Thomas Tuchel’s well-instructed and strongly fielded lineup did their due diligence to help us return to our second home at Wembley, and the outcome was all but buttoned up just after the half-hour mark in a game which played out comfortably from start to finish — and largely based on the tactics employed.
Guessing Tuchel’s formation before kick-off was again an absolute crapshoot — but could largely be described as a fluid 4-3-3, with Mateo Kovačić drifting further back at times to form a pivot with the generally more isolated and deep-lying Ruben Loftus-Cheek (4-2-3-1), but also with Ziyech sometimes dropping deep enough to resemble a wing-back (at least in theory, if not defensive application) in a lopsided 3-5-2.
Either way, Tuchel trusted his players to allow their positioning to be dictated by the play, in direct contrast to the rigid 3-5-2 that Chris Wilder would inevitably run out.
Middlesbrough abetted our assault on their goal and maybe, possibly, just might in an ever-so-perfect world, have (fingers-crossed) invigorated Romelu Lukaku in the process. Their high press was sucked deep onto our back line, stretching the field vertically. That opened up midfield space that was both easily played into and turned, a stark contrast from the game against Lille or much of our previous opposition.
Precise, defensive release passes were the true antecedent to each goal-producing attack. That space to run towards or into and the transitional play against a stretched line was all that Lukaku needed to show the situations in which he is able to thrive, and on just about the quarter-hour mark, he would capitalise on a gift presented on a golden platter.
Silva did well to bring down a lofted ball and then play out of an intense but disorganised press. Ziyech had dropped deeper to expose their left side and turned the ball upfield to release Mason Mount. The space opened up behind Paddy McNair was now enormous, and Mount was in it.
After the easiest training ground cross and finish, we would see ourselves in the lead and we ought to note that the run made to find himself able to finish the goal is something Lukaku will do anytime he is presented with the opportunity.
Lukaku’s movement was lively and his hold-up play was dominant in this game where he had supporting runners and more space to operate than we have been granted lately. In the tight spaces of previous games, Havertz has been chosen and has thrived. But our versatility up top would prove decisive in this cup game — albeit against lower-league opposition and at precisely a £97.5 million cost.
While our expensive striker played well, Loftus-Cheek had a poor and forgettable game, especially in the period between the goals. Playing an important role in which we might hope he would thrive, his positioning was off and his possession and distribution were surprisingly subpar. He did (both in the goal above and below, as highlighted) draw Middlesbrough players out of position and thereby facilitate the goal, but he was only indirectly involved while the important passes literally passed him by as almost a decoy in the midfield both times. Yet, his deployment was certainly not as an intentional decoy.
Our second goal was built up on the left side of the field but was similar to the first — quick passing from the back and a pivotal turn in the midfield: Rüdiger plays a fantastic ball to Kovačić and his run springs the attack. Kovačić’s central pass to Mount and the acres of space in which he found himself allowed the play to be brought forward and switched.
Hakim Ziyech was deep down the right wing, just outside of their box. As the ever-running Azpilicueta overlaps him to keep the defense honest to the outside and give him the space to shoot, Ziyech continues his recent run of form (interrupted only due to injury) and cuts inside to unleash a blast, amazingly wrong-footing Joe Lumley from 20 yards out for our second goal.
Have Hakim's goal in every angle! pic.twitter.com/cA20YXIi5U— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) March 22, 2022
The half’s other notable chances would be self-inflicted by Middlesbrough, after Dael Fry made a mess of a clearance and gave Pulisic a chance to capitalize in the 4th minute and a few terrible turnovers and a misplaced ball that have been put away by Lukaku in the 36th.
The second half would start with a substitution at the centre of the Middlesbrough back three: Sol Bamba replacing Fry. Neither that nor their subsequent three chances, whether by injury or intent, would address their issues nor really cause us any harm to us, although Sarr did struggle with Isaiah Jones at times after the break. While the opposition were hoping to continue their run of 9 consecutive victories at home, they wouldn’t even muster a shot on target nor make themselves able to get many touches in our barricaded penalty area.
Timo Werner for Pulisic and N’Golo Kanté for Kovačić were the first of our largely non-impactful changes; Kenedy for Ziyech and Harvey Vale for Lukaku in the later stages of the game would not amount to much either. Mount would continue to be the catalyst in the second half and would finish the game with an impressive set of stats but also a mile-marker in his Chelsea career.
50 - Following his two assists against Middlesbrough (at 2-0), Mason Mount has been directly involved in 50 goals for Chelsea across all competitions, scoring 25 and assisting a further 25. Spotlight. pic.twitter.com/AKUlBsKZbB— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 19, 2022
After the international break, we can possibly hope for even more versatility on the field and a new vibe off of it, with Reece James set to return and perhaps some movement on the ownership front.
The fewer distractions that the players and Tuchel need deal with, the better. That can only help to improve our performances on the field, already an impressive run that’s featured a ton of wins and a single loss on penalties (even if Lukaku was onside when he scored...).