Despite the disappointment of last week’s result and the complications added this week by the touchline ban for Thomas Tuchel, most would’ve assumed that a match against struggling Leicester City would still be an easily winnable one. But that just wouldn’t be the Chelsea way, would it?
While the Wesley Fofana transfer saga drags on, Brendan Rodgers has been forced to rethink his defensive line. He started playing with three at the back to start the season (Fofana being the starter on the right side), but has shifted to a back four in Fofana’s absence the last two weeks, running out a 4-1-4-1 formation. Unfortunately for them, they have lost both of those games by a scoreline of 2-1 (gloatingly said in hindsight).
Tuchel’s formation was certainly much less predictable, and many outlets had us originally falsified into a back three with Trevoh Chalobah on the left in Kalidou Koulibaly’s stead. Neither formation above is an accurate assessment of how Tuchel fielded his squad, especially as the midfield was nothing like a traditional 4-4-2, and so perhaps average player positions depicted below would be a better resemblance of what we tried to accomplish.
Joking aside, Conor Gallagher’s heat map has him just ahead and slightly more central of Ruben Loftus-Cheek - but he didn’t even play a half an hour and our offensive positions reflected above, even after his sending off, suggest that we weren’t just going to bunker down and look to see out a draw. While Gallagher’s ambition and drive were clearly over-exuberant against Leicester, it was perhaps not the wisest decision to pair him again with Jorginho as a CDM rather than pushed farther forward, were Tuchel preferred Loftus-Cheek instead.
Surely due to an eagerness to succeed and that golden opportunity in the absences of N’Golo Kanté and a match-fit Mateo Kovačić, Gallagher was forceful in the midfield, even sometimes as unwise as the challenges were. In only the second minute he would make a fortuitous tackled on the nuisance Harvey Barnes that, while perfectly timed, indicated that he was not going to shy away from aggressive play. Note the time it occurs, the amount of coverage back behind the play, and the precision required for him to make the tackle from behind that he does below.
And quite honestly, the greatest significance of the first half essentially boils down to the other two tackles he made - not much else really happened that truly mattered, and that’s worrying again for our offense.
Let’s first look at two offensive movements from the first 12 minutes that nearly (and should have) twice put us in the lead before becoming sad while breaking down just how, tactically, our corner kicks were primed for the counter that caused Gallagher’s red.
In the first instance, with what is tallied as a .37 xG but to the naked eye seems like it ought to be about double that, Loftus-Cheek allows Danny Ward to make one of the better saves on the occasion. In just about their first spell of true possession, Leicester make a mess of the midfield and Jorginho is able to take the ball off of Boubakary Soumaré. Gallagher himself turns the movement into a direct attack with a progressive pass to Raheem Sterling.
Sterling drives forward and does tremendously well to pick out the run of Loftus-Cheek, who’s timed his run into the box superbly, but take nothing away from Sterling’s exquisite pass. Loftus-Cheek simply has to bury this, and again, looking at the location the shot was taken and the scrambling nature of their keeper, how it doesn’t end up in the back of the net is baffling.
If there was any question about how Chelsea have a set pattern of play and passing sequences, 68% of all our passes completed were in the wide areas of the middle third, showing how relentless we are in probing the wings until a breakthrough is achieved. Unfortunately, aside from Reece James rattling the post and far too often trading possession, nothing amounted from it before the halftime whistle.
And while wide play was (and has been for quite some time) our traditional play, our second chance on Saturday also similarly came through a quick counter after Leicester lost possession in our half through some combative midfield play.
Both Chalobah and Silva cover the run of Jamie Vardy, whom Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall tried to pick out, and Chalobah springs an attack through Loftus-Cheek. His ball over the top to Kai Havertz isn’t central enough to put him through on goal, but his trailing run is found by Havertz and forces an unorthodox tackle from Youri Tielemans, drawing a penalty. Despite thicker lines this season (still not thick enough), VAR rules that Havertz was offsides on the through ball and we were yet again denied by margins in another important chance to take the lead within the early phases of the game.
And so while we waited for the opening goal, some issues regarding positioning on our own offensive corners once again became apparent. Typically, N’Golo Kanté is our ‘sweeper’ in defense during a corner, and his responsibility is to either recycle back to Édouard Mendy (to whom nobody dared pass on the day) or to find an outlet wide that safely maintains possession. With all our defense in their box, those two things are the bare necessities.
