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Chelsea 2-1 Palmeiras, Club World Cup Final: Tactical Analysis

Rounding out the trophy collection

Chelsea v Palmeiras: Final - FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2021 Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

While the prerequisite to participating in the Club World Cup may be more difficult than actual winning it, we did in fact fail to win it in our only previous attempt and it would also complete the collection of coronations in the Chelsea cabinet. But our ineffective attack would make this second game of the tournament even more difficult than the semi-final, requiring extra time to settle the difference.

Chelsea set out in our typical 3-4-2-1 and while it had seemed strange to see Hakim Ziyech, our in-form player at the moment, out of the starting lineup in favor of Kai Havertz, Havertz did have an excellent game. Callum Hudson-Odoi came in at left wingback and would be afforded great amounts of space on that side. Édouard Mendy was also back in goal, showing our intention to win.

Starting XI’s
Football Critic

Palmeiras were set deep and with a flat back five and essentially four pressing midfielders clogging up the middle and half-spaces of the pitch, while tasking the outside backs to handle the wings both offensively and defensively. Marcos Rocha and Gustavo Scarpa were overlapping the midfielders while they were in possession and getting down the flanks for crosses, but were also largely isolated defensively.

Out of possession, Palmeiras were content to let our defenders have the ball. They immediately pressed tightly onto anything that came forward and would thereby leave gaps on the outside channels — but no areas to attack centrally.

This would mean that the interplay between Havertz and Hudson-Odoi on the left and Mason Mount (later Christian Pulisic) and César Azpilicueta on the right would be important. With the centre of the pitch so congested and their back line playing so deep, balls over top or through to space behind did not exist. Attempts to find tight passes within channels were equally smothered, with their defense moving in unison.

The only avenues are through wide play

Chelsea needed crosses in order to get any real chances in the box, but had a right-footed player at left wing-back.

Hudson-Odoi’s tendency to slow up play in hopes to catch a player off-guard or off-balance worked against him here: for example, in the 11th minute, as seen below, when Havertz plays the ball to him with one defender to beat and with two options to pick as targets — but accomplishing neither.

Stop stopping.

In addition to slowing down play by incessantly cutting back — in the process hurting his own likelihood of success by neglecting numerous opportunities to create better chances simply by taking on his defenders on the outside rather than cutting centrally towards traffic — Hudson-Odoi also routinely overhit his right-footed crosses.

Here is one such sequence, again with Havertz slipping in Hudson-Odoi with space to run into — but rather than taking that space, he cuts back and sends a deep cross to the back post. While we have presence there, the play breaks down.

Hudson-Odoi failed to see the space in front of him

Hudson-Odoi is by no means the scapegoat for our attack (especially as he was playing wingback), but he was in focus as Azpilicueta was much more reserved on the opposite side and their midfielders were tracking N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić closely. Meanwhile, our strikers were tasked to keep their back line honest while staying onside. Lukaku (and Havertz later) had two or three defenders on them at all times and we had zero offsides on the day — yes, even after Timo Werner’s 76th minute introduction!

With Lukaku and the midfielders occupying the opposition centrally, Kai Havertz did find some joy slipping into deeper positions and carrying the ball forward. He had four progressive runs from midfield into the final third in the first half, and was doing a great job in finding the gap between the lines on the rare occasions that Palmeiras’ defending lacked a bit of cohesion.

Havertz was able to find central pockets of space

While play continued without substitutions after the break, there was a slight tactical tweak, emphasizing our left side even more than before. Mateo Kovačić started getting much more forward and involved, also freeing up Havertz to continue dropping into those deeper pockets. And that led directly to our goal.

As Kovačić picked up the ball in midfield, Havertz checked to the ball and brought his marker with him, giving the outlet to Hudson-Odoi. Kovačić played through rather than to feet, and perhaps crucially, Hudson-Odoi used his non-dominant left foot for once to send an absolute peach of a ball for Lukaku to meet, beating two defenders and putting sufficient power and placement on the header to give us the lead.

Havertz run pulls the defense out of shape, Hudson-Odoi is able to exploit it

Due to the defensive nature of Palmeiras’ setup, their only chances at goal came from fast breaks, which Chelsea dealt with easily almost every time, or set pieces — or, as it proved to be the case, a penalty from a set piece. A long throw after Rüdiger had played the ball out somewhat unnecessarily resulted in Thiago Silva’s hand making contact with the ball on an aerial challenge.

After Palmeiras drew level, both sides became more open, though most of our shots would still come from outside the box. Then Palmeiras became even more defensive in the final 15 minutes of regulation, at times playing with a back seven. Chelsea moved Pulisic to left wingback and put Werner (on for Lukaku) up top, though his pace against a deep back line would prove minimally effective.

Our shooting stats are disappointing

Tuchel would again make changes in the break, this time adding Malang Sarr and Ziyech for the start of extra-time, removing Christensen and Kovačić, and shifting into a 4-1-4-1 with Kanté holding and Havertz leading the line. This increased our presence in the final third, but our shots were getting blocked or were off target from long range.

Complicating things were the number of fouls committed by Palmeiras in an effort to prevent any fluidity, clearly playing for a shootout at this point.

But just when it looked like Mendy would have to repeat his heroics from the Africa Cup of Nations final the previous weekend, Chelsea were awarded a penalty on review, after Luan blocked a close-range shot from Azpilicueta with his arm.

Kai Havertz, the designated third penalty taker (Jorginho and Lukaku, in that order, were ahead of him), cooly tucked away the penalty — thanks in part to César Azpilicueta taking pressure off of him by making everyone think he was going to take a penalty.

With ease

The trophy celebrations were ecstatic and the jubilation amongst the squad can only help for the upcoming fixtures. The fact that Lukaku has now scored in consecutive games is almost as great of a development. Mount’s injury is a slight downside, especially with Champions League fixtures looming, but both of the open play goals were scored without him on the pitch and Lukaku has now taken over as our leading scorer in all competitions.


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