Graham Potter was back in the Champion’s League with a point (or three) to prove and plaudits to procure, and this man tends to do that in his career. An injury-riddled AC Milan certainly facilitated how dominant we looked, but nobody cared to mention that last October while we suffered injuries and illness. Both teams sit fifth in their respective leagues and were expected (by oddsmakers) to qualify beyond the group stage, but both have been porous at the back this season — AC Milan haven’t had a clean sheet in their last 6, Chelsea in their previous 8. I had to include our sparse history with the opponent, as it is surprising how few times we have met on the pitch and oddly coincidental that we’ve only played in ‘66, ‘99, and now ‘22.
Graham Potter, like many coaches or managers prior to him, has seen the strength in depth that this team has when fielding a back 3. Aside from being well-drilled in its routines and patterned play, the quality of backups to literally each position (when we’re fully fit) really compliments the new ownership’s approach, having addressed a multitude of major concerns with genuinely impressive signings. That depth should carry us beyond what the squad from last season was capable of (for last year’s fixture against Wolves, our upcoming opponent, we had only 4 on the bench, 2 of which were goalies, the other two being Malang Sarr and Ross Barkley.)
Knowing the current injury absences, I don’t think many of us were surprised one bit by those who got the nod to start. The speed of Rafael Leão would have needed someone faster than Cesar Azpilicueta in the right of the back 3, and Trevoh Chalobah was even preferred secondarily (gleefully, after his strange absence last season) after the unfortunate injury to Fofana. Koulibaly was selected for the pre-match presser, so he was obviously going to start - but certainly took his time growing into the game. Marc Cucurella was just back from illness, so Ben Chilwell was preferred again. Raheem Sterling has been our best producer all season, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang scored on the weekend, and Mason Mount, like Reece James, continues to be essentially undroppable. After last weekend, anyone could tell you that Jorginho is not Potter’s preference, and so the only other logical solution beside Mateo Kovačić was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, both of whom had a marvelous game and were fantastic at progressive movements with the ball.
What was particularly unfortunate for the visitors was that their preferred left back, Theo Hernández, was unavailable. This gave Reece James all the motivation he needed to put in another masterclass performance. The right side contributed to 45% of our attack but surprisingly only .36 of our xG. In fact, from only 5 attacks spawned from a central position, we accumulated 1.22 xG, 65% of our overall. That only highlights just how impressive the performance from James was, nabbing a goal and an assist from such low probabilities. The pass was precise and left Aubameyang only having to make contact for the redirection, and the shot for his goal was powered by rocket fuel. That front line and Reece James tormented Pierre Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori, who was lucky to stay on the pitch after deliberately fouling James while already on a yellow.
But those central chances are something that has been consistent of Potter through all 3 matches - and not only are they from central positions, but also from inside the box. In the Tuchel days, we could rarely force any penetration into the opposition area, but Potter has addressed that through quicker transitions and encouraging direct, vertical play. The ball isn’t recycled across the back line anymore, but it is sent into the box, sometimes speculatively, but the threats created from those balls are far greater than anything recycling possession might bring. Chelsea either carried into or passed into the opposition’s final third 62 times, with a significant number of those between Reece James and Raheem Sterling.
Ben Chilwell, on the other hand, was significantly more isolated, with Mount having a more centrally occupied position than Sterling. Chilwell did have a great showing, too, but won’t receive the plaudits like James for his lack of influence in the final third. In fact, Chilwell and Koulibaly were the single two players to connect more passes (33) between them than James and Sterling (27) on the other side. Chilwell and Mount only linked up 15 times total, and few of those were progressive passes, unlike with James and Sterling.
There were quite a few chances where our front three really found ease in getting the ball into dangerous positions against their back line. The way their full backs were pushing up left channels in the half spaces open and stretch the the two central defenders to each side. Aubameyang, Sterling, and Mount were all making the most of those opportunities, and this is why the central attacks were both so effective and fluid. Milan has had quite a rough time this season in defense, nothing like how sturdy and effective it was last season on their way to the Scudetto, with Fikayo Tomori playing more minutes than any other and being a key cog in their setup.
