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Chelsea 2-0 Tottenham, League Cup semifinal: Tactical Analysis

Half the job done

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Carabao Cup Semi Final First Leg Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

The first of three meetings against Tottenham in nineteen days occurred this week. Let’s hope the remaining two follow suit.

Antonio Conte had no real surprises and essentially fielded his strongest XI in his preferred and drilled 3-4-3 formation, one with which we should still be quite familiar.

That should’ve given them an advantage against our highly rotated squad forced into an atypical formation, depleted even further by last-minute COVID cases in Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kanté. Instead, they should be quite relieved that this tie isn’t essentially over already.

Starting XI’s

Chelsea started a game in a back four for the first time under Thomas Tuchel. It seemed as though the intent was for a 4-2-2-2, but there were glimpses of many other structures, dictated by responses to the gameplay. Tuchel himself claimed it wasn’t out of want but necessity to shift to four at the back, as there simply weren’t enough available centre halves for selection.

In fact, prior to kickoff, media outlets were scrambling to determine how we may actually line up, with most trying to pinhole us into the expected 3-4-2-1 with either Alonso or Ziyech at right wingback.

From ESPN, the starting XI

And yet, they weren’t entirely wrong. There were certainly times when Ziyech appeared to drop into a right wingback role and even performed some impressive defensive work (notably twice in the 33rd minute) to round out a fantastic performance from a not so traditional position.

It almost seemed like Tuchel’s intent was for a fluid back line, where the strong-sided outside back was permitted to join the attack while the defense shifted to cover for their advanced movement: essentially a 2-4-4 in possession.

Average Player Positions

Both actual outside backs, two wily veterans, were trusted to press on when the play availed itself and to hold when defensively needed. And that trust brought us our first goal on the day.

After Saúl Ñíguez does well under pressure to help César Azpilicueta bring the ball out from the defensive third, he is overrun in midfield and turns the ball over to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who begins the (boring) possession recycling process of the Conte system. But Kai Havertz presses well and forces a pass from Japhet Tanganga towards Emerson Royal, which is read and intercepted by Alonso, who certainly knows every facet of said system.

Now off to the races, Alonso slides a polished pass down the outside of Tanganga, who should be favored to reach it, but somehow loses out to Havertz, who runs on the inside and gets goalside to box out the defender, before seeing his shot deflect off Davinson Sánchez into the back of the net. It’s not without some personal sacrifice for Havertz however, eventually subbed at half for Timo Werner after suffering a broken finger on the play.

Alonso intercepts in the first, Havertz slides home in the second

The midfield pivot of Jorginho and Saúl Ñíguez worked well, and both were showing for the ball and moving it quickly through the lines with one or two touch football and progressive passing. Saúl received deserved plaudits for his encouraging 73 minutes.

Other than the first goal, there were some glaring (and unsurprising) deficiencies in Chelsea’s finishing — Lukaku, who finished the first half with the fewest touches of any outfield player, missing a header from a picturesque Ziyech cross in the 41st minute being one of the more obvious ones. There were also multiple low xG shots taken from around or even outside the 18.

Lots of shots with a low xG

Fortunately, and in line with the abysmal defending Spurs displayed on the day, we would find ourselves up 2-0 before half. What can be attributed to our efforts is earning the free kick in a dangerous position, as there wasn’t even really a Chelsea player challenging for the ball after its delivery — Ziyech standing off in the distance must have been laughing as he watched it bumble into their net for an own goal.

All 10 outfielders in the box, no challenge on the ball, yet we score. Spursy.

One last point that deserves mentioning: Malang Sarr had a successful day, especially in the first half. He finished with the second most tackles, most blocks, second most touches and passes (including 15 key passes!) on the team, with only one loss of possession and one booking, a rather soft flailing arm foul on Harry Kane that occurred in their half.

The circled foul was the soft yellow in the 63rd minute

Big chances kept coming in the second half, but our failure to convert leaves Tottenham somewhat in the tie. Conte had to abandon his preferred system for a back four in hopes of matching Chelsea in midfield, limit our final third possession, and supply more balls to their forwards. As Conte stated afterward, it seemed like Chelsea won every duel.

Chelsea also reinforced the center of the park in the 73rd minute with the introduction of Mateo Kovačić (for Mason Mount), to nullify any counter-efforts from Spurs trying unsuccessfully to grow into the game.

Ziyech, the official man of the match, continued to play well, highlighting the half with this glorious pass to Werner (and also hitting an uncontested volley over the bar from a great cross by Alonso in the 77th minute).

The substitutions we were able to make will save some legs from exhaustion. Pulisic once again came on as a wing back and was turned by Bryan Gil for Spurs’ best chance, a perfect example of why that is certainly not his best position. The sooner those wingback positions are sorted, revised, or refilled, the better.


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