The Europa League enters its final stages with the teams set to battle it out for a place in the final at the Baku Olympic Stadium. This tactical preview will dissect the semi-final between Eintracht Frankfurt and Chelsea. Both teams will be looking for another European title. While the Champions League has seen some exciting encounters and surprises, the Europa League hasn’t disappointed.
Chelsea would have taken note of Eintracht Frankfurt’s victories over Lazio and Marseille in the group stages, but also progressing past Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and Benfica have left Frankfurt the most dangerous team in the final four.
Frankfurt’s last triumph came in 1980 in the UEFA Cup Final that was played on 7 May 1980, and 21 May 1980. Eintracht Frankfurt took on Borussia Mönchengladbach in an all-German final. Eintracht Frankfurt won on away goals after the tie ended 3–3 on aggregate.
Chelsea have been Champions League regulars but the Europa League has been a competition they are regularly apart of. They won the competition in 2013, a season after winning the Champions League. Back to back European victories epitomised the Roman Abramovich era. The Holy Grail finally found its way to Stamford Bridge. The most sought after trophy since taking over Chelsea Football Club.
Frankfurt are coming off a sensational comeback against Benfica in the quarter-final. Eintracht Frankfurt have been enjoying a fine season under Adi Hütter. They currently sit in fourth place two points ahead of fifth place Borussia Mönchengladbach. Recovering from a stuttering start, the Eagles are now soaring since their 5-0 hammering by Bayern Munich in the Super Cup.
Their excellent performances in the Bundesliga combined with their European journey so far have given them a platform for success next season. Ante Rebić, Sébastien Haller and Luka Jović have been standout performers. The front three have formed a dangerous trident to spearhead Frankfurt to 15 wins and contributing to their 58 goals in the Bundesliga.
We gave away possession too cheaply and too frequently. Hertha played better and we need to improve. The fans gave us great support today. It’ll be a completely different game against Chelsea on Thursday and we’ll need to put ourselves in a good position for the return leg. – Makoto Hasebe
Chelsea made life difficult for themselves against Slavia Prague, conceding three goals entirely of their own doing. Maurizio Sarri has seen his team slowly understand his tactics but will likely require another transfer window to find players better suited to his system. At this stage of the season, Chelsea are battling for a place in the top four. The draw against Manchester United on Sunday keeps them in the running.
Eintracht Frankfurt will be looking forward to their semi-final against Chelsea. No one expected them to make it this deep into the tournament and will be playing without fear. The German club have two noticeable absentees in Sébastien Haller and Ante Rebić. The two strikers will be sorely missed by Frankfurt and will be difficult to replace.
It’s important that we also enjoy the match. We’re in the semi-finals of the Europa League against a big club. It’s something special. We’ll need to be courageous, flexible and execute our plan. – Adi Hütter
Expected starting XI: Trapp; Abraham, Hasebe, Hinteregger; Da Costa, Fernandes, de Guzmán, Rode, Kostić; Jović, Paciência
Chelsea boasts a relatively fully fit squad. Antonio Rüdiger and Callum Hudson-Odoi will be the only noticeable absentees. The German centre-back suffered a knee injury against Manchester United on Sunday. After undergoing successful knee surgery, he has been ruled out for the rest of the season. Andreas Christensen is in line to replace Rüdiger with key matches to be played, deciding Chelsea’s fate.
Willian picked up a knock after a heavy challenge from Argentine Marcos Rojo but trained and is in contention to start.
Callum Hudson-Odoi ruptured his Achilles against Burnley on April 22. The English international recently broke into the Chelsea first team, enjoying a run of games. The injury is a major setback in the youngster’s development but his return early next season should bolster the squad.
Emerson Palmieri and César Azpilicueta are expected to start at full-back alongside David Luiz and Christensen. The midfield three has been shuffled throughout the season by Sarri but looks to have settled on his preferred three. N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek should start. Loftus-Cheek was rested against Manchester United with Mateo Kovačić getting a run-out.
The final piece to the jigsaw puzzle will be selecting the strike force. Eden Hazard is guaranteed to start. The Belgian wizard has enjoyed a productive season under Sarri breaking his personal attacking contributions. Pedro should get the nod ahead of Willian after the Brazilian ace started at Old Trafford. Olivier Giroud has been in fine form in European competition. Gonzalo Higuaín hasn’t hit the ground running and is fighting to prolong his stay at Stamford Bridge.
Expected starting eleven: Kepa; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Christensen, Emerson; Jorginho, Kanté, Loftus-Cheek; Pedro, Giroud, Hazard
Eintracht Frankfurt’s attacking trident
Frankfurt’s attacking trident is one of the many highlights of the season. Ante Rebić, Sebastien Haller and Luka Jović form an extremely dangerous and effective trio. Adi Hütter’s setup has allowed the three players to thrive and create goal scoring situations. Luka Jović leads the goalscoring charts with 25 goals, but the burden has been shared between the three. Haller has contributed 19 goals while Rebić has 13. The intelligent movement and numerical superiority created by the front three has been a stand out feature of their play.
