UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Chelsea vs Rennes – tactical preview
Stamford Bridge will host the gameweek three fixture in the UEFA Champions League group stage between Chelsea and Rennes 4th November. This tactical analysis will take a look at how the two teams will face up against each other.
Chelsea, led by Frank Lampard, won their previous UCL tie versus Krasnodar in an impressive 4-0 display. The introduction of Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy has led to a tighter defence, occasionally at the expense of their attacking endeavours. In this analysis, we will discover how Lampard’s tactics will shape up against the French side.
Rennes, managed by Julien Stéphan, lost their previous UCL fixture against Sevilla in a tight 1-0 loss in Seville. Rennes currently sit 3rd in Ligue 1, becoming unbeaten in their last four fixtures domestically, a strong start to back up their strong spending in the most recent transfer window. This analysis will take a deeper dive into how they will look to play against the West London side.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Edouard Mendy; Reece James, Thiago Silva, Kurt Zouma, Ben Chilwell; Mason Mount, N’Golo Kanté, Kai Havertz; Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic.
In the second half of the match against Sevilla, Lampard made the switch to bring off Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić and to introduce Mount and Kanté. This switch was very effective, as we will discuss further later, and one can only imagine the English coach will develop this midfield selection more in the coming fixtures. Ziyech managed to make his first start against Sevilla as well in a man-of-the-match display for the Blues, so it would be expected for the Moroccan to start from here on out.
Rennes (4-3-3): Alfred Gomis; Brandon Soppy, Damien Da Silva, Nayef Aguerd, Hamari Traoré; Clément Grenier, Steven Nzonzi, Benjamin Bourigeaud; Jérémy Doku, M’Baye Niang, Martin Terrier.
Rennes will have a few injury issues to contend with for this fixture. Left-back Faitout Maouassa is out with an ankle issue until December, youth prospect Eduardo Camavinga is out till mid-November with an unspecified knock, and Daniele Rugani is on the sidelines after suffering a thigh injury in the match versus Sevilla. These three will provide Stephan with interesting problems to resolve, but he has players who can come in and replace incumbents, but a player such as Grenier is certainly not at the level of Camavinga, and Rennes will suffer because of it.
Mount and Havertz acting as two ‘free 8s’
Blues fans were not happy with Chelsea’s first-half display away at Krasnodar despite being 1-0 up through a Callum Hudson-Odoi goal. As has been seen in recent weeks, it was a match where Chelsea showed plenty of defensive solidity, but little in terms of attacking direction. Without James at right-back providing crosses a plentiful into the box, much of Chelsea’s chance creation relied upon the attacking interplay of their frontline, which was lacking, to begin with.
Substitutes in the second-half saw Mount and Havertz play as the two free ‘8s’ with Kanté providing the defensive platform to play off of and to cover the defensive line as well. Mount, arguably in his best role, acted well as the man to link midfield to attack, forcing the play into more central areas, where Havertz could do his creative magic in the final third. Against Rennes’ 4-3-3, this could be used to great effect, with a severe lack of press resistance and agility in the balance of their midfield.
Havertz drives the ball down the right half-space from midfield into the final third. He lays off the ball to Ziyech before making the run into a central zone.
On the edge of the penalty area, Ziyech is in a dangerous position to unlock the Krasnodar defence, either finding Pulisic’s run into the half-space or Chilwell’s run by the far post.
We saw a similar tactical concept used against Rennes in their recent UCL fixture versus Sevilla in the form of Joan Jordán. On a few occasions towards the end of the match, he carried the ball down through the core of the Rennes defence, before either laying off the ball to a teammate or cracking a shot of his own on goal. By the end of the game, the 26-year-old had managed to produce five key passes, take two shots, complete two dribbles, and manage five tackles and interceptions to make for an utterly complete midfield display.
Jordán carried the ball through the midfield line with ease, before striking the ball off the bar to make for a lucky break for the French side.
