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Middlesbrough 1-0 Chelsea, League Cup semifinal: Tactical Analysis

No No.9 is a no-no

Middlesbrough v Chelsea - Carabao Cup Semi Final First Leg
“Why didn’t I play this player here?” - probably Pochettino
Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images

We are pure rubbish on the road, now losing five of our last six away matches, and we nearly threw away that Luton game, too. My major critique in recent articles (wins or losses) has been the fact that, without fullbacks to fulfill Pochettino’s wish, our wide play is ineffective and stutters our attack. Against Middlesbrough, the fullbacks struggled both offensively and defensively, though much of Malo Gusto’s malign was that when he did venture forward to cross the ball, he had no targets in the box. Width and overloads deep down the flanks virtually didn’t exist, creativity was absent, and to be quite honest, while we had some decent chances in the first half, most of them were created through Middlesbrough mistakes. The cliched “one step forward, two steps back” doesn’t even cut it, this was two steps back from a stationary position. In our last 10 meetings, Middlesbrough has been outscored by 21-1, and that 1 goal came on Tuesday. The cohesion of Michael Carrick’s Middlesbrough side was much more noticeable than ours, so much of the blame is fairly going to fall on Pochettino for his starting XI and even his substitutions.

Starting XIs, Chelsea without a proper no. 9

In fact, the only two substitutions Middlesbrough made were in the first 20 minutes of the match and forced through injury, and so a Championship side that is equally riddled with injuries as we are had even more setbacks in the early stages of this game. Theoretically, that should have made the match easier for us, and yet only 17 minutes later we found ourselves behind due to some really poor defending. Isaiah Jones was giving Levi Colwill the run around all evening, and a simple ball over the top allowed him to get beyond Colwill. Colwill couldn’t do much as far as a tackle was concerned, because 7 minutes prior he had already gotten booked for pulling back Jones. Jones’ cutback worked because Colwill was at full pace trying to catch up and, again, couldn’t put in a proper tackle anyway as Jones was in our box. And yet, Colwill isn’t the greatest issue.

Caicedo and Gusto are both in a position where they could have prevented the chance with some wiser marking. Caicedo is more to blame, since he was supposed to be the defensive cover and should have been tracking Hayden Hackney in this situation - for the second time in recent memory, he fails to follow his mark and gifts an easy finish to the opposition. Had he gotten ball-side and goal-side, as he should have been, he easily would have prevented the chance. Gusto is deeper than Caicedo and without a mark, so he could have slid centrally to cover, too.

Not great defending all around

Pochettino has said that he plays Colwill at left back because it is good to build up Colwill’s confidence and because he adds height to our relatively short squad. Ian Maatsen (1,67 metres) surely could have done a job against Jones, who is only 1,76 metres. It boggles the mind why he wouldn’t give Maatsen a proper run-out in his natural position when we are so light there at the moment, let alone why he would allow him to leave on loan. Ben Chilwell can’t come back soon enough, and the Chilwell/Cole Palmer expressions can hopefully be positive and frequent, as opposed to what I wrote beneath about Palmer.

In fact, the defense was generally poor all around, and the formation employed by Middlesbrough, especially in the second half, stifled our passing. While we were deep in their half with possession, they dropped almost everyone back behind the ball, but when the ball was in our half or around the middle of the park, they almost resembled a 4-2-4. By man-marking our midfield, fielding a high but withdrawn block on our back line (see below), and man-marking our attackers, we were not able to transition quickly, which we aren’t really wont to do anyway. Our passing went more around than through their lines and was often recycled to the back line once it got to those wide positions, while our midfielders were rarely able to turn with the ball and bring it upfield.

Their 4-2-4 outplays our 4-2-3-1

Palmer was gifted two chances in the first half by Middlesbrough, the first when he wisely intercepted a cross field pass deep in their area (never play the ball across the goal in defense, kids!) and the second when their keeper bobbled a simple, long-range shot from Enzo that went straight to him and should have been easily caught. Palmer would put the first chance just wide and the second one high, although he was clobbered by Thomas Glover in the process. He also had one of our better chances from open play in only the 5th minute, yet with only one player to beat, he decided to take a shot with the outside of his boot from outside their box that essentially went straight to Glover. We have come to expect a...cooler head from him in those scenarios. The last act of the first half, though, he has major culpability, because in the video below you can see his extra touch allows the keeper to get in a better position and stop his shot, which wasn’t awfully powerful or accurate in the first place. If his finishing goes...cold like the rest of the squad, we are in serious trouble.

Too many touches and too slow

We created very little in general and our substitutes made very little impact. In fact, the personnel that was swapped out probably should have been different. There was really no reason for removing Noni Madueke instead of Raheem Sterling, and Enzo Fernández probably should have been shifted back and Caicedo removed if we were really trying to improve our ball movement through their lines. In fact, a very sad Sterling statistic was exposed at the full time whistle. It seems as though he is not a ‘big game’ player, amazingly having failed to score in his last 21 semi-finals for club and country.

Broja was isolated because our agenda seemed driven towards passing around rather than into the box, and of his 15 touches, only 3 were in the box - a dispossession with his back to goal (74th minute), a cross that nearly connected with Sterling at the far post but ends up going wide (80th minute), and a heavy touch on the turn that was lost (88th minute.) Perhaps this was trying to minimise his minutes after returning from an ACL injury, but after talking him up so much in his post-match Preston North End presser, starting him and giving him 45 or 60 minutes seems like the better alternative, at least in hindsight. However, after his goal over the weekend, it seems rather telling not only that he was not given another start but also that we have recalled David Datro Fofana, who, if he plays for us, cannot go back out on loan. If we do end up loaning Fofana out and do not figure out how to encourage and integrate Broja better, it will be a long month without Nico Jackson.

Let’s hope that the similar trip north that Fulham took and the less time to rest and recover from their equally upsetting loss (they were up 1-0 going in at half against Liverpool) bodes well for us...not to mention that this match will be (thankfully) played at Stamford Bridge, where we have six wins and draw in our last seven.


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