Ante Rebić usually plays as the number 10 acting as the link man between the two strikers. Rebić patrols the number 10 area putting pressure on any players being pressed by central midfielders. He often drops in order to take advantage of the space created by the two strikers, running from deep and interchanging passes with Jović or Haller.
In the recent Europa League tie against Benfica, we saw an example of their combination play. Sebastien Rode closes down the Benfica midfielder and persists till he wins back possession. Both Rebić and Jović are positioned slightly higher than the rest of the team. Rebić’s positioning allows him to pick up the loose ball and run toward the defender.
Anticipating the tackle, Rebić cleverly sidesteps the defender putting him in behind the defensive line. The defender checks his shoulder expecting Jović to continue his run. However, the Serbian forward intelligently moves closer to Rebić in between the two centre-backs.
Midfield key for Chelsea in stopping Frankfurt’s attacking force
Frankfurt’s wing-backs and front three will require a bit more tracking by Chelsea. This will either put pressure on N’Golo Kanté and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to act as Carrilero’s shuffling across midfield covering the opposing full-backs. It is the job of these shutters to cover lateral areas of the pitch and link the defensive area with the attacking midfield area.
Frankfurt may look to create overloads to try and overrun Chelsea’s two full-backs. While Cesar Azpilicueta is defensively solid, however, Marcos Alonso and Emerson Palmieri have been targeted by many teams.
Filip Kostić and Danny da Costa provide width. Out of possession, the two wing-backs work in tandem by creating a numerical advantage in midfield. If the ball lies on the right side, da Costa looks to press and win back possession with the aid of one central midfielder.
Simultaneously, Kostić takes up a narrower or wider position based on the defensive shape. This gives him space to run into once a switch in the play happens. If the opposing team is narrow in shape, he steps out wide creating space for a runner between the centre-back and full-back for a crossing opportunity.
This example highlights the positioning and movement of Frankfurt’s wing-backs. As Danny da Costa looks to surge forward, looking to cut inside and shift play across. As he continues his run inwards, Filip Kostić stays in a wider position as Benfica’s defence is narrowly shaped and overcrowded. Kostić recognises this and ghosts through after Jović’s shot rebounds off Odisseas Vlachodimos.
Chelsea’s three midfielders will need to be wary of their movements. Kanté, Loftus-Cheek, and Jorginho will need to work in tandem to effectively nullify the threat. Helping Emerson and Azpilicueta defensively will be the utmost priority protecting the half-spaces. These half-spaces have been a source of danger for Chelsea as teams have learned to break down Chelsea’s defensive resolve.
Whilst Kanté has been phenomenal in his new midfield position, the midfield has struggled to win key battles. The team has lacked the mobility in certain games to efficiently win back possession in midfield and transition into a swift counter-attack. Many teams have played through the midfield mainly due to Jorginho’s perceived lack of lateral movement.
A gifted player on the ball but lacking the defensive skillset required. However, Sarri’s tactics revolve around ball possession and allowing Jorginho to dictate the tempo of the game. If Chelsea can keep ball possession with purpose, Frankfurt could possibly sit back and remain compact.
Here in this example, we can see Slavia Prague were able to easily navigate through Chelsea’s midfield. They were able to penetrate spaces between the midfielders allowed Slavia Prague to transition from back to front with ease. However, as play reaches Chelsea’s right-hand side, Kanté, Pedro and César Azpilicueta are quick to converge on the player.
This is where Chelsea will need to focus on. Filip Kostić and Danny da Costa are particularly active on their flanks. As we’ve seen earlier, they are both intelligent enough to innovate and adapt their positions based on each other’s positioning and movement.
One of Frankfurt’s most important points is their pressing. Frankfurt look to press opposition midfield higher up the pitch to initiate a counter-attack. Opposition teams are caught unorganised during these moments and need their players to track back to try and cover the open spaces. Sebastian Rode and Gelson Fernandes work in tandem using the pendulum effect. This is where one player steps up whilst the other holds their position covering the area.
With a three-man defensive system, this allows one centre-back to step into midfield aiding with the press. The German club looks to keep the opposing team away from their own half. The defensive line stays high allowing the wing-back’s and strikers to transition into a counter-attack with a numerical advantage.
Here in this example, we can see how Frankfurt are trying to press Benfica as they start playing out from the back. Danny da Costa looks to initiate the first phase of pressing before David Abraham suffocates João Félix of any space. As soon as the ball is won, da Costa is already in a position to transform this move into an attacking opportunity.
Benfica are now heavily concentrated on the ball and have no time to worry about the off-the-ball movements. Filip Kostić is positioned slightly inwards but is afforded acres of space on the near side. Danny da Costa’s pass splits the Benfica defence and is received by the front two. Rebić’s timed run and movement are exquisite as he pulls away from the final defender giving Kostić a free run into the penalty area.