Lampard continued to use 4-3-3 against Burnley over the weekend, with Mount and Havertz reprising their roles as the free 8s. In this game particularly, Mount looked to catch the Burnley defence off-guard from midfield, given their typical low-block. When the 21-year-old received the ball in midfield, he would immediately look to play the vertical pass towards either Tammy Abraham or Ziyech.
In theory, this would work in Chelsea’s favour versus Rennes, who usually play a much higher line than Sean Dyche’s Burnley. In recent weeks, Lampard has liked his left-winger (either Werner or Pulisic) to come inside and play off the striker as the focal point, while his right-winger (Hudson-Odoi or Ziyech) to stay out wide and stretch the defence, which would work well against Rennes back four.
Kanté on the halfway line passes the ball forwards to Mount centrally. He has Ziyech out wide and Abraham centrally as passion options to choose from.
Immediately as he receives the ball, Mount spins on the dime and hits the ball over the top for Abraham to run onto.
Full-backs instrumental in build-up and final-third
Regardless of system, Lampard now has two capable and dependable full-backs who are comfortable playing high up the pitch and have the recovery pace to avoid getting caught out of possession as well. Chilwell and James have been producing 0.20 and 0.17 xA per 90 respectively so far in the Premier League this season, while a lot of their attempted crossing efforts have been small margins away from reaching the body part of their intended target, which is not counted in the expected assists metric.
Barring moments in the first Premier League fixture against Brighton where James moved into central-midfield to cover for Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s forward runs, both full-backs stay wide at all times unless an opportunity presents itself otherwise. This is to provide a potential bait-and-switch in the build-up and to stretch the opposition defence in the final third, creating space for attacking teammates inside the penalty area.
In the build-up phase of play within the opposition half, James looks to play the forward pass to Ziyech, who is in plenty of space to carry the ball into the final third.
In a few scenarios, Rennes were exposed by Krasnodar in their first group stage fixture of the season by the use of Krasnodar’s wide men. Particularly Dalbert at left-back, who is typically used to playing at wing-back and higher up the field, they were dragged inside by Krasnodar central players, with runners out wide angling their runs into the penalty area. We can imagine a situation where a player such as Havertz occupies the ball inside centrally, drawing attention to his location, before laying off the ball to James or Chilwell in advanced zones of the pitch.
Kristoffer Olsson in a central area plays the ball out wide to Sergei Petrov, who finds space behind Dalbert, who is found out of position in a quick counterattacking scenario.
We can foresee a scenario where a player such as Havertz or Mount occupying the ball inside centrally, drawing attention to his location, before laying off the ball to James or Chilwell in advanced zones of the pitch. From here, both full-backs are capable of playing the cross with the ball in front of them or cut the ball back from the byline. James will typically favour the whipped low delivery zipped across both goalposts for someone to reach the end of, while Chilwell prefers the early floated cross into the box, which grants Chelsea variety in chance creation against Rennes.
Approaching the penalty area, James leverages his body to wind up a whipped delivery into the box. Havertz can carry his momentum to run through the gap of the two Sevilla defenders to get a high-quality chance on goal.
In a wide left position, Chilwell is ready to send in a lobbed cross towards Zouma. Abraham distracts two Crystal Palace defenders which allows the Frenchman the space to leap and meet the delivery.
Rennes’ structural fluidity and defensive compactness
Out of possession, Stéphan prefers his side to press in a compact 4-2-3-1 formation. Rennes typically set up in a fairly defensive block, which means that he encourages his side to recover the ball in their defensive third, rather than using his forwards to engage the press high up the pitch. This type of defensive setup requires disciplined defensive performances, and Stéphan has coached his defenders into doing just that.
In the above figure, we can see Rennes’ (in red) compact 4-2-3-1 shape out of possession against Chelsea’s 4-3-3, flanked by their two full-backs to provide the width, as we have mentioned previously. When the ball moves past the midfield line of pressure, the more defensive-minded central midfielder, most often Bourigeaud, will drop back either just in front of or next to the backline. The full-backs will likely man-mark either of the two #8s in Havertz and Mount, or the two wide forwards in Ziyech and Pulisic, although the Moroccan spends a lot of his time down the right flank.
