I had written a scathing review of the decisions prior to and during the Wolves match but hesitated to even submit it for publishing due to the fact that I had hoped, just like Carlo Ancelotti had done on the weekend, that Frank Lampard considered the domestic league lost and the focus would be on this Champions League tie. I couldn’t believe that Frank Lampard had again reverted to a back four against Wolves - he preferred that system originally, much like Graham Potter and Thomas Tuchel at the start of their reigns, all while it is so plain to see that with (a healthy) Reece James and Ben Chilwell in the lineup, our best attacking play has been with a back three.
None of our current centre backs, Thiago Silva (the greatest free signing of all time) aside, play as well in a partnership as a trio. Thankfully, Lampard wasn’t rooted to that fallacy and gave us a fighting chance by going to a similar formation to what Bruno Saltor used last week against Liverpool, with a trio both at the central defense and central midfield, all while utilising James and Chilwell in their best positions. His formation was sensible but his selection of Raheem Sterling and João Félix as the strikers was both curious and ineffective.
For what James and Chilwell do possess in the attacking aspects of the game, they can expose space behind them when they press on too far. This requires cognisant midfield coverage, as opponents in an attacking three can become isolated in 1v1 situations against our three central defenders if the ball is turned over and transitioned to them quickly. Against a smart and pressing midfield like Madrid’s, it can present problems in playing out from the back. Both of those situations occurred against Madrid.
As could be predicted (and so also by Carlo Ancelotti himself), our formation was a quite clearly a 5-3-2 out of possession with a very compacted central three in the midfield. If our wingbacks did advance forward, a wide midfielder and Toni Kroos were able to shift in coverage and halt the advance. In possession they could pin our wingbacks deep by coming centrally (still with Kroos deep) which opened up space that allowed an outside back to advance. The amounts of space on our flanks and between our lines is astounding.
Considering the amount of times we attempted to progress the ball through Kepa and that, as he should, he played the ball wide and to feet almost each time, they could easily shift cover and smother us often before we could even get into their half. He rarely hit a long ball because without any sort of point player, and Kai Havertz is the only one who can fill that role, our only chance was to play out of the back and try to eventually beat their line with speedy attackers. He only completed 1 pass into Madrid’s half, and only 4 of 12 of his longer, progressive passes.
The other thing our compacted and easily-marked midfield did was give license to their outside backs to press forward in both strong-sided and far-sided attacks and create overloads. Especially with our wingbacks withdrawn while we were out of possession, the space was great and the marking scheme was not identified - that poor marking was what doomed us to concede both goals, and their wide midfielders/attackers were at the heart of them both, as well as the sending off of Ben Chilwell.
Not ironically, what doomed us even before our defense is that we could not give two f’s, neither finishing nor a focal point - and for an impotent offense to once again miss the clear chances we had on the counter in the first half, we struggled to effectively move the ball up the pitch otherwise. The ball was in their final third for less than 20 minutes of the entire match despite our 43% possession, and our striking duo only had 14 touches combined in Madrid’s final third prior to their substitutions. To contrast, Vinícius Júnior had 19 touches in our box and they even won 12 (to our 8) duels in our own defensive third.
Our attacks were all based on a counter or deep ball past their high line, and we might have gotten away with it had those
meddling experienced defenders and serpentine goalkeeper not gotten in the way. The wasted chances created in the very early phases of the game would magnify the need for, like Madrid had, a third option on our front line. Our passing matrices show exactly how poorly we were able to gain entry into their final third via a controlled sequence because of how easily our duo in attack was covered. Enzo Fernández was virtually the only player to successfully pass to them, and his stats reflect that - 79/94, with 11 progressive passes and a total progressive passing distance of 570 yards. The nearest to him is Kovačić at 62/69 with 2 progressive passes and total of 191 progressive yards. But, once again, even when the midfield did receive the ball while playing out from the back, they struggled to find options to continue moving the ball up the pitch to the attack.
And again, while we might have been threatening on the counter or via quick transitions when a midfielder - often N’Golo Kanté in the first half - could join the attack with the two attackers, whatever chances we did create were left unfinished. When there was no midfield link to the attack, there was an inevitable turnover and Madrid were far too comfortable on the ball and happy to hold possession without intent, especially after gaining the lead.
A strong reason for that might be that we pressed far less aggressively than we typically do, at least until our substitutions were made. We gave them time on the ball and they were happy to have it. It was quite clear that our emphasis was more on keeping defensive shape (with the exception of Marc Cucurella’s errant decision) than on reactions to the flow of the game, but the defending looked uncomfortable and I’ve written in numerous articles now how we are leading both the PL and CL in passes per defensive action. We know there is minimal cohesion between the midfield and attack on the ball, but there are no signs that our pressing off the ball is any more coordinated than the attack. We have an incredibly high pressing rate but our goals against in the last few matches hasn’t been ideal and our goals scored or even direct attacks as a result of such high pressing are laughably among the bottom of teams either bound for relegation in the Premier League or even those long-since eliminated in the group stage of this year’s Champions League.
The substitutions do certainly raise an
Carlo eyebrow, both with whom and when they came, but the game had slowed, Even while playing decently well down a man, it was resoundingly apparent once again that we are pathetic at defending set pieces (or attacking them, for that matter.) Tell me in what world it would ever be acceptable, short corner or not, down a man or not, to leave this amount of unmarked players or unprotected space at the edge of the box. How many times are we going to concede this same sort of goal this season?
Let us remember the good old days and hope that this weekend, but specifically Tuesday the 18th, brings better fortune.