A few thousand years ago, the Roman poet Virgil supposedly coined the phrase “Fortune favours the bold” in his epic poem the Aeneid. He was supposedly writing about a king who was hoping to save his kingdom from an impending attack, but recent evidence shows that he may well have been writing those words about our Chelsea in the Champions League after this latest heroic comeback. Put under pressure (perhaps more by the pundits than the hierarchy) for a performance, Graham Potter and the players achieved the bare minimum scoring-wise of what was purportedly needed for him to keep his job, a one goal win on the weekend followed by a 2-nil win to progress in the Champions League.
But, as I said, fortune was on our side - Borussia Dortmund are both miserable against English sides and played an outright poor game overall.
Potter has obtained both of those results from a forced shift to a back three after the unfortunate injury to Thiago Silva. In his absence, our defensive line has been tremendous, Kalidou Koulibaly most notably because he has been anchoring it, and this Borussia Dortmund side that had scored in each of their previous ten games, and 27 goals in that time, mind you, were kept off the scoresheet. And while we were defensively stout, it turns out that, especially with Ben Chilwell and Reece James on the field, our positive play benefits from their relentless offensive contributions.
Borussia Dortmund have had a few injuries since the last meeting (we’re not sympathetic) and a suspension to Julian Ryerson meant that Raphaël Guerreiro was going to step into the back line. And despite an early injury to Julian Brandt, who had scored 4 goals in the last 7 games, they insisted on their 4-1-4-1 again, and Graham Potter used some smart tactics to outmaneuver their non-existent defensive midfield via some of the more quick transitions we have seen since his employment.
His use of Raheem Sterling as the farthest forward player to hold their back line honest to utilise the on-ball qualities of Kai Havertz and João Félix, especially in the first half, was enormously effective. Emre Can’s decision to play most of the match in between the two centre-halves increased the amount of space Havertz and Félix had to operate, and it was to Dortmund’s detriment. I will pull out examples below, but the player average position map essentially validates that observation.
The first half of the game was significantly more controlled than the second, but ironically, despite finishing with only 40% total possession, we still only had roughly 45% of the ball in the first half. This Potter model was clearly not meant to retain possession considering those numbers, but there were other factors which allowed them to overrun the midfield play. It must be noted that in addition to Chelsea playing very well, Dortmund’s defensive positioning and marking was poor, as it often is. They rely on their offense, but on the ball they were being smothered by a Chelsea press that has been the most aggressive in the Champions League, and the work rate and coordination during our pressing was indeed phenomenal. Dortmund would finish the first half having only accumulated a 0.07 xG via one threatening free kick, which Kepa Arrizabalaga did well to keep out.
Our defensive stats were collectively fantastic, and since WhoScored?’s are slightly more favourable than FBRef’s, let’s go with theirs. We attempted a whopping 40 tackles, nearly twice that of Dortmund. We also had 14 interceptions, picking off passes as well as we were carries, and also had 15 blocks and 21 clearances to boot. The back three played very well, and Kalidou Koulibaly was venturing all over the pitch, significantly farther forward that we have seen Thiago Silva press, but was doing so to great effect. Marc Cucurella was also definitely more aggressive in pressing than, say Benoit Badiashile, getting much higher up the pitch than would likely have been expected. And let’s not forget that Wesley Fofana has been looking great since he returned, rounding out an impressive defensive trio.
We stymied their attack, great, but we needed to score two goals to advance, which is the same number of goals we had scored in our previous seven matches. It initially seemed like that might not happen, considering the repeated offsides calls against Raheem Sterling, the repeated free chances that Koulibaly put wide, and the post (or a shove from Emre Can) denying Havertz so cruelly - but remember, fortune favours the bold. The passing in this game was significantly more direct and audacious, and our average pass streak was a mere 3 because we were moving it so vertically. Until the second goal was scored, Chelsea did not have possession for possession’s sake. The number of crosses and progressive passes were evidence that, if our wingbacks could contribute quickly, we would essentially have a numerical advantage in attack.
