This match cannot have gone anywhere near what Thomas Tuchel, his coaching staff, or the players would have surely wanted.
The nicer weather and break from the stress of the Premier League and the more familiar cup competitions might have provided some respite, but there is still a strong push here to win a missing piece of silverware in the Chelsea trophy cabinet. Accordingly, Tuchel (via Zsolt Lőw) opted for a strong veteran presence in a very strong starting XI.
Al Hilal were no pushovers however, boasting quality players especially in attack, and a stellar pedigree as four-time AFC Champions League-winners. They had lost just twice all season coming in to this game.
Against Chelsea’s assumed quality, they did opt for a slightly more defensive variation of their standard 4-2-3-1, flooding the midfield in a 4-1-4-1 arrangement. But since we did not live up to our end of that assumption, there wasn’t much to separate the sides and the stats were generally even.
Chelsea’s build-up play was slow, overall. The drifting, diagonal cross-field passes (mostly left to right) were ineffective, not unlike the lofted and deep corners that Ziyech was playing. While a quick change of attacking direction can catch a team off-guard, the slow and arching balls allow time for the defense to reshape and adjust for any real threat.
Most of our drive and impetus were muffled by either a poor attempt on goal, or a poor final pass.
Our first real look on target came in the 10th minute, after Andreas Christensen not only did well to intercept an outlet pass but delicately controlled a bouncing ball past a second challenge. He then slid in Azpilicueta on the right with Ziyech in accompaniment. But an off-balance Ziyech could only shoot over the bar from his favored side and position, after the former’s layoff.
Not exactly a good sign for our attack that has lain barren for quite some time.
Metrics for this game are nowhere to be found, but they are not really necessary; our attacking deficiencies were glaring enough as is.
Our transitional game tends to be slower and possession-oriented, meaning that sometimes our attack will delay and prioritize bringing players forward rather than driving towards the opposition’s goal. While that in and of itself isn’t a recipe for disaster, the final product has been lacking thanks to some horrendous final passes and shots.
And when we slow the tempo and allow the defense to set up and cover passing lanes, those passes and shots get even more horrendous. Against Al Hilal, in only the first half, a through ball was either hit long for a goal kick or was mistimed and caught a player offside seven times, and that is not including those hit long that only went out for throw-ins.
Two examples of our lack of cohesion are shown below. In the first, there should be no explicable way for Lukaku to not get onto the end of this through ball. And while this one doesn’t actually go out of play, it’s still overhit enough that Abdullah Al-Mayouf, the opposing goalkeeper, is able to get to the ball first. (And then start a counter-attack, even!)
Minutes later, there is a gap in the centre of the pitch that ought to be exploited, but Silva can only throw his arms up in frustration at the lack of options available to him there. In fact, a large number of the positions taken up here are reprehensible, with players occupying the same space and leaving the enormous gap in the middle.
Our goal came as much from defensive effort and Kovačić’s willingness to drive forward in possession, as it did from opportunism.
Kovačić picks the ball up just outside our penalty box and drives into their defensive third with pace and picks out Havertz while he is onside. Playing with pace and onside passes were rarities on the night.
Havertz doesn’t get his initial cross in, but the rebound falls kindly, as does the rebound of his second cross off a slow-to-react defender. Lukaku couldn’t possibly miss cashing in on this gift.
We were not scoring with ease last season, or even at times early this season while still top of the league, but our defense was resolute and purposeful throughout. That’s less so the case these days. And if the attack cannot create larger cushions, then the goalkeepers are going to be put to the test more often than we’d like. We saw this with Mendy earlier this season and we are seeing it with Kepa now. His numerous saves in the second half are largely the reason we remain in contention for more silverware.
The fact that we made three defensive substitutions — N’Golo Kanté for Jorginho, Mason Mount for Ziyech, Malang Sarr for Alonso — underlined just how close the game was and how easily it could have gone the other way.
Tuchel actually being on the touchline might have made a difference in terms of motivation or momentum, but a lot of these issues have been around for a while now.