Gallagher was chosen to anchor without an available Kanté while Jorginho was pressed forward, which was useless, subjected the youngster to situations with which he ought not be dealing, and outright counterintuitive. Exhibit A:
This right-sided corner taken by Cucurella comes deep, is cleared by the Leicester defense and comes straight to Gallagher, higher up the pitch than Kanté typically is to start. He overhead kicks it straight back into pressure. That is not either of the choice options mentioned above, and panic sets in as the onrush of Leicester players push forward. Jorginho intercepts the outlet pass and the threat is averted, but only temporarily.
In a second circumstance, Gallagher is presented with a different but similar problem, this time resulting from absolutely dreadful delivery from his corner but a heinously more horrendous back pass from Cucurella. Exhibit B:
And while he is the last line of defense, I find it hard to believe, especially after watching it repeatedly, that Chalobah would have had any trouble catching Harvey Barnes. That’s not to criticise the decision of Paul Tierney but that of Gallagher, even as hard as it must have been to make in real time - being circumspect that all of Chalobah, Mount, and the amazing human that is Thiago Silva are reliably in retreat might have led to a safer decision.
The duration of the first half was not necessarily damage control, with open play leading to chances small created and a temporary adjustment in formation from Chelsea. It was relatively evenly played, even with Chelsea being down a man. The worrying issue would be that Chelsea started this game with essentially the same lineup as last week (from those available), but there is zero consistency in how we execute our plans or how we perform. Because it frustrates me to no end, I’ll liken it to a box of chocolates to minimise all of our collective frustrations.
Thankfully, Leicester cannot help but give up goals in the second half this season, now conceding eight in four games (of ten total). We have to assume that Tuchel knew this and demanded attacking play despite being down a man. Chelsea came out with intent and a new formation, with a tweak provided by the substitution of César Azpilicueta for Mason Mount and a shift to a 3-4-2, with Loftus-Cheek sliding central and Reece James to his threatening wingback role. The response was immediate.
Our goal is as much due to Leicester’s inaction as our reaction. Their staying in a 4-1-4-1 was a mistake on Leicester’s behalf while we fielded two versatile and mobile forwards and compacted the midfield, all whilst adding a defender to contort from original intentions into a back three, complimented by a smart and precise game plan: stretch the pitch with deep possession, open up the midfield, and the strikers must ...get this... score.
In order to appreciate Sterling’s first goal for Chelsea (adding him to some elite company), we ought to note how easily it transitioned through the entire pitch. It is essentially achieved because Jorginho is provided this amount of space to, as he does well, pick the right pass to disassemble their defensive structure. Sterling’s deflected shot may be fortunate, but the play that got the ball to him was not. That is entirely due to Rodger’s failure to grasp a clear advantage he had both been given and thrown away simultaneously.
Sterling’s goal, regardless of the the deflection, was overdue from a player who’s been performing at a high level without any reward. He nearly got a second goal from the same passer in the coming moments, only hitting the upright after Ward pulls out another spectacular save.
But the nature of the game was bound to be open with Chelsea down a player while in the lead, so Leicester finally made an attacking change by adding Ayoze Pérez and Kelechi Iheanacho for Praet and Soumaré. Those changes were wrongly auspicious and although the xG maps show that any and all true threats came in the second half, it also shows how few opportunities we had and how low probability theirs were.
The second of Sterling’s goals was manufactured of the same design. Jorginho in space and in the centre of the park while on the ball as we are playing with one fewer player is pure lunacy. This time, after Jorginho does some wonderful defensive work himself, the pitch is stretched once again, dropping Havertz in and Sterling pushing on. Amazingly the Leicester defense is flustered entirely by this and large gaps in the midfield are once again afforded.
As seen below, with all the time in the world, Jorginho spreads a ball wide to an unmarked Reece James, who is threatening and in the final third at this point - James essentially does the rest. Havertz checks to him and, after a pair of dinked passes which makes a mess of Leicester’s marking scheme, James is free to pick out his cross. What a cross it was indeed, and Raheem Sterling will finish those all day long.
At this point, with a two-nil buffer and a man down, Chelsea resorted to defensive organisation. With the ball in his own hands, Mendy puts it to his feet, plays an errant midfield pass under and into pressure, and the turnover comes right down his throat, preventing a clean sheet.
With the error of last week fresh in our minds and the first half goal rightfully and thankfully overturned by VAR already putting us on the edge of our seats, Mendy deserves a stern talking to. He cannot be a liability with the ball at his feet, plain and simple.