And so we attempted 170 passes of 15 yards or more, completing 113 of them at 66% accuracy. We only attempted 153 short passes, completing 128 of them. The number of lengthier passes has been steadily growing - for instance, against Tottenham we had 100 fewer 15+ yard passes attempted than those that were shorter. We were using the entirety of the pitch and spreading the distribution of passes nearly equally in all areas, and our ability to be so concentrated in their half with less possession was due to the ability of Havertz and Félix to get on the ball and move it on, either to a wingback joining the attack or even centrally to a more advanced Sterling. Amazingly, we completed 45% of our passes in their half of the field with such little possession.
And, as a result of both those strong defensive statistics combined with the passing of intention and purpose, we had, statistically, one of our best halves of football this season in all competitions - but it still needed a goal to get going. After numerous chances, Sterling would oblige, largely via the guile of Havertz, who was having himself a glorious evening by all standards and does seem to love having an impact in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Just as Havertz had done in the 28th minute, prior to striking the post himself after releasing a wingback (in that circumstance it was James) to cross the ball to Sterling, he deftly finds the best available pass to set up the play.
It begins with a clearance from Cucurella to Félix that is contested in the air and lost. Kovačić jumps on the rebound and finds Havertz, who’s in that withdrawn position and whose touch takes him around his mark to charge into the open space in front of him. Sterling, as he had been, was farthest up the pitch, this time almost perfectly centrally, as the ball was coming down our left side. He would adjust that position based on the direction of our attack.
Closed down by two defenders, one of whom would help us win the game by foolishly and laughably cowering blindly from a Chilwell cross, Havertz makes a pass that is the impetus into the final third that would nab that first goal. Notice that literally all three players farther forward are throwing their hands up in contempt to the perceived outcome of this attack. We had numbers forward and Havertz could have made a decision earlier, but we will never know if that would have led to a goal. To improvise as he did and in such a fashion shows that he was feeling confident...nay bold...and even though Kovačić actually loses possession, fortune favours us and it falls to Chilwell, who’s ready to bag assists like it’s last season now that he’s back.
Chilwell had 58 progressive carries on the evening, second only to Enzo Fernández, and that left side was incessant and determined with its attack. Given the space we were afforded due to their horrific defensive marking all evening, Chilwell is able to not only get to the byline, but have enough time to pick up his head and, most clearly by intention, thread this beautiful pass across 5 or more defenders just for Sterling to take the shot as though his laces were tied together. And thank goodness fortune was in our favour, because only after he would make another bad touch and try to cross his defender would he regain composure and put it home. Even typing this still comes with a palpable adrenaline rush.
Immediately after the second goal, which came via literally the first attacking effort of the second half, Potter again made smart changes. Conor Gallagher has only been making substitute appearances lately, and many have wondered why based on how effective he had been on loan. He is an absolute terror on the pitch for opposition who are in possession of the ball, and his tenacity and stubbornness are the rough part of him that makes him different from many others. Gallagher came on for Félix with only 23 minutes to play and still had the second most tackles/attempted tackles of the entire team. He showed versatility by also getting forward aplenty, even scoring only for it to be ruled out by another close Sterling offside call. But Gallagher most certainly aided the end result since we were conceding more possession in deeper areas than we had been, and he was always there in assistance.
The three substitutions were most certainly both to protect Fernández from a second yellow and to waste time, as we had been since securing the lead, and led to no tactical changes other than to inject fresh legs. But it certainly was bold of Potter to remove both of his no. 6’s, and, after what appeared to be a near mutiny, he is fortunate that the fans seem much more behind him now than they had been.
Enjoy this one, and let’s keep it going tomorrow.
Borussia Dortmund across all competitions in 2023:— Squawka (@Squawka) March 7, 2023
Chelsea bring Europe's most inform team's streak to an end. pic.twitter.com/nU4MBZnH8v