Graham Potter is getting results and touting a fantastic record of 6 wins, 3 draws, and a +11 goal differential. RB Salzburg have been undefeated at home in their last 40 competitive matches (including against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League), drew with us in the first leg, and have scored in all of their group stage games.
Yet not only have they kept only 3 clean sheets in their last 12 games, they have also never beaten a team from England in any competition. A Chelsea win (accompanied by a Milan win later in the day, thus removing the head-to-head versus Zagreb as a potential threat) did let us progress with the top spot of our group into the Round of 16 with a game to spare. It was not made easy, even with 71% possession, as clear cut chances fell by the wayside.
Our formation, despite an immense amount of forward presence, lacked width from its wingbacks - see above. It is likely that Potter instructed Christian Pulisic and Raheem Sterling to link up with the striking pair, but both Pulisic and Sterling are wingers, not wingbacks, and that difference was apparent. Our width was only present when the ball was on a particular side of the pitch, and the compression of players to one side of the pitch with the ball was honestly astounding.
In spite of that fact, Chelsea were supposedly in what has been defined as a 3-4-1-2, but the interchanges were incessant and the positional awareness for virtually the entire first half was impressive. It is not easy to have such fluidity between midfield and attack as it is to have through something swapping the position of a front three. Knowing when to attack space or preserve it is vital with the sort variability Potter is expecting them to employ. The official lineups were something of the sort depicted below, but nobody could say with certainty until the players were actually on the pitch what the formation would be. Indeed, no player aside from Jorginho and the back line were truly rooted to a specific position.
In the first half, the midfield was a different machine than we have seen recently, and quick passes were leading to overloads down the flanks - as Mateo Kovačić was typically floating down the left while Gallagher drifted right. Those overloads created ...loads... of chances by complicating Salzburg’s defensive marking. It was nice to see Gallagher flourishing again in a role with more fluidity to find spaces and progress the ball. Kovačić was again proving just how competent he is on the ball while carrying it forward. Those two things helped to tear apart their midfield, as their high press’ best chance would have win the ball off of Jorginho, who was more than happy to play it back to the defense or Kepa and retain possession when pressed. If the press was beaten by Jorginho, often by a pass to Gallagher in space or by a progressive dribble from Kovačić, whoever of the two were on the ball had plethora of passing options. At any given time both wingbacks and strikers might be breaking forward as viable passes, and because our progression was coming through the half spaces via Gallagher or Kovačić, the overloads would be a 3v2 or even 4v2 on whichever side of their back four we chose to attack. Indeed, through that implementation, Gallagher’s crosses were decisive in both taking the lead and nearly furthering it moments later.
Potter stated ahead of the game that width would be important, but, as seen above, we were lacking it at the start. The issue was clear until literally just prior to the first goal. As the ball came from Marc Cucurella to Thiago Silva, he looks up for a switch and sees the bleek options available aside from Trevoh Chalobah. It isn’t until initially Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and eventually Pulisic get out to the touchline that a chance is manufactured and a goal is scored. Kovačić receives the ball centrally from Silva and transitions it to that side, with Pulisic in wait. Gallagher had pressed on beyond him and pulled more of the defenders wide, leaving more space in the box for his cross. While the cross is won by Havertz, he takes touches in the box and is swarmed, only for the ball to fall to an awaiting Kovačić, who hits it first time and hits it into the cobweb’s corner for our first time that evening.
The first half was entertaining as a result of those specific movements. Even the much maligned of late Kai Havertz was getting in on touches, finding pockets, and linking play well. The fact that our possession grew as a result of the goal from 72% to a positively prepotent 81% and the best chances of the game came from Havertz and Aubameyang between the 32nd and 36th minutes (with a 35% and 38% chance of scoring respectively) were both promising and puzzling, as neither of those chances would result in goals. It also left the second half open for discussion when the book should have been slammed closed well before. In the image below, the chance highlighted in the blue circle is the one whose stat is highlighted on the map. Aubameyang himself accrued a .58xG and would have scored had he decided to shoot with any height on either of his two easy chances in the first half, but both were played on the ground. The fact that we had 15 shots and 11 on target is moot when we scored from a 6% shot in the first half and a 5% chance shot in the second.
And because of that poor conversion rate, we were made to suffer in the opening stages of the second half. In the opening phases, our possession fell from the 82% we had in the closure of the first half to 60%, only spiking back up again after our second goal. Unfortunately, while Salzburg were in the ascendency, they also managed to grab a goal, borne entirely from the fact that our wingbacks were not defending on either side and attacking through both flanks in the same movement secured them an equaliser. The second half was made much more uncomfortable, and when it (below) is compared with the first half map (above), it is frustrating. We concluded the first half with a 1.05xG while they had just a .27. However, the game with a 1.55xG for us and a 1.52 for them.
Chelsea 2 great chances and neither were a goal, Salzburg had one great chance and converted it, and it was entirely due to our formation and personnel chosen. Kovačić loses the ball far up the pitch with a poor touch despite having a few passing options, which wouldn’t be a dire emergency with proper cover. As the ball is turned over, the lack of a left-sided wingback causes Jorginho to pinch up and challenge for the ball. That same adjustment causes Silva to compensate and rush to challenge for the ball that Jorginho loses, and with no cover on either flank, that onrush of Salzburg players puts us into a 4v4 defensive breakdown without Silva navigating the defensive organisation and line. The early cross catches out Cucurella with two men to mark, both of whom he gives far too much space. Just like that, they’re level.
Salzburg went on the offensive in the 60th minute, adding an attack-minded player in Benjamin Šeško for Luka Sučić, who had a wide ranging touch and heat map through the middle of the park that his replacement didn’t replicate. Hoping to use their goal as inspiration and increase their attacking threat, Kai Havertz nabbed a goal while their high press was finally bypassed - Sterling dropped into his wingback position to free up space for Jorginho. His switch to Pulisic shuffled their defense but didn’t get us into anywhere near one of our greatest of shootings of the day, and yet Havertz pulled out a bit of his Champions League magic once again.
Our game management wasn’t great thereafter, and the crosses and corners that were threatening in the first half continued in the second. Kepa’s miscontrol of his box and lack of height make him vulnerable on wide set pieces, and both his decisions and punches were not great on the occasions he was forced to make them. As we continued to waste the chances we were creating, Potter’s continual switch to a back four may be both preemptive and assumptive on his behalf. He clearly thinks that we are better offensively with a back three, and most would likely agree. If we were to run a poll about how we are most solid defensively, I am not sure that the back four would take the cake. The game management may have made even more of a difference in the outcome than the formational shift. With four across the back, our possession was largely in the middle and final third in the closing minutes of the game unless we were going for a long ball or outright clearance.
Fatigue is no doubt playing a part for some of the squad, but that isn’t as true for as many of the attackers as the midfield or defense. Their only gripe or excuse might simply be that they’re not playing in their preferred positions, something Callum Hudson-Odoi spoke about recently. The demeanour of the club seems upbeat, minutes are being split up much more than they had been under Thomas Tuchel and, through a relentless schedule, Potter has guided this team from the bottom to the top of this Champions League group despite admitting having never even attended a CL game before the one he coached for Chelsea. That is impressive, and long may it continue.