The first instance of the gaping holes that were opening up came in just the 5th minute. A clearance from Ciprian Tatarusanu is won by Thiago Silva and falls to Kovačić, who turns with the ball and pings a beautiful ball into Aubameyang in space and with options. Their defensive structure below is downright poor, and these were the types of chances that we were both creating and, worryingly at first, not finishing. Eventually Aubameyang slides the ball to Mount on the play below, and his shot is decent for being the farthest one of the bunch on the map above, but only had a 3% chance of going in...the same that Gallagher had on his worldie from the weekend.
And, if their defending from open play was poor, their defending from set pieces was worse. Thiago Silva, arguably our greatest threat in the air, was lost through their marking scheme, which looked to be something of a mix of man and zonal marking. Getting his head to the ball thrice in quick succession, Silva might have scored himself had Fikayo Tomori not deflected two of them. Ismaël Bennacer was certainly supposed to be marking Silva, but he essentially failed to jump and challenge for any of the three balls before the header on target was parried into the centre and then passed calmly into the back of the net by Fofana for his first goal in Chelsea blue.
The front three were consistently involved and finding pockets of space all over the pitch, and Mount’s central presence was key to much of it, again leaving the left flank open for Chilwell to attack if the ball did switch. The three of them linked up for the next two glorious chances, one after Sterling slid James down the flank and he picked up Mount’s trailing run behind Aubameyang, who was occupying both central defenders. Only a fortuitous block by Pierre Kalulu, who just happened to be in the shooting lane but clearly knew nothing of Mount’s positioning, kept out the first chance. The next came moments later, just before Fofana’s injury, and was an impressive set of one touch passing and finishing that only was ruled out by Mount being in a slightly offsides position. Regardless, after so long relying nearly exclusively on our wingbacks for our offensive thrust, it was enjoyable to watch these three link up and get good chances.
Again, Fofana’s injury (about the only thing that Rafael Leão did in the match) did have two positives for the exuberant optimist: during the injury, those same front three were heavily involved in planning, and Mount could be seen gesturing to his fellow strikers about runs either he was making or wanted them to make. That was just another refreshing aspect to these three linking up in both their passing and communication.
The other was that Chalobah not only came in and did a great job, but did so against one of the most threatening attackers in Europe’s top 5 leagues. This and the other substitutions further hark on the point I made earlier, our depth. If we actually take a look at the unused subs (Mendy, Betinelli, Cucurella, Azpilicueta, Zakaria, Ziyech, and Pulisic), that was a bench filled with quality players. Add in the fact that our used subs (Chalobah, Jorginho, Gallagher, Havertz, and Broja) were certainly no slacks, and again we ought to have both higher expectations than we did last season and take note of the effective transfer window we had this summer, all while in the midst of a takeover.
This game was replete with positives, but there are always things to improve. Our possession was nowhere near where we’d prefer, just 51% overall. In both of the periods where we scored our goals, we were in the ascendency of possession. Between the 15-30 minutes, we reached an apex of 65%, but, coinciding with the Fofana injury, from 30-45 we dipped to 41%. We started the second half low, too, but peaked at around 56% in the 60th minute - we scored just prior to and after that, but possession dipped again to 47% in the final half hour. Potter hasn’t done it yet, but he is hoping that there will be no drop in form when inevitably substitutions will have to be made. This would have been an even more comprehensive victory had we been able to keep that possession tidier, but perhaps the game might not have been as open if we had.
Potter spoke of a ‘balance between change and consistency,’ realising that the depth of the squad is a huge factor as we navigate an intense schedule and attempt to manage it with minimal injuries while rotating the squad. So far, we have seen different formations but only somewhat different personnel, at least for the starting XI. Maximising the potential of this club will come with achieving that, and Potter certainly has plenty of impending chances to do so.