AFC Bournemouth has been about as troublesome as they come in our recent matches against them, and our wins in the League Cup are far outweighed by the memory of the 4-0 and 3-0 drubbings from 2019 and 2018. In fact, in our last 5 Premier League meetings, we now have two 2-0 wins roughly 5 years apart that are vastly overshadowed by three losses and a draw that occurred in the meantime. Despite their struggles in the league this season and our relative ease at the restart both due to a minimal congestion of our games and league position of our first two opponents, a strong start was vitally needed (and achieved) with our poor return of results.
Graham Potter has said that regardless of our formation, we should be consistent in our performances. That said, regardless of our formation, our performances have been consistent only with a fit and available squad. The respite for our injured players through the World Cup was supposed to serve as a recovery period, though very few have actually returned. Although Chelsea had the joint most players called up for international duty in the Premier League (tied with Manchester City, against whom we will play twice by the 8th of January), it does seem like Potter got some of his ideas transplanted and put into action via a team bolstered, if only temporarily, by the inclusion of Reece James.
The 4-3-3, which to me played like a 4-2-3-1 in possession, that Potter employed suited the team well, and he was rewarded with a pair of goals in the opening 25 minutes to ease most of our concern at least temporarily. The movements and playing positions were both non-traditional in the typical operational objectives of a back four and they shifted to a 3 whenever James wanted to contribute to the attack.
It was also extracting the best out of Mason Mount, who had a tremendous outing with a floating role which most outlets are describing as a 4-3-3 simply due to his defensive workrate. He was in more of a no. 8 box-to-box role than one of the deeper no. 6’s or a traditional no. 10, but has influenced more offensive threat than the rest of the squad this season.
Bournemouth were very deep and narrow in their defensive setup when they had 5 at the back or when they adjusted to a 4, which has been difficult for us to break down on numerous occasions. Thankfully, they were pretty poor at man-marking and communication, which we were able to exploit. They had no way of compensating for our overloads on the right side when Mount and James (and even Zakaria for our second goal) got involved in the final third.
They were also easily smothered by our comprehensive press from the front four and the wise positioning of both outside banks and double pivot in taking up any available passing lanes. In fact, they were either dispossessed or turned the ball over 34 times and many of those occurred either in the middle third or their defensive end. Chelsea only turned the ball over 22 times total despite having the lion’s share of possession. Especially in the first half, It was about as dominant as we have seen for a bit and our stats at the halftime whistle serve as evidence (7 shots, 4 on target, 2 goals, and 70% possession.)
And, as typically is the case when we have dominance in possession, Jorginho played an important part. His calmness helped transition the ball from both side to side and front to back. While he had the ball, Mason Mount was often trying to find the pockets of space between their back line and holding midfielders to get in more threatening positions in the final third. We all know that Mount can do this well, but his huge influence on both of our goals shows why, if he can do so consistently, he is such an important part of our offensive productivity.
The right-sided attack, which amassed nearly half of our attacking threat on the day (and most of that in only the opening 50 minutes) was the key to unlocking their defense. That Jorginho to Mount transitional passing sparked it while combining with the overload and 1v1 situations that were created resultantly - a pattern of that was also emphasised under Tuchel. In the buildup to the first goal, Mount can be seen demanding the play to be switched after Reece James brought it across the midfield line and turned straight back to Koulibaly. The ball doesn’t come to him, so Mount goes to it.
After drifting inside and losing his typical marker in Lewis Cook (marked with the red x below), who also fails to notify Jordan Zemura of Mount’s movement in behind him, Jorginho picks out the pass. It is important to note that right around 15:10, as Mount is beginning to drift right, Jorginho picks his head up while the ball is on Koulibaly’s foot and notices Mount’s run. Jorginho’s circumspect awareness and constant surveying of the field is what makes him so good at what he does, and so he knows exactly what he is going to do upon receiving it. While that movement and pass are what initiates the movement, we should also note that Raheem Sterling, Kai Havertz, and (presumably, since he ends up in the box) Christian Pulisic all also notice the play developing and begin to make runs accordingly. With a nice half turn and perfectly weighted pass, Sterling just has to pick his head up and find Havertz, centrally located and beyond his defenders, for the tap in.
Now, we should note that while he does end up in the box for a potential cutback had Sterling not played the one time ball to Havertz, Pulisic was one player who was disadvantaged by Mount’s freedom. Pulisic essentially remained isolated on the left side and was truly keeping the width of the field honest, making him really only available when Mount did revert to that left side of the midfield three (if we are insisting on that being the formation). The fact that he finished the game with less touches than all other players (including Havertz) shows his isolation just as well as the player position map above. That said, he should have been awarded a spot kick even prior to our first goal for a clear pull back and did have flashes of the performances he put in at the World Cup.
Effusive positivity aside, the game truly needs to be divided based on the unfortunate removal of Reece James and our subsequent changes. Both of our goals were generated from intricate running and passing down the right side because Reece James is obviously pivotal to our attack, with his ability to pancake (scroll to the 30th minute if you’re unfamiliar with the term, which you should be) up and down the right flank incessantly as good as anyone in world football. Having the lengthy stride that he does and an emphasis on defensive priority and coverage, Denis Zakaria was fantastic pairing for that right side of the midfield, preventing gaps in our defensive line when James did venture forward. Kalidou Koulibaly shifted to the right side of a back three which left Thiago Silva as the lone anchor to the defense, something he too is quite comfortable in doing. That Bournemouth changed formation but never played with more than two strikers made even a back three tenable.
But the game petered out, likely both because we were 2-0 up and César Azpilicueta just doesn’t have the capacity to get forward like he once did. And without that forward drive, Kepa Arrizabalaga, back from injury and Édouard Mendy back onto the injury list, continued his impressive performances this season after being brought in from the fray by Potter, which has worked out better than many of us probably either expected or hoped. He is, hands down, better with the ball at his feet than Mendy, but his other stats have him top of the league in save percentage by quite a ways.
Now, despite the tweet below being published at the end of last season, take a close look at all the analytics - they are downright impressive and clearly why losing James again is such a hard pill to swallow. In his absence I had began to write a piece that got sidetracked and forgotten during the World Cup, but expect that analysis to be published soon now that it has become relevant again.
Reece James, Chelsea 2021/22— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) May 26, 2022
Is Reece James actually good at... everything? pic.twitter.com/Q0nG9X4lIN
And so it seems like Potter got his tactics right both because he played into the individual strengths of each of his players on the pitch and the inept marking of the Bournemouth defense and midfield. We should be happy to have the 3 points in the bag and not dwell on the unfortunate circumstances surrounding our injury list. Looking forward, Nottingham Forest have not lost at home since September 16th, so despite their position in the table, we only have accrued 10 points in 8 away games this season. The generous break we’ve been given between matches for the festive period can hopefully rejuvenate some legs while we wait for the remaining injuries to be healed.