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Barnsley 0-1 Chelsea, FA Cup: Tactical Analysis

Breaking down Chelsea’s FA Cup fifth round win

First half

Chelsea had a difficult start to the game. They were passing the ball across the back without being able to find a way to make progress against Barnsley’s high press. The back three and the goalkeeper had most of the ball, with Barnsley’s front three blocking the passes into the central midfielders before pushing up to press to the sides. When Chelsea moved the ball to the wings, the short options were again problematic (the wing-backs or Ziyech and Pulisic dropping to collect), where the only option to play forward was the first-time long diagonal from the back foot into the striker — as often seen with Conte. Instead, it was back to the central defender with closer distances for pressing and few options on the ball.

Without being able to play through on the ground, and the ball often coming loose from contact with pressure, the game became much more physical than technical, and that played into the hands of Barnsley. Christensen really struggled playing out and moving forward as the wide central defender, while Emerson on the other end of the line was rarely involved in moving the ball forward — needed opportunities to carry and dribble with the ball, with a midfielder dropping between the central defenders to open the space and provide balance.

A more direct option to the frontline (or playing behind the opposition backline) made more sense given the problems in building, and this did provide Chelsea with some opportunities to move up high and win the second ball with Kanté close to Abraham. But this again created an open and physical game, which was the sort of game Barnsley wanted to play.

The home side had a few opportunities to profit from their good start to the match and really should have taken the lead to put pressure on Chelsea. Abraham threatened with individual actions during the first half, but otherwise Chelsea didn’t create chances to score in the first half.

Barnsley v Chelsea: The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Second half

Chelsea made a double change at halftime, with James and Rüdiger going on to replace Alonso and Christensen. There was also a change in formation to a 4-3-3, with James on as right back, Ziyech joining the midfielders, Pulisic moving to the right and Hudson-Odoi over to the left.

This made a difference as Chelsea could now find the full-backs in spaces (wingers pinning Barnsley’s wing-backs deep) and then look to play forward from them — maintaining width from the wingers ahead and the front three with the two advanced central midfielders between lines and close to Abraham.

When arriving to the final third, Hudson-Odoi could now use his quality to take on defenders, draw fouls and put crosses into the box to create opportunities, while James’ overlapping run into the final third would see him get behind Barnsley’s backline and create the goal for Abraham.

Chelsea were unable to extend their lead, and this would keep Barnsley in the game towards the closing stages. Barnsley continued to press relentlessly and really made it difficult for Chelsea to play through them, while forcing Chelsea to defend deep in moments. Chelsea required a goal line block by Abraham to keep Barnsley from equalising, but were able to see the game out on the back foot.

Barnsley v Chelsea: The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Conclusion

Barnsley made an aggressive start to the game, trying to make it a physical contest by pressing Chelsea high and stopping the Blues from playing through the lines. Barnsley had a few opportunities to score during the first half, but were unable to take the lead when they were the better team. Chelsea’s changes at half-time helped them break through with possession and reach the final third, and they had much more control of the game up until taking the lead. However, Chelsea wouldn’t go on to extend it and thus have to deal with the final stages on the back foot, and having to defend deep to see the game out.