Chelsea were back from the latest international break but unfortunately, it seemed as though the players were mentally still on holiday and the manager’s decisions, both before and during the game, didn’t have their typical positive effect.
Tuchel set up with a back-four, a strange decision considering the inclusion of Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta as the full backs. While Azpilicueta has played both the left and right sides successfully, those were in his ageless years and his legs just aren’t there anymore. Meanwhile, Alonso, a wing-back specialist, has never been suited to this deeper position, especially on the defensive end. He compounded matters by playing as if he were carrying a refrigerator on his back, while giving the ball away regularly in our own half and defensive third as well (second worst passing completion on the team for the game).
One possible idea behind that back four was to have experienced players behind the ball to prevent both the high press and Brentford’s counter-attacks from being as effective as they were in the first meeting between the teams. With numbers behind the ball and a theoretical pass-distributing No.6 in Ruben Loftus-Cheek, we ought to have been able to play out from the back via ample supportive passing angles.
While in theory that might be a sound projection, our lethargic movement and errant passing gave Brentford all the impetus they needed to grow into the game and make it their own.
The back four has, from time-to-time this season, looked quite effective. Rotating between formations has been something that Tuchel dared not explore last season but has done to great success thus far in the current campaign. Using the back four in other games was justified where a central two in cover was sufficient. It was also accomplished with more mobile outside backs and more fluid midfield movement to get onto the outlet passes and progress the ball upfield.
A central two against the striking pair of Brentford, compounded with the lack of pace on that back line (aside from Rüdiger) left us exposed both in speed and on the flanks. In the first half, Brentford could not counter through vertical passing under the protection of the positioning of our two veteran centre-backs, but the flanks provided too much space for our slower defenders to cover.
Another decision that immediately raised eyebrows was the shape of the midfield. Given that Brentford have the highest xG from set pieces this season, Tuchel explained ahead of the game that he had gone with Ruben Loftus-Cheek for his height in a sort of regista role in the place of Jorginho.
Loftus-Cheek can typically hold off players in tight spaces, but found himself struggling with possession and turnovers on the day. He was dispossessed more often than all other players and couldn’t dictate any sort of tempo. And while he did well in stepping into the lines of the oppositions' forward runs without the ball, he was often passed around as if he weren’t even there.
Brentford’s other main threat has been the counter-press, ranking in the top 5 in the league for number of successful high presses — although they do not typically convert those chances into shots or goals. They only have taken 30 shots from those 253 high presses; only Aston Villa and Chelsea are lower in shots converted from high presses.
Chelsea are that low because even as we win the ball back high up the pitch, we prefer to recycle possession through our passing routines. Manchester City are the only team with more time in passing sequences or passes per sequence than we have. This more deliberate buildup play has been utilized to varying degrees of success, but it played directly into Brentford’s hands on this occasion.
In and of itself, slow play is not a big issue overall, but our inability to move the ball quickly and successfully up the pitch and through their press was a huge detriment to our ability to muster any real goal threat. The slower play allowed Brentford’s defensive positioning to be fully set and we threatened only minimally in the first half.
This is not atypical of recent Chelsea teams. It has been quite a few years since we have had multiple attacking threats going forward — not since our last title-winning campaign have we bagged more than 70 goals, for example.
You can’t win if you can’t score, and although we have certainly developed some rote sequences that have been effective (overloads on a particular side, quick switch of play to attack down the opposite flank), sometimes embracing the chaos of a quick turnover and a disorganized back line is more effective than recycling possession.
The first half would finish in a lacklustre and lethargic nil-nil.
The second half, well, that was a different story all together. It sure felt like they beat us to death with our own shoes.
Anotnio Rüdiger’s second half spectacle began by sparking the game into life with a goal of a the season (if not multiple seasons) contender ... and then immediately forgetting that he was actually playing a full 90 minutes of football.
The ten minutes beginning with the 50th were quite possibly some of the worst we have seen in almost exactly one year.
Within 10 seconds of the kickoff, Bryan Mbuemo had a half chance. Édouard Mendy would save and we would clear the ball, but not set ourselves defensively. A pair of weak challenges and a vast amount of afforded space brought the visitors level, and we would never regain the lead.
This goal comes simply from the lack of attention to the developing play. Timo Werner makes no attempt to even challenge for the Rüdiger clearance. The free header springs a counter that pulls the entire midfield out of shape. Thiago Silva must compensate, Loftus-Cheek is slow on a 50-50 challenge, and Azpilicueta drifts centrally to follow the ball while losing his mark. Vitaly Janelt would make no mistake with this, nor his later chance.
Their next three goals would all come from defensive blunders, spectacularly in almost entirely different aspects of the game. Our usual defensive resolve was inexplicably lost and the game would finish, due to either individual or collective defensive discordance, in an overly dramatic 4-1 loss.
Their second came came from some rubbish recirculation and defending by Hakim Ziyech after a corner, lofting a gentle ball into a congested area and then beaten 1-v-1 on the turn.
Tuchel would make a good call in removing Alonso at this point, adding Reece James at the left back position but staying in a back four. Sliding Azpilicueta into the left sided position surely would’ve been a more ideal solution, though this wasn’t the first time Tuchel deployed James on the left either. Not that it mattered. What did compound our problems was Silva being drawn out for another 50-50 ball.
Silva is (still) a world class defender without doubt. Playing in the back three system allows him to watch the game unfold before him and make or dictate the necessary adjustments as needed with security around him. In this back four, he was drawn out into aerial challenges with more defensive responsibility. He lost a few as a result of the height of the Brentford strikers, and the consequences were dire.
This was a brutal watch, but it cannot be changed now. Turn the page. Take the positives. The Rüdiger goal was sublime and the defensive structure that collapsed similarly last season after the same International break eventually brought us our second Champions League title.