Speaking of distractions, Tuchel’s team sheets these days seem to be as much an attempt to deceive anyone trying to cover the game, including Chelsea’s own official social media accounts, as they are to confuse the enemy. Published as a 4-3-3 with a strange set of outside backs, it was in fact our usual and favored 3-4-3 — though if you had Ruben Loftus-Cheek as the starting central defender in a back three, then you may as well go buy your winning lottery ticket now.
The rest of the lineup wasn’t as cobbled-together as it might have seemed at first glance, with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Kenedy as the two wing-backs, Jorginho and Saúl in the middle, and an attacking trident worth over a quarter billion, assuming Mason Mount’s theoretical valuation.
And said trident worked well indeed, especially in the second half, thanks in large part to Timo Werner. Even beyond his goal and two assists, he was making excellent runs all game, both to drag defenders wide and to exploit the half spaces in the channels.
Luton came out with the intent to press and had essentially mirrored our lineup. They worked well out wide in the beginning phases of the game and nodded themselves ahead in reward for those efforts, after a pair of poor turnovers from Jorginho yielded a deep, long throw-in, which Loftus-Cheek headed out for a corner when another throw-in could’ve been just as easily achieved.
To lack of attention and individual errors continued on the corner itself, with Luton congesting the penalty spot then spreading across the six-yard box as the corner-taker began his run-up. Malang Sarr loses his man in the morass of bodies and Reece Burke is first to the inswinging cross, which does most of the work. The glancing header couldn’t have been tucked into the corner better, kissing off the post and giving Kepa Arrizabalaga zero chance.
Emboldened by the lead and the raucous home crowd, Luton Town were the better and more incisive side in the opening ten minutes. Chelsea were penned into our own half or even our own defensive third and couldn’t string together any passes. The lack of familiarity between those playing was interrupting the basic patterns of movement and passing that we typically employ to possess and progress the ball.
During set pieces especially, being unfamiliar with one another from limited game time together and with no stern defensive leadership, our frailties were apparent. Free kicks of all sorts, with a disorganized and often very high back line, had us scrambling constantly.
It wasn’t all good news for Luton, as just after the ten minute mark, Jed Steer would take a misstep and pick up an apparent Achilles injury. His replacement, Harry Isted, recently of non-league Wealdstone, had never played at this level.
Still, at least Isted is a goalkeeper. Meanwhile, at the other end, Loftus-Cheek was proving that he is definitely not a defender, having trained approximately one day for the position. His inability to direct our defensive line meant that errors were possible, nay probable. Sarr would be responsible for Luton’s second goal, too, and that was directly related to the lack of communication.
Against the run of play, that miscommunication would see Sarr mistime the offside trap, playing Harry Cornick onside. Sarr had been tracking Cornick from the far side of the pitch as Luton played through our midfield with some nice one-touch passing, but suddenly stops and hopes to play the trap. But his timing is horribly off and Cornick is in 1-v-1 before taking his shot early to slot home against the club he supports.
Thankfully, before then, we were able to level proceedings, by concentrating the central press on Gabriel Osho and Jorginho and Romelu Lukaku forcing a turnover. Mount picks up the errant pass and drives forward, sliding Werner in as the stretched runs from our strikers split open the defense. Timo drags his run inside and takes a heavy touch, but that puts the ball straight into Saúl’s path, who passes the ball into the bottom corner for his first ever Chelsea goal.
The goal seemed to kick Chelsea into gear and successive chances followed. But Isted quickly made everyone learn his name, and combined with Luton’s resolute and statistically superior defending, we would head into the break trailing by a goal.
2 - Chelsea have conceded more than one goal in the first half of a game for just the third time this season, having previously done so versus Zenit (December 2021) and Liverpool (January this year). Uncharacteristic.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 2, 2022
The most noticeable change to our game in the second half was Werner picking up deeper pockets of space centrally — often instead of Mount, whom we might expect to be doing that normally.
And Tuchel would not wait long to make personnel changes as well, with a double-switch at wing-back bringing on Christian Pulisic and Harvey Vale. Although many of our attacks were sprung from wide areas, the starting wing-backs were not providing tremendous service. Although the quality of the service didn’t exactly improve after the substitutions, the pace and directness of our play did.
Loftus-Cheek was engaging in many more penetrating runs while also providing long balls from deep, and Timo Werner was active up top. Eventually the two would connect through some glorious route-one football, with the delivery of a dipped ball over the top a la David Luiz. Werner’s first-touch this time is great, gently bringing the ball down on his thigh, and his finish just as good to bring Chelsea level for the second time in the game.
And Timo was not done yet, adding another assist to send us into the next round.
Slick possession and a strong overload on the right side — now with Reece James on for Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek moved into midfield — gives the latter the opportunity to pick out yet another line-shattering pass, yet again for Werner, who yet again is ONside! He would deliver the perfect cross to Romelu Lukaku, who only needed to get a touch on the ball to put it beyond Isted.
Lukaku hasn’t been scoring regularly in the league and has been catching plenty of flak for it. But he has found his scoring form in other competitions, and his display in the FA Cup has been particularly impressive. We are going to need this form to continue if we hope to avoid defeat in a third consecutive final, should we be lucky/good enough to make it that far.