Maurizio Sarri finally transformed his team’s defensive approach for his team which helped the Blues drag the game over two hours with a clean sheet at Wembley. Putting aside Chelsea’s loss on penalties and the dramatic outburst between Sarri and Kepa before the penalty shootout, the change in approach is worth talking about in the tactical context.
Manchester City saw more of their action in the middle of the park than in the final third, and were left to pass sideways thanks to Chelsea’s redefined midfield shape which provided the needed defensive cover to the backline. The tactical analysis below explains how Sarri brought alterations in his team’s defensive scheme which kept Guardiola’s men worried till the final’s denouement.
Both teams played with their usual 4-3-3 tactical setup. However, the front three of City were positioned widely and more offensively, unlike Sarri’s front three who were positioned deep. Even though both teams used the same formation, the relative positions of their wingers spoke volumes about the intent of one team and its absence in the other.
Sarri transforms his defensive tactics
The Blues were shaped in a compact defensive block restricting all possible lanes and passing options. This was not possible with just a plain compact block. The flat defensive partnership among the midfielders, coordination between the midfield and full-backs, and consistent pressing by the forwards all made Chelsea’s defence look transformed for probably the first time under Sarri.
With this compact defensive block, Chelsea were able to double or even quadruple up around City’s advanced players. This forced Guardiola’s men to play sideways or backwards throughout the game.
Guardiola’s men are already known to stay as wide as possible. Thus, they naturally used the flanks to escape Chelsea’s compact press. By having Silva and Sterling to carry the ball along the width of the touchline, City intended to draw Chelsea’s central defenders out of position for Aguero to cut in from the space between the two central defenders, as shown in the image below.
Even though the stretching of Chelsea’s central defenders generated a huge space between them, Chelsea’s intense defensive presence in their half annulled many of the attacks played through there. City also extended their wide attacks up to byline through the combination play by Bernardo, De Bruyne, and Walker, as shown below.
But Luiz, Emerson, and Jorginho press them back in a tight fashion. By multi-pressing them, Chelsea are able to stop City’s attacks at a relatively earlier stage and keep their advanced players from putting into crosses up from the byline.
A key point worth noting from Chelsea’s defence against City in the EFL Cup Final is that Chelsea finally defended with clearly defined roles. In the last few matches, Chelsea have seemed to lack a clear defensive command across all the lines which has caused them to be exposed easily and frequently. Conversely, the defence was more organised and thus less exposed at Wembley yesterday.
Chelsea’s midfield defensive cover
Sarri did transform the defensive approach for Chelsea, but it was their strengthened midfield cover which instigated this overall defensive organisation. With Jorginho, Barkley, and Kante (and in some instances Pedro) deploying flat in the midfield behind their triangularly positioned front-line, Chelsea eliminated all spaces for City to play any short passing. The pressing arrangement forced City to pass to the open wings. But Chelsea’s full-backs had an eye on the opposition wingers already.
Emerson vs Alonso
Another element which contributed to redefining Chelsea’s defensive scheme and facilitated Chelsea’s midfield cover was the presence of Emerson at left-back. He marked City’s wingers every time they used the flank to penetrate to the final third. This single change on the left flank led to a sequence of changes in Chelsea’s overall defending style, which were not possible with the Spanish defender.
Alonso couldn’t have provided the defensive cover out wide, and would have left the job to Luiz or Barkley to be drawn out of their positions. Alonso’s lack of defensive discipline has misshaped Chelsea’s defence a lot already.
On the other hand, with his clearly defined defensive role Emerson allowed his teammates to play their roles concretely which translated into a well-focused backline. By marking City’s advancing full-backs, midfielders, and wingers along the flanks, the Italian international not only broke the combination play among City’s players but also isolated them from the centrally positioned attacking figures like Aguero. Emerson consistently marked Silva out wide.
Emerson’s defensive discipline not only affected the Blues’ defensive approach but also altered the build-up phases too. Since Emerson kept back with his other defenders, he was part of the initial passes of the build-up. By contrast, Alonso is usually found at the receiving end of the build-up after making runs without the ball. In short, Emerson provided Chelsea with the defensive discipline with Alonso couldn’t.
Chelsea have limited attacking acumen
Chelsea’s game plan relied on counter-attacks. However, with all their energies being occupied in maintaining a compact pressing form, Chelsea’s offensive presence was already limited.
Chelsea’s front players, especially Hazard and Pedro, were found to lack the technicality needed to implement fine combination play amidst City’s press. Below we can see an example of Hazard, as he did in the previous fixture against Manchester City and against Manchester United, again holding onto the ball a little more than he should have instead of passing it to Pedro and thus losing maybe the only opportunity to score.
On the surface, Chelsea just lost another cup this season. However tactically, what matters more is that Sarri’s tactical alteration hints at the possibility of accommodating a plan B or two in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 structure and with the current squad. This should have been tested much earlier, but it’s better late than never.
Finally, what’s usually talked about is that Chelsea remain defensively vulnerable during transitions as they conceded most of the dangerous attacks at Wembley when pursuing their own attacks. Of course, with all their energies occupied in maintaining the defensive discipline, something Sarri’s men aren’t used to, it makes sense that any switch towards transitional phases would disturb that defensive structure.
Chelsea also still need a leading figure to dictate their line of attack in possession phases. Fixing its tactical rigidity might have solved half of Sarriball’s problems, but there should be more to come.
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