Against different sides, Hütter employs a man oriented press to counteract oppositions with slow build-up play. Chelsea do build out from the back with Jorginho as the catalyst for most attacking moves. A targeted pressing tactic would benefit Frankfurt as look to nullify the effectiveness of the Italian. Keeping Jorginho quiet usually sees Chelsea bypass the defensive midfielder. They launch long balls towards the striker.
The combination of Makoto Hasebe, David Abraham and Martin Hinteregger should be able to deal with the aerial threat. However, they will fear the attacking threat Chelsea pose in Willian, Olivier Giroud and, Eden Hazard. The understanding between the Chelsea front three has improved with Giroud the perfect mould for Hazard, Willian and Pedro to play off of.
Chelsea’s front three & Eden Hazard
Chelsea have tried different combinations of attacking players at their disposal. Eden Hazard, Willian, Pedro, and Callum Hudson-Odoi have all been trialled alongside Olivier Giroud and Gonzalo Higuaín. Before Hudson-Odoi’s untimely injury, he, Giroud and Hazard became Sarri’s preferred attacking trio.
However, all five players are supremely talented and nimble with their feet. The intricate interchanges between them have been a joy to watch and could cause the Eintracht Frankfurt back line a few problems.
Chelsea are a Champions League team, with David Luiz, Gonzalo Higuaín, Cesar Azpilicueta. It is a pure Champions League team.
I did say they are the favourites. But we will have our chances, it is two matches and we can hurt an opponent. – Adi Hütter
Under Sarri, Hazard has been more involved with play and the presence of Olivier Giroud who has been able to link up well with the winger. Both Willian and Pedro are similar in style to Hazard with their own strengths. Pedro’s work rate, speed, and off-the-ball running allow him to play off Giroud.
Chelsea’s forward line can always find Pedro running in behind to provide an option. Willian’s creativity and flair see him dribble and interchange intricate passes with Giroud and Hazard leaving defenders helpless.
The above phase of play exemplifies Chelsea’s intricate play style. As Willian cuts inside, notice Hazard’s movement across the Southampton centre-back. His run acts as a dummy and creates space for Giroud to pass into. Hazard’s run has five defenders trailing in his wake.
With the wing-backs positioned high, Chelsea’s wingers exploit the space in behind them. Emerson often overlaps Eden Hazard on the left flank and looks to provide Hazard with a passing option. Defenders usually double up on the diminutive Belgian. This allows for the overlapping full-back space to cross into Chelsea’s forward. Both Higuaín and Giroud are proficient aerially.
Garden of Eden
Eden Hazard may not have the statistics to back his Europa League performances but remains a core component in Chelsea’s attack. Eintracht Frankfurt will have analysed the diminutive Belgian knowing the quality he possesses. Certainly, Hazard will once again look to provide a platform for his teammates to thrive in and power them through to another European final.
Eintracht Frankfurt usually employ a back five with two attacking wing-backs. In this case, the wing-backs will need to be more defensively aware. Danny da Costa is defensively stable wing-back will be tasked with keeping the Belgian wizard quiet.
He is one of the best players in the world, who other big clubs want to have. In duels, he is great, very dynamic.
You have to double up on him and you have to try to take him out of the game. With his qualities, he is one of the top three in the world. – Adi Hütter
Eden Hazard is having a productive season with double figures in both the assists and goals column in the Premier League. He has 19 goals in all competitions with 13 assists (16 goals coming in the Premier League). This season has seen an increase in the number of goals and his overall contribution to Chelsea.
The introduction of Maurizio Sarri’s new system has aided in this regard. The winger has been partially relieved of his defensive duties having been allowed to focus on creating chances further forward. As a result, Frankfurt’s wing-backs and the front three will require further tracking.
Eden Hazard’s 2.6 shots per game in the 2018/19 season are higher than last season’s 2.1.
While Gonzalo Higuain may be a more traditional number nine, Giroud has shown more promise with Chelsea’s wingers allowing them space and time with his intelligence around the penalty area.
All to do in Germany
After assessing both teams strengths and weaknesses, it’ll come down to whoever capitalises on the opportunities presented to them. With Makoto Hasebe and company looking to keep it compact at the back, Chelsea will need to be at their very best. A goalless draw against Hertha Berlin over the weekend will not deter them. Eintracht Frankfurt is a totally different proposition come Thursday’s encounter.
Chelsea will want to improve their performances as the season enters its final stretch. They require two wins out of three to secure Champions League football. A win away in Germany will put them in good stead for the second leg. A place in the Europa League final awaits for the victor as both teams know this is their final opportunity for any silverware this season.
Adi Hütter will be desperate to win a trophy to validate the excellent season he’s experienced with Eintracht Frankfurt. Similarly, Maurizio Sarri will want to continue the trend of managers winning silverware in their first seasons at Stamford Bridge. A conservative 1-1 draw will be the likely result. Chelsea will look for the away goal and aim for next week’s return leg to kill the tie. The countdown to Baku begins now.
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