Following a 1-2 victory away at Malmo in the first leg, Chelsea were expected to seal their passage through to the Europa League round-of-16 on Thursday. Speculation had been rife in preceding days that manager Maurizio Sarri’s spell at the club could be set for a premature ending, making a win at Stamford Bridge all the more critical. Sunday sees the Blues face Manchester City in the EFL Cup final at Wembley, with many believing defeat for Sarri could see him sacked just seven months into his tenure.
Thanks to a 3-0 home win against Malmo, securing a 5-1 aggregate scoreline and progressing to play Dynamo Kiev in the next round, Sarri can go into the game at Wembley with some confidence over his side’s prospects. This analysis will dissect exactly how Chelsea managed to see off their Swedish opponents.
Much of Sarri’s preferred lineup remained intact for this tie, but there were a few notable rotations. Youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi lined-up on the right-wing, with Willian moving over to the left. Andreas Christensen was given a chance to impress over David Luiz at the back, while Willy Cabellero took Kepa’s place in goal. Olivier Giroud lead the line in the absence of new signing Gonzalo Higuain. Star man Eden Hazard was joined on the bench by the much-maligned Jorginho, with the Brazilian’s pivot role being occupied by Matteo Kovacic.
Malmo set up in a 5-3-2 formation, hoping to retain defensive solidity while they went in search of a comeback. 36-year-old striker Markus Rosenberg was joined up front by the more dynamic Marcus Antonsson. Danish midfielder Anders Christiansen was on playmaking duties, while wing-backs Soren Rieks and Andreas Vindheim were tasked with providing the width.
Both teams pressed during buildup
Given Sarri’s focus on building from the back, it was no surprise to see Malmo press the Blues on goal-kicks. The two centre-forwards often sat alongside Kovacic, recognising the importance of the holding player in Chelsea’s system. The away sides’ approach more often than not forced Cabellero to go long in search of the second ball further forward. The image below shows a typical pressing structure from Malmo throughout the game. They press with three on the front line, with each playing between two Chelsea players to effectively cancel out the numerical advantage the home team had.
Oftentimes, these hopeful long passes resulted in Malmo recovering possession in their own half before looking to build an attack themselves. However, due to Giroud’s presence in the Chelsea side, the home team enjoyed more success in winning aerial battles than would likely have been the case with Higuain. Malmo’s pressure from the midfield-three, front-two, and sometimes wing-backs, meant that space existed behind these lines to exploit with direct passing. Furthermore, Chelsea’s front players were able to force their opponent’s back line deep into their own half, given the absence of offsides from goal-kicks. This only served to accentuate the space behind Malmo’s pressure further. The image below highlights this, with Giroud winning the aerial dual with time and space to combine with his teammates in the pocket.
In Malmo’s rest phases in defence, they allowed Chelsea to circulate possession along the back line, while shifting across to close off the routes of progression down the sides. Within these phases, however, they did press on triggers in an attempt to force turnovers or force their opposition to retreat. Whenever Chelsea played a backwards pass, or when the ball progressed into midfield, that was Malmo’s cue to press. The image below shows Rudiger returning possession towards Cabellero, with Malmo’s attackers responding by applying pressure.
On the occasions where Chelsea persisted in trying to build from the back, Malmo were well-placed to cope and even managed to force mistakes in their attacking third. An important aspect of Sarri’s system, the home team regularly drew pressure intentionally by moving play back to Cabellero. The aim was to invite their opponents out before playing through them with quick one-and-two-touch combinations. Unfortunately, it generally proved ineffective, with Malmo aggressive in closing down the ball-occupant and shutting off passing lanes using cover shadows. The image below shows an instance where Chelsea are pinned back into a corner, eventually losing possession with insufficient space and passing options to exit.
After the game, Sarri tried to explain the difficulties his team had in exiting the first phase of their attacks.
“I think that in the first 30 mins, we understood why Jorginho is very important for our play. We were in trouble to exit our half from pressing. With Jorginho it is easier, I think. I hope our fans understand Jorginho is an important player.”
Equally, Malmo’s build-up phase was restricted by the pressing of Chelsea. They were determined to play through the thirds, looking to bypass pressure in search of space on the other side. For much of the game, however, they were forced to play long to the strikers. Kovacic, Kante, and Barkley did an impressive job at recovering the second ball in these instances, making it doubly difficult for Malmo to sustain attacks. The image below shows Chelsea’s pressing structure, forcing Johan Dahlin into a long pass. Were the ‘keeper to play short to the right, Kovacic and Willian are well-placed to double up and force a turnover.
Overall, neither team were afforded the luxuries they would have wanted in relation to building the play in their preferred manner. Malmo failed to construct many meaningful attacks, while Chelsea often had to find alternative routes to progress from the first third.
