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Chelsea 0-2 Aston Villa, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Chelsea FC v Aston Villa - Premier League
April Fools indeed
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

“The boys gave everything” is not a viable excuse for the run of results we have had under Graham Potter, and his penance was his paycheck and, purportedly, even his pension.

Potter had recently adhered to a back three, but even with a growing number of injured centre backs, he went with that formation again. This meant that Reece James and Marc Cucurella, both typically wingbacks, were designated as the wider of the three, with Kalidou Koulibaly anchoring the trio. Whatever Trevoh Chalobah did to deserve the treatment he has received is befuddling, but Potter prefered to play James, one of our greatest offensive threats, in the deeper role and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as his wingback.

Starting XIs

And once again, that decision limited the productivity of the right side. Ben Chilwell and the left were typically involved in the more threatening wider play. Ironically enough, despite Chilwell handily finding space and making penetrating runs in the first half particularly, by the end our attack was split nearly equally in all channels, with only 29% coming down the left, 34% through the middle, and 38% down the right. The rate at which we played switches will confuse that statistic, but the pass map shows how often the attackers were receiving crossfield balls but also how the same slow ball movement across the back line was a prevalent factor as well.

Passing matrix

What becomes frustrating is that there very clearly was a bit more of a game plan amongst Aston Villa than there was for Chelsea. They didn’t press our back line virtually at all and tried to mark both Mateo Kovačić and Enzo Fernández out of the match, making our transitional play difficult without the utilisation of the wingbacks. They played largely on the counter and were happy to soak up pressure via their disciplined defense and foul as often as possible in the middle third to disrupt our rhythm to great effect. Officiating was at its typical low standard, so their tactics were facilitated by the perpetual ineptitude of all associated with the PGMOL.

While they stuck to their game plan, the constant changes to personnel, especially to our back line, led to repeated instances of miscommunication, and we gifted them the lead because of that. For no clear reason, Marc Cucurella sprinted away from a pair of marks to chase down and contend for what would have been an easy headed clearance by Koulibaly. If anyone should have been drawn inside to assist Koulibaly, it should have been James, who is marking space rather than two players who are actively calling for the long ball. He could have dropped in cover while Koulibaly dealt with the long ball, but he hesitates, likely due to the confusing run by Cucurella into that central area.

Cucurella should never be leaving both marks to complicate this play

But there were clear issues in how that back line was operating before the goal even occurred, and we were lucky to escape the situation below without harm. A common theme on the day was midfield turnovers, and while John McGinn was originally dispossessed by Cucurella in the middle third, they won the second ball and McGinn hit a defense-splitting pass to Ollie Watkins who, although he missed this chance by dragging his shot wide, got his goal minutes later anyway from the poor headed by Cucurella mentioned above.

Signs of concern even before the goal

The question I pose is how in the world can our back line be so disjointed to both allow this amount of central space unattended AND leave their greatest goal-scoring threat unmarked in said space? Speculation was that he was offsides but even without timing my screenshot to the release of the ball, we can see how onsides he was.

And yet neither that scare nor their goal may have been a concern if Mikhalo Mudryk had scored on either occasion that he should have in the first 15 minutes. In the first circumstance, he uses his tremendous pace to dispossess Boubacar Kamara just inside the box and Emiliano Martínez is quick to react to cover his poor pass to Kamara. However, in a more coordinated attack and with a bit less selfishness, the clear play here was a square pass to Kai Havertz for a tap in rather than taking on the low angle shot into the corpulent mass into which Martínez had condensed himself. Kai is seen here calling for the obvious goal rather than the speculative one.

A square ball to Havertz is a goal indeed

In the second instance, Mudryk is not hardly at fault, and for a player with the guile and ability of João Félix not to play the fastest recorded player in the league on a through ball free on goal is a crime. The play all starts with another one of the rampant midfield dispossessions, this one going our way, and Kovačić played a brilliant pass into Félix to start the counter. With numbers on the counter and Havertz’s outside run keeping the sole well-placed defender Tyrone Mings honest with his run, Mudryk has the space to be slid in centrally on goal. The pass isn’t taken, instead going wide to Havertz, and the chance is lost.

The cohesion in defensive, midfield, and attacking situations just wasn’t there

And then we would arrive to the chance where, even after falling behind by a goal, Mudryk had a glorious opportunity to bring us level and perhaps change the momentum of the match. After some defensive recovery work, Koulibaly dispossess Watkins and Kepa quickly releases Kovačić in space, who had an absolutely outstanding passing game (67/71 completed for 1308 yards, with 100% accuracy on short passes and going 9/10 on long balls and completing 11 progressive passes.) One of his best passes on the day was the one to release Mudryk, who mystifyingly decides to shoot from outside the 18 yard box despite being through 1v1 on goal. He needed to take another touch, and although he claims to be ready to prove the haters wrong, his missed a glorious chance to do so here.

Never shoot from that position in that situation

For all our possession, the game could have gone on an hour longer and we still may not have scored. The first half alone finished with significant chances missed, a few from Chilwell and Havertz specifically, and they were by far the greatest threats to close out the half. The coordination in the final third was back to its woeful self after a few games of scoring goals with a bit more ease than we have been used to this season.

But we were making chances in the first half, and if you were looking for a positive reaction in the second half, you would be mistaken.

First half left, second half right. Quite the contrast

This comes down to another reason, and a longer article that I am working on with a deeper analysis: Potter’s substitutions are something that have been confusing and lacking effect. In the games he has managed, the substitutions have either not been effective or even directly resulted in goals. The former is the reasoning in this specific match, with players being thrown into the most unusual positions and essentially going for it all offensively. But all that only occurred after we had conceded now our 10th goal from a free kick, and the third in recent memory from a deep strike from outside the box. And while I am a dual Scottish-American international and love the man for Scotland, McGinn has enjoyed too much pleasure against Kepa in the last week. Nobody should score from there with a proper defensive set-piece structure setup.


There is some sense of misfortune, especially that we had 27 shots, 8 on target, and they had only 2 on target but scored on both. 1.93 of our xG was on goal, but it also wasn’t much like Emiliano Martínez was standing on his head to keep the ball out of the net - he made a decent save or two, but nothing that was a showstopper. Too many of our shots were tame, and finishing has been the clear issue with Potter throughout his career - at least at Swansea and Brighton, because I don’t pretend to know a thing of him during his time in Sweden and, especially now, don’t care to research. In the end, the true constant of his tenure was an inability to score goals consistently, and he will want to address that in his next managerial appointment.

The most worrying thing is that the trend of dropping points at Stamford Bridge is actually growing worse with each new managerial change. Chelsea’s streak of 86 games undefeated at the Bridge from February 2004 to October 2008 is the longest in Premier League history. It sure seems we are a far cry away from that in this current predicament.

But a change needed to happen, and so it did. This was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and so now we look for a needle in that same stack of fallen hay to hopefully find the sharp point to our attack. The sacking was entirely justified, even to those who wanted more consistency and stability at the club, because 38 points from 28 games was our lowest return since 1994-95, and 29 goals our lowest scoring season since 1978-79. If my wife is even complaining about the manager not knowing what he is doing, the issue is apparent. We are underperforming on our xG by 11.1 goals and are over performing on our open play xG against by 7.64, something’s gotta give. And so, round and round we go, Jack.


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