Bourigeaud in particular plugs a lot of gaps and blocks a lot of attacking opportunities from the opposition. A typical defensive movement is Bourigeaud recovering the ball, looking for the vertical pass to a teammate, usually Camavinga, who can then progress the ball through wide areas. He has played higher up the field this term in Stéphan’s new 4-3-3 system, but the Frenchman will be vital in transition against Chelsea. He will look to play the direct pass out wide to either winger, exploiting James’ and Chilwell’s high average positions.
In the above analysis, we can see Bourigeaud join the defensive line with Nzonzi to provide cover. While Castillo man-marks his opponent, Bourigeaud and Nzonzi can marshal their man and cut off any potential pass.
When Rennes do regain possession, they complete a high proportion of their passes down the half-spaces and wide areas. A common interchange to be seen is between the deepest midfielder, to one of the #8s, who will link up with the wide attackers in a simple but effective one-two up the field. When they approach the final third, Rennes look to complete attacking rotations between the highest positioned central midfielder, full-back, and wide attacker.
In this scenario against Reims, Raphinha is dribbling with the ball, entering the final third. Guirassy is holding his run to provide a platform for the Brazilian winger to play off of.
Raphinha plays the ball to Guirassy’s feet, who cleverly slips the ball into the penalty area, which the Brazillian can meet and finish calmly into the bottom right.
Of course, Raphinha does not play for Rennes anymore, but the principle remains entirely the same. With the return of Niang, a physical presence with pace, if he and Doku were to link up to this point, then this could work successfully against Chelsea. While Silva and Zouma are very capable defenders, we have seen them caught out on a couple of occasions against more physical strikers so far in the Premier League, see Barnes’ chance against Chelsea on the weekend as the perfect example.
Positional play and width in possession
As mentioned, out of possession, Rennes like to utilise a compact shape, as to crowd out their opponent’s and ensure they have enough men in front of the goal to block off any opportunities. Throughout all phases of play, Stéphan likes his side to play short passes, but with a variation in tempo in different stages of the field. Rennes’ defenders will play calm, slow short passes in an effort to open up the field and as a result, opportunities to progress the ball. When they get into attacking wide areas, this is where they switch up the tempo into fast attacking interchanges.
After a passing across the backline looking for the progressive opportunity, centre-back Silva looks to play the ball down the half-space towards full-back Traoré who is running in-field.
Traoré manages to draw the Brest left-back out of position, and find Castillo down the right-wing, from where he can either enter the box with the ball at his feet or find a player in the box with a cutback.
Against Chelsea, this could work to great effect, as we have seen a similar pattern of play been used against them already this season. The use of the wide full-back coming inside to receive the ball is unpredictable, and it makes for a difficult entity to defend against. If the opposition full-backs comes to press the ball, he leaves the winger in space, but if he does not, he allows the man on the ball to drive towards the 18-yard-box and potentially create a goalscoring opportunity.
Although this portion of play did not pan out, it could have. Due to Chilwell’s wide positioning, Suso could have made the run beyond the defensive line to receive the ball down the right-wing and exploit the space.
In terms of pressing triggers, Rennes should focus on Zouma when he occupies the ball. He is a player who is capable with the ball at his feet, but he certainly has an error within him, as he has already displayed this season against Southampton. A heavy touch was all that Ché Adams needed to take advantage of the opportunity and get in behind the Chelsea defence, before combining with Danny Ings to bring the game level for Southampton in that game.
What does all of this mean for the upcoming Champions League tie? Rennes will be missing Camavinga which is a fairly big miss for the French side, considering he has brought a lot of dynamism into Rennes’ attacks this season, but they did win their last game versus Brest in a tight 2-1 victory.
They have been stuttering recently and to be honest, an in-form Chelsea will be a tough task to face. Lampard’s switch to a 4-3-3 has solved a lot of issues in the transition for his side, and this has allowed them to be comfortable in attacking scenarios as well, hopefully, for the English coach, Rennes will not present too many challenges, but they can be a proficient attacking side on their day.