Chelsea create superiority over Malmo wing-backs
When Chelsea managed to create established attacks in the opponent’s half, they were usually given time to circulate possession around the half-way line, enjoying 73% of possession overall. With the centre generally closed off during Malmo’s rest phase, Chelsea’s onus was on horizontal play. They shifted the ball from one flank to the other, using the centre-backs as links. This method of switching the point of attack was often stifled by Malmo, who were able to move their low block across in time to shut off the space in the channels. Notice how Kovacic is being covered closely by Malmo’s two strikers, preventing Chelsea from playing their preferred vertical game through midfield.
These plays often resulted in Hudson-Odoi or Willian receiving on the wings, before being pushed back or dispossessed by the Malmo defenders. Their inability to switch the play quickly was a recurring theme for much of the game. The image below highlights this problem, with Hudson-Odoi receiving on the right-flank, before being closed-down immediately and forced into playing backwards. Their slow switch allows Malmo to form a defensive trio to close out the wing.
Despite these scenarios occurring frequently in Thursday night’s fixture, Chelsea did manage to create moments where the Malmo wing-backs were exploited. Instead of shifting the ball across the backline, they sometimes built the play on one side before making a direct switch pass to the other side, where the winger could either attack the opposing wing-back in a one-on-one, or combine with a supporting teammate to exploit a two-against-one.
Willian was often the one to show this sense of initiative, receiving on the left before playing an accurate long pass to the opposite flank for Hudson-Odoi to front up his defender. The image below shows the Brazilian wide-man switching the play to his young apprentice. With the left-wing heavily occupied, Willian opens up just enough space to play the out-ball.
After receiving in acres of space, Hudson-Odoi dribbles at the defender before a quick change of direction and shot results in Chelsea’s third goal of the evening.
While trying to isolate Hudson-Odoi in one-on-ones was the order of the day for the right-wing, generating two-against-ones was the aim on the left. On a number of occasions, the play was built on the right before being switched out to the left wing for Willian and Emerson Palmieri to combine against Malmo’s right-wing-back. Although no goals came directly from their link-play, they did create a number of dangerous crosses from these scenarios, as was the case in the play below.
As well as having some success in exploiting the wing-backs during the established attacking phase, Chelsea also managed to exploit them during transitions. On the rare occasions, Malmo were able to push their hosts back, the wing-backs were generally tasked with providing most of the width in attack. This forced Willian and Hudson-Odoi into defensive support roles. However, when Chelsea completed turnovers in these situations, their two wingers had the pace to get goal-side of the wing-backs on the counter-attack.
The image below shows Kante driving into the central space following a ball recovery, Willian loses his wing-back with pace before receiving and crossing for Giroud to tap home from close range.
Despite moving the ball too slowly at times, Chelsea found many ways to exploit their opponents’ wing-backs. Willian and Emerson joined up to combine two-against-one on the left, while space was generated for Hudson-Odoi to exploit one-against-ones on the right with his direct dribbling qualities. Furthermore, the space behind the wing-backs was exploited with pace on the break. In total, they managed to record 12 shots on goal, with an expected goals tally of 1.65. Malmo, on the other hand, ended the game with zero shots on target.
Much of the intrigue surrounding this game was created by the news that Kovacic would replace Jorginho in the pivot role. The latter has received huge amounts of criticism this season, and had been made scapegoat following the disastrous defeats to Bournemouth and Man City.
Overall, Kovacic performed reasonably well, but certainly wasn’t without fault. On one occasion, he was loose with possession, giving away the ball in an extremely dangerous position during buildup. The midfielder passed straight to an opponent under no pressure, allowing the attacker to charge at Chelsea’s centre-backs. It was an isolated incident, however, with the Real Madrid loanee completing 97% of his passes.
One criticism regularly levelled at Jorginho this term has been his lack of dynamism, with some believing he is too static for a Premier League midfielder, given the pace of the English game. Kovacic certainly does offer more in the way of dynamism, offering the additional option of dribbling out of pressure. His ball-carrying ability helped make Chelsea more adaptable in terms of exiting high-pressured circumstance. He completed the second most dribbles against Malmo with four, one behind Hudson-Odoi.
From a defensive standpoint, Kovacic was given plenty of support from Barkley and Kante, the latter making four inerceptions and three succesful tackles. However, on the occasions when Kovacic wasn’t given enough support, his defensive weaknesses were exposed as he often allowed the Malmo midfielders to get goal-side. Below is an example of this issue, with Anders Christiansen receiving behind Kovacic and Barkley, before the duo retreat quickly to bring him down and concede a free-kick.
Upon his entrance at the 76-minute mark, Jorginho was booed by a section of Chelsea fans. Given the flaws shown by Kovacic in his absence, and the attacking quality shown by N’Golo Kante, it remains likely that Sarri will revert to his usual midfield on Sunday.
Despite a slow start, Chelsea were eventually able to break down their opponents to enjoy a comfortable victory. The big differences came when the home side began switching the play in a more direct fashion, exploiting the wing-backs before Malmo’s block had time to shift across in support.
Depending on the result from Sunday’s cup final against Manchester City, Chelsea’s progress into the last 16 of the Europa League could well be Maurizio Sarri’s final memory of Stamford Bridge. On the flip side, a surprise triumph at Wembley could spark the Italian’s revival at the club.
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