For Chelsea, there were six changes from the weekend and an entire midfield four who had not once before played together collectively. This would be the single most influential aspect of the game, and that lack of coherency was the most contributing factor to Watford’s pressure early on as well as their goal.
Lukaku and Werner were on the bench, perhaps because both were returning from injury but more likely because of our recent goal scoring prowess without them. Regardless of the reasons, leaving them out may have been one of a few mistakes in the starting eleven.
But the obvious issue was the midfield, made up of fourth- and fifth-choice (or lower) players. Neither Saúl Ñíguez nor Ruben Loftus-Cheek seemed up to tempo for the match. They were not helping to transition out of the back and were far too often caught in possession, especially in our defensive third. Typically, we have been able to play out of pressure against quality teams — that did not happen against Watford, and our passing stats in general were miserably poor relative to the rest of the season.
The movements to create the passing triangles that help us work the ball out from the back were not there, and Watford were stymying our forward momentum so much that even our defenders had to resort to clearances under sustained pressure in our half.
Watford lined up 4-1-4-1 as they have done under (former Chelsea manager) Claudio Ranieri in pretty much every game since his appointment. The Tinkerman hasn’t tinkered too much with this side and they have been essentially alternated wins and losses.
Unfortunately for us, Watford were up to the challenge and we were not. Their pressing against our makeshift midfield left us exposed, and, as the heat map clearly shows, they were enjoying themselves quite a bit down our weakened defensive left. Watford identified the obvious weak spot in the team (i.e. Alonso and Saúl) and not even the usually steadfast Rüdiger was able to stem the tide. Toni didn’t have a great game at all in fact, getting nutmegged twice by Emmanuel Dennis to boot.
Adding to all that, our front three consisted of players who prefer to show for the ball rather than make penetrating runs, and that deep outlet was overtly missing. Chelsea were forced much deeper than usual under Tuchel, but were hesitant with our forward runs. On the occasions that we did make them, Watford were easily opened up — twice leading to goals in fact.
Our first goal begins from what seems like an innocuous position. Alonso takes a throw-in, which is then cycled back to Rüdiger in space. Given a bit of time however, Rüdiger is able to pick out Alonso, who had created an overload on the left wing, with a delightful chip.
Alonso times his run perfectly and brings the ball down just as well, but the work is not yet done. Though he is in behind, he’s outside the 6-yard box and at a sharp angle. Fortunately, he doesn’t force the shot, and with both Kai Havertz and Mason Mount checking their runs as the Watford defenders crash down, he is instead able to pick out the former, who unselfishly makes the extra pass to the latter, who slots home with definitive ease.
Chelsea took the lead against the run of play, but the goal did not change that pattern and out midfield continued to be a massive concern.
Saúl has not shown any inkling of the player he once was — seems pretty clear why Atlético were enough to let him leave on loan — and despite his vast experience, he seems to be lacking some basic skills and abilities expected of a top level player. For example, a player in his position has to have some spatial awareness. He needs to open up pockets of space to receive, ideally to turn, and to link play back to front or at minimum keep possession. There are countless of instances where his lack of all these qualities really pinned us back, but let’s look at one from the 15th minute in particular.
Rüdiger needs an outlet pass, but Saúl has left him stranded by making the same run as the covering defender, allowing him to cut off the passing lane. Rüdiger’s thus left without a simple option, but rather than another aimless clearance, he still slips a well-placed ball into the space ... but Saúl’s not ready to take that on either. His initial failure to open and receive results in him having to foul in a dangerous position and take a yellow card as well.
It should go without saying that this is something that Jorginho does exceptionally well, at Ballon d’Or levels in fact. We don’t need that level of play from Saúl, but he didn’t come close and was once again removed at half-time. Tuchel afterwards admitted that he does not know where to go from here with Saúl, who was also slated to be tried at left wing-back later in the game to give a break to Alonso, but did not last that long.
Saúl’s midfield partner, Ruben Loftus-Cheek didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either however. While he can usually retain possession well, he does not always make smart decisions with the ball — one of which directly resulted in Watford’s equalizer. (Remarkably, our first away goal conceded from open play this season!)
Just before half-time, Loftus-Cheek takes a risky decision to turn past a player closing him down, instead of making the safer choice to play back to Rüdiger. While Ruben’s other passing options are cut off by the two advancing Watford forwards, he should be much more aware of the game-state and take the simple option instead. (This is, again, something that would not happen with Jorginho — sometimes the pass back is in fact the best option.)
Thiago Silva came on for Saúl at half-time, with Trevoh Chalobah getting shifted into midfield. We then proceed to have our best period of play — until Chalobah pulls a hamstring in the same play that sees Mendy do his best Manuel Neuer sweeper-keeper impression.
A series of subs and tactical shifts followed. Tuchel dropped Loftus-Cheek into the deepest-lying midfield role and tasked both Mount and Hakim Ziyech, who came on for the injured Chalobah, to play in pockets beneath the strikers. Not long after, in the 69th minute, Romelu Lukaku came on for César Azpilicueta and Pulisic became the nominal right wing-back, though with a clear direct attacking brief.
Although the resulting play was nothing near the precision we have grown accustomed to from Chelsea, it did result in the winning goal.
With Chelsea in possession, the play begins at ends with Ziyech, who shows for the ball, thus giving Christensen the pass that circumvents the half-court press and also gives Loftus-Cheek the necessary space to make a crossfield switch to Alonso. Just like against Manchester United in the previous game, Alonso heads a lovely first-time ball into the path of Mason Mount, who turns provider with the perfect pass to Ziyech, who redirects it unerringly through the despairing hands of the goalkeeper and into the roof of the net. The runs of both Lukaku and Havertz pulled the Watford defenders deep, and opened up the space needed for Ziyech.
While there were threats to our goal throughout the game due to sloppy play, respite can be found in knowing that once again we have secured necessary points by making tactically astute substitutions to remain on top of the table. It wasn’t easy or pretty, but they say you learn more from defeat than from victory. Tuchel will surely be taking this game into consideration while sorting out what to do with a fractured squad and with a relentless schedule ahead. There are no better hands than his for this task.