Chelsea administered an absolute thrashing in the reverse fixture back in October, but Newcastle United are an entirely different outfit following their Saudi-based takeover.
After spending heftily in January and replacing former manager Steve Bruce with Eddie Howe, they had been on a nine-match unbeaten run since the turn of the year that was tied with Liverpool for best in the league.
Thankfully, we would put an end to that, though they would certainly make us work for it. Given the emphasis of players in their defensive setup to keep the ball in front of them with a flat back 5 and 4 holding midfielders, there was little space in the final third to operate and our true chances were few and far between, especially in the first half.
To combat such a compacted midfield, Tuchel’s selection in as his double pivot would be ... pivotal. Jorginho’s positional sense and ability to both dictate play of a possession heavy game and pick a through pass on the occasions he sends them are the reason he is likely one of the first players on Tuchel’s teamsheet for a game like this.
Speaking of players first on teamsheets, N’Golo Kanté will intercept and tackle everything in important defensive spaces (or even higher up the pitch) while effectively transitioning to offense. We were surely expected Newcastle to sit deep, giving Kanté plenty of opportunity to showcase both the defensive (on counters, etc) and attacking aspects of his game.
Tuchel’s ambiguity in team selection continued elsewhere, with the team proving to line up in a variation of a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3), with Trevoh Chalobah at right back and Mason Mount nominally in midfield but with nowhere near the amount of defensive responsibility of the other aforementioned pair.
Mount, who has found recent success on the right wing supported by Kanté and the injured Reece James, was not as effective on the left however, despite occasionally being gifted acres of space. He ended up as one of the first substitutions around the hour mark.
Likewise, Timo Werner, playing in front of Mount, was disappointing and removed at the same time. Werner did well to get in the narrow and limited space between their back line and the goal line more than a few times, but they immediately closed down the space inside the box and his pace was nullified before the ball could be put into a dangerous position — often blocked or cleared for a corner. His touch wasn’t doing him any favours, either.
Werner thrives most in the center. In his successful seasons at RB Leipzig, he played centrally or even as a very attack-minded No. 10 role, or as part of a striking pair. Our lack of familiarity with this formation and the passing patterns it necessitates would be clear as day as the match wore on.
Chelsea’s average positions in the first 30 mins vs Newcastle (@SofaScoreINT):— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) March 13, 2022
4 centre-backs in defence
Kante and Mount roaming in front of Jorginho
Werner the most advanced forward
4-3-3 for just the third time this season. pic.twitter.com/ToFlkggOWh
After the opening 20 minutes, Newcastle began to press higher up the pitch and started to make our relentless obsession with playing slowly out of the back far more cumbersome to our productivity than the eventual long ball would prove to be.
Our buildup play is often slow when Jorginho is dictating the tempo. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but comparing the results of our buildup play to Manchester City, the other title-contender who prefers a similar modus operandi, we are weaker. Liverpool thrive moreso off of a quick transition than a possession-oriented assault (and lead in direct attacks). Our limited attack does not compare well to the league leaders.
The first half would settle for mediocrity and a subdued nil-nil Mount’s free kick drilled into the side netting and a cross deflecting off of the side of Dan Burn’s face while going wide of the net were the highest probabilities for a goal.
The second half would prove more frustrating from a Chelsea perspective, as their press continued to be effective and our midfield could not convert the ball upfield, giving up sloppy turnovers as a result. Pivotally, Tuchel’s response was to add midfield depth in Kovačić for Mount, as the extra deeper-lying and defensive presence was absolutely necessary to combat the man-marking of our double-sixes and Mount was being overrun without obvious passing patterns presented to him on our left side.
Mason Mount Newcastle— Fast Heat Maps (@NinjaFooty) March 13, 2022
63 minutes played
0/4 crosses completed
0/1 long balls completed
0 dribbles completed
0 key passes
0 shots on target
0/2 ground duels won
0 fouls won
2 fouls committed
6.6 SofaScore rating #CHENEW pic.twitter.com/hEVqgYBFXA
Tuchel also added a forward outlet in Romelu Lukaku for Timo Werner, who had literally just had two breakaways thwarted through a poor touch off of his thigh and an offside run negating a penalty shout. Only after the changes would we would have our first shot on goal, unbelievably coming in the 76th minute after a decent header from Havertz — though one right into the gloves of Martin Dúbravka.
65 minutes played and Chelsea are still yet to have a shot on target against Newcastle.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 13, 2022
And because they were happy to operate on a half press until we crossed the midfield line and they were content with a draw, it would take something that quickly worked its way through their compact lines (unlikely) or circumvented them altogether to get three points. The introduction of more direct players hadn’t resulted in much change, as even Christian Pulisic being brought on and a shift to a back three did not change the slow transitional play.
And because of the succession of offsides that plundered the opportunities to start this half, Jorginho decided to circumvent. The ball he plays over the top to save the game is as delicate as the first touch the Havertz uses to bring it down, even yet under pressure from the man marking system Newcastle had suffocated our offensive game with to this point.
With his delicate left
pillow foot, Havertz both cushions the ball and finishes a half-volley, half-step, outside of the foot wonder goal, all while holding off his new best friend, Dan Burn. An indirect game that lacked precision for 89 minutes was given a goal of resplendent beauty and we would take the three points on whatever form of vehicle available back to London.
Aspiration. Flexibility. Resilience: all things demonstrated by the squad and needed in every facet of the club right now. Let’s hope the performances on the pitch are indicative of and inspirational to the overall mood at Chelsea, however unlikely that may seem given the outside perspective.