Having just returned from holidays and an international break, many were expecting Chelsea to play with a revived style and reinvigorated tempo. Add in that our first game back was against lower-league opposition in the fourth round of the FA Cup, some may have assumed that this would be a waltz in the park.
Those assumptions did not take into consideration two very important factors. First, our attack and, in particular, our attacking players have been inconsistent, at best, all season long. There have been glimpses of brilliance but the performances have been ... variable.
The second factor is that Ryan Lowe had gotten the Pilgrims playing some decent, if job-specific, football. Lowe got the team promoted to League One in his debut season as full-time manager (was player-manager prior to that) and they were sitting atop of the table not long ago after hitting a 14 game unbeaten streak at the start of the season. Lowe left for Preston North End, a division higher, in December, but his replacement, Steven Schumacher, has continued his work.
Plymouth have stuck to a fairly rigid 3-5-2 formation, with split strikers and stretched centre backs when in possession and a condensed 5-3-2 when not.
Tuchel, not able to be on the bench due to a positive COVID test, once again left everyone to surmise what the actual arrangement would be by the names listed on the team sheet. It turned out to be another back-four, with three nominal midfielders and three attackers.
Jorginho was deployed as our lone holding midfielder and that allowed Mateo Kovačić to push on slightly farther down the left side. Especially early on, he did not do so nearly enough, contributing to the isolation of Callum Hudson-Odoi on that flank. There was a directive to get into wide areas with numerical advantages and drop balls into the box, and so this ineffectiveness down the left would be addressed at half (with Marcos Alonso coming on for Christensen; Sarr sliding infield).
The data above shows just how deep and sustained our right-sided pressure was and the number and location of the crosses in the bottom two images shows the stark contrast from our play on the left. Now, whether we could do anything with all those crosses was a different story all together...
To make things more interesting, Plymouth would have the ball in the net first, when a soft but unnecessary challenge from Hakim Ziyech provided a dangerous set-piece opportunity from a wide area. Former academy captain Jordan Houghton delivered a delightful cross while Lukaku both broke our defensive line and failed to provide any sort of contention for the ball. A slight glance from Macaulay Gillesphey put the ball into the corner past a helpless Kepa Arrizabalaga.
And although our play would improve for periods in the first half and our chances increase, the clinical finishing required was not present.
We again astonishingly underperformed on our xG, but to make matters worse, we would be denied by the woodwork three times in the first 37 minutes, Kovačić did so twice himself — hitting the crossbar after striking with his instep (and much harder than needed) rather than with his laces and toe-down, while simply being unlucky with a great strike against the post on the second.
Chelsea had 41 shots, yet only 11 on target: 70% of all our shots (29) were from inside their eighteen yard box and 7% (3) were from inside their six yard box. Three shots from inside the six, and yet neither of our goals (including Azpilicueta’s, despite it being very close) came from those chances. And it gets
better significantly worse still.
From the 11 shots on target, 5 of them were taken from outside of the box, and 3 of those from Ziyech, who had our most shots on the day with 8. When 45% of the shots on target come from outside of the box (low xG) and yet the team’s xG hits as high as 3.79, our finishing can be rightly called a disgrace.
Mind you, with 120 minutes to demonstrate just how complete he has become, our record signing Romelu Lukaku had 2 shots total and only one that was on goal — a tame header in the 104th minute that was easily collected by Plymouth netminder Michael Cooper. Of the outfield starters, only Antonio Rüdiger had fewer shots in the game (1). Lukaku also had 18 touches in their box, significantly more than any other Chelsea player. Him being relentlessly given these chances needs to bear fruit sooner than later.
Chelsea would get back on level terms before half, through some lovely interchange on the right and a tidy finish from Azpilicueta, who was certainly our brightest outfield player on the day. That aggressive overload and play between the right side slipped Mount in past their back line where he squared across the six for Azpilicueta, who hit one of the apparently three Cryff-turn shots on the night, at least for those of you listening to the ESPN broadcast.
The aforementioned tactical shift at half was meant to add an attacking threat down the left and help spread our attack, but it didn’t quite work. Later, Hudson-Odoi would make way for Kai Havertz and Kovačić would make way for Timo Werner.
That disruption to the already existing lack of rhythm gave Plymouth a chance to grow into the game, and they were more threatening in the second half than the first. Chelsea also wanted to finish the game off, but could only muster a number of offsides. Even if some of those were close, the timing of our runs was off, and we were as disjointed as we were prior to the international break.
But that trio of subs would prove impactful in extra-time. After Havertz was unjustly ruled offside, and then was pulled down for a clear penalty (and/or a straight red for denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity) but neither was given, Alonso would finish off some great movement and give Chelsea the lead for the first time all game.
The interplay was as beautiful as our first goal and was tremendously well-worked, building triangles to threading passes through their lines. Alonso started and finished the move, notably with his non-dominant foot. Alonso has a striker’s instinct and a reliable finish, and this movement was almost identical to the runs that were getting Chilwell his goals earlier this season. There is hope there, still.
We almost threw away the win late on, giving away a penalty with a soft but foolish challenge from Sarr, who otherwise had played well (assuming reasonable expectations are set for his inevitable errant passing). However, Kepa stepped up and saved the kick with ease. Kepa and penalty saves go together like peas and carrots.
Survive and advance. KTBFFH.