for Daler Kuzyaev in one of their midfield four.

Despite Zenit running out all of their subs and having good momentum, Chelsea would again find the back of the net for what seemed like it would be the game winner.

James slides in to Pulisic who has a nice give and go with Ziyech

Pulisic, nominally the right wing-back, cuts in and carries the ball across the top of the 18, finding a nice little one-two with Ziyech on the way to lose his marker. With Zenit defenders panicking and getting sucked to the ball, Werner and Alonso are both left open in the left channel, with Havertz occupying the central defenders and Claudinho slacking on his cover.

From there it’s the simple matter of Pulisic finding Werner, who does a good job of first holding his run and then losing the defender with a cutback, before deftly applying the finish.

Pulisic finds Werner who cuts back and finishes nicely

But Chelsea once again slackened, and were content to pass the ball around loosely for the last portion of the game in hopes of seeing out the victory. The urgency with which we were playing dropped far lower than it ever should, and things only got sloppier as the minutes ticked away.

In the fourth minute of added-on time, Pulisic played a slack back pass to Azpilicueta, who had no choice but to loft it clear. Zenit put the ball back in with a cross following a series of quick passes, and while that was initially cleared, it was volleyed with authority into the roof of the net by Ozdoyev.

Kepa gets a hand to it and possibly could have done better, but the 10 players in front of him have let him down

The game was farcical in the manner in which our goals were given up and the overall nature of our play. Their xG was 2.22, and not since playing with ten men against Liverpool have we had an xG against us exceed 2.00.

xG
infogol

Tuchel has his work cut out for him, as our injury situation remains concerning and the fixtures in the month of December coming thick and fast. The seemingly deep squad we had at the start of the season has shown to be rickety without some of the steadfast starters, so our hope lies both with our physios and with Tuchel to resurrect the defense that wouldn’t concede chances, let alone goals.

KTBFFH.

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