Once again, Thomas Tuchel’s starting lineup was a surprise that duped even the Chelsea official Twitter account, which had us in a 3-4-2-1 when in fact it was a back-four in his version of the 4-2-2-2. Tuchel wasn’t the only one to spring a surprise however.
Brighton have used nearly as many formations as games they’ve played — that tactical flexibility one of the big reasons they’ve only lost four games all season, of which only one had come against the “big six” (Manchester City). In our last game against them just three weeks ago, they played a 3-4-2-1, but have played three other formations in their three games since, always adapting to their opponents. This time around they went with yet another new shape, a 4-1-4-1 that well exploited our weaknesses in setup and personnel.
In possession, Chelsea left just the two defenders back as our outside backs pushed up and joined the midfield on the flanks. Our attacking midfielders Mount and Ziyech were provided liberty in their movement but were tasked with covering the wings defensively. Both players prefer drifting inside, and so their defensive recovery runs were demanding but necessary with Alonso and Azpilicueta behind them. Ziyech in particular seemed frustrated by this.
Given such an attacking presence in the lineup (four nominal attackers versus the usual three), we might have intended and hoped that Lukaku would be getting on the ball often and our wide presence might increase the service and crosses into the box. This was hardly the case, and Lukaku touched the ball just eight (8) times in the first half, with Chelsea often redundantly recycling possession towards the back.
Romelu Lukaku had the fewest touches of any player on the pitch in the first-half (8).— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 18, 2022
It's happened for the second game in a row. pic.twitter.com/ZOCrsJymOB
In addition, Lukaku’s lack touch map shows that when he was actually getting his minimal touches, he often wasn’t in a threatening position or even high up the pitch — the very place he’d prefer service. His heat (rather, cold) map looks somber, too, as he just wasn’t able to stay high and central, ideally where a striker would stay situated.
After the match, Tuchel indicated that was wasn’t displeased with Lukaku, and indeed, the service was as inconsistent as the players around him. Then again, this was his tenth start and the tenth different group of supporting players around him.
Tuchel has shown a tendency to continue fielding players who have done well in games prior — albeit sometimes out of their natural position — but none of them have shown the sort of consistency that would warrant such faith these days. The constant rotation does not allow the players to develop an instinctive sense of the movement or form partnerships with those around them, and that’s had a direct effect on Lukaku, not to mention our shooting locations and expectations.
In the league, Lukaku has a dismal 25 shots taken with only 10 on target and 5 goals. Harry Kane, who similarly has 5 goals, has taken 60 shots and 24 on target. Even after adjusting for Lukaku’s fewer games and minutes, his stats are quite low and indicate a clear lack of service. If we compare to the likes of Mohamed Salah, with 80 shots with 35 on target and 16 goals as a winger, it’s even more clear why Lukaku hasn’t been scoring. To cap it all off, Lukaku has zero assists and is actually over-performing on his season xG of 4.17, while the other two are underperforming on their xGs and have also contributed with multiple assists.
Even more unfortunate for us was that due to the pressing upfield from our outside backs, the two central defenders were required to defend extremely large spaces in transition. With our typical possession stats, this would have been sustainable — however, we had just 57%, which meant that Brighton not only had the ball often but often with lots of space to exploit, particularly up the flanks. They focused their attacks almost equally down each wing, slightly favoring the left through Marc Cucurella, 39% to 35%, rather than also quite menacing Tariq Lamptey on the right.
But football is a weird game and sometimes things happen without any discernible reason, grand plan, or pattern of play. That was precisely the case for Chelsea’s breakthrough, a lashed shot from Hakim Ziyech that probably should’ve been saved as Robert Sánchez was only slightly unsighted.
Beyond the goal, Chelsea weren’t producing much of anything, and even passing was often a problem — Kanté to Mount in the 35th minute on a potential break stands out for example.
Chelsea giving up yet another lead and dropping more points from winning positions might sound familiar — and we did the same exact thing against Brighton three weeks ago as well — of late, the pattern has actually been the exact opposite. We have been chasing the game, more often than not, and the trend of us scoring first and/or early has died off.
Tuchel has pointed to physical and mental fatigue, which are certainly major factors for a squad who have played more games this season than any other major team in Europe. Having to constantly chase isn’t helping either, and it’s affecting our ability to hang on to leads as well.
How else can we explain the type of completely inexcusable defending that gave Brighton their equalizer?
After Kepa made a great save on a deflected shot from Alexis Mac Allister — Brighton allowed to play through our right side with consummate ease — the resulting corner saw countless Chelsea players rooted to their spot and Adam Webster, with his first Premier League goal of the season, circling inside unchallenged from the back post to power an unstoppable header into the back of the net.
Tuchel exercised his entirety of changes in the 80th minute, but the game continued without any symbiotic movement made through the attackers brought on, ending on level terms — even perhaps leaving Chelsea the luckier of the two sides.
Managers Thomas Tuchel has beaten since taking charge of Chelsea:— William Hill (@WilliamHill) January 18, 2022
✅ Carlo Ancelotti
✅ Diego Simeone
✅ José Mourinho
✅ Jürgen Klopp
✅ Pep Guardiola
✅ Zinedine Zidane
✅ Antonio Conte
✅ Marcelo Bielsa
But sexy Graham Potter remains undefeated in three meetings. pic.twitter.com/GEEmCRvOrJ
After Sunday’s game against Tottenham (again!), Chelsea will have the break that Tuchel has been clamoring for. There will be time to gather some cohesion (and perhaps some reinforcements), and we should expect Tuchel, given his track record, to succeed in doing so.