Wolverhampton Wanderers travelled south to London to play against Chelsea for matchday 30 of the Premier League. In the reverse of this fixture, back in December, Wolves had defeated Chelsea 2-1. Although there weren’t any major implications for Wolves from this match, the opposite was true for Chelsea as their top four hopes hung in the balance.
Chelsea had started the season strongly but as mid-season approached, the cracks began to appear revealing their underlying issues regarding the manager – Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy and his lack of flexibility – all culminating in a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City. Since then, they’ve picked up some pace but it remained to be seen if they could perform well against giant-killers like Wolves who’ve themselves exceeded a lot of expectations. Though top four would have been too much to hope for from a newly promoted side, they sit comfortably in seventh position, being one of the best amongst the mid-table teams.
Chelsea’s build-up and positional play
Chelsea set up in a 4-3-3 in possession, pretty much as their lineup suggests. Building out from the back was not much trouble since Wolves never pressed their centre-backs – David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger. Chelsea mostly favoured the left side to build up their attacks, because their major attacking threats were on this flank – namely Eden Hazard, David Luiz, Matteo Kovacic, and Emerson Palmieri.
However, the switch balls to the right side were also common and interestingly enough they almost completely shut off their left flank particularly in the second half of the first half (20-45 mins). This was due to a simple reason – Wolves forced them to do so. However, we’ll touch on Wolves’ defensive organisation later.
Chelsea, under Sarri, emphasise quick build-up play and vertical passing as opposed to horizontal ones. Their fullbacks are very essential to the build-up – demonstrated by the high number of touches and passes they accumulated during the entire match. Emerson and Cesar Azpilicueta had 143 and 113 touches respectively. To put that into perspective, even Jorginho – Chelsea’s engine– only had 111 touches.
The full-backs push up high and wide. The wingers – stay higher than their fullbacks but still wide as opposed to tucking inside. As the near-sided centre-back or Jorginho gets on the ball, the full-back opens up for the ball. His receiving of the ball triggered the movement of the near-sided interior midfielder – either Kovacic or N’golo Kante towards the full-back. This allows the fullback to have two passing options in front of him – one towards the byline and the other in the half-space.
After passing around the ball in triangles and attracting the Wolves defenders, they’d try to exploit the space which should open up theoretically or switch the ball to the other side quickly. This pattern remained the same on both flanks even though the left was favoured initially. Due to Chelsea’s left-sided build-up, the structure often resembled a 4-2-3-1 of sorts. Kante would rotate deeper to provide stability in the centre and Kovacic would move higher (as explained previously).
Wolves have one of the most well-drilled defences in the league. They’re fourth in the league right now in terms of expected goals conceded, and right with the big boys like Manchester City and Liverpool. Sarri had obviously heard of Nuno’s reputation and experienced it himself the last time they’d travelled up to Wolverhampton. In that match, they’d had a total of 17 shots but only nine from within the box. The xG per shot of that match was 0.06. Quite simply put, Wolves are hard to break down.
In an attempt to try to figure out this problem, Sarri employed a number of rotational movements between his players, in order to confuse his opponents and open up gaps for his players to exploit. The most common ones were on the left flank between Emerson and Kovacic & Hazard and Kovacic.
When the ball was on the right flank, Emerson would dart inside and Kovacic would rotate outwards. Since Wolves were marking man-to-man in midfield, this did create some confusion but it wasn’t enough to get any results for Chelsea.
Hazard and Pedro also switched flanks quite frequently in the first half. Pedro would move out to the left while Hazard would move over to the right. Another rotation which occurred when there was space in front of the Chelsea defence was Rudiger carrying the ball up into midfield and Jorginho dropping deep and taking up his position alongside Luiz.
Wolves’ defensive resilience
We’ve already told you that Wolves defend well. Let’s look at what exactly is it that makes them so astute defensively.
Wolves defend in a low 5-3-2 and against Chelsea it was no different. With the Blues, they knew that their greatest threat was Hazard and they succeeded in nullifying him almost the entire match. He had just one shot in the entire match and that was from outside the box in stoppage time. The 5-3-2 in itself results in a very strong defensive shape. The two lines maintained vertical compression and horizontal coverage resulting in all ball-near areas being effectively guarded.
Additionally, the 5-3-2 also has the advantage of meshing in favourably with the standard 4-3-3 which Chelsea were playing. This led to pressing patterns naturally emerging on the field. During the initial phase of Chelsea’s build-up, they didn’t press and allowed them to move up the pitch to a certain extent. One of the forwards – Raul Jimenez or Diogo Jota – would zonally mark the centre of the pitch while the other would man-mark Jorginho.
When the centre-back passed to the full-back, the near-sided midfielder – Leander Dendoncker on the right and Joao Moutinho on the left would move out to press the fullback. The wing-back – Jonny or Matt Doherty, would man-mark the winger while the wide centre-back would move out to cover and support the wing-back in case he got dribbled past. Wolves used these symmetrical tactics to defend both the flanks while in the centre they had Neves to guard the space in front of the box – also known as zone 14.
Such outstanding defence led to Chelsea completely failing to create any big chances from open play as well as set-pieces. They played a total of 820 passes (and kept 76% of the possession) but the majority of them were in the middle third and between their centre-backs and full-backs in a typical U-shape around the Wolves block. Dribbling through the lines wasn’t an option either.
When Hazard or Pedro got on the ball, they were usually only allowed to dribble sideways – across the pitch; something which is at direct odds with Sarri’s focus on verticality. Though dribbling sideways does have its advantages as it moves the opposition block across, it again failed against a team as drilled as well as the Molineux side. Chelsea took a total of 22 shots with 12 of them from outside of the box.
Wolves in possession and Chelsea’s defensive shape
Although Wolves were happy to cede possession and stay in a defensive block, they had a plan in place for when they did happen to get the ball. Their structure wasn’t as expansive as Chelsea’s as they couldn’t afford to send their wing-backs high in support of their forwards, which is what they usually like to do in order to create chances.
Their plan was to hit Chelsea on the transition (which is how they got their goal) as they usually pushed up their centre-backs and hence, the Wolves forwards had a tightrope to walk in terms of when to defend and when to stay up to counter-attack quickly. We did see some instances of a clear possession-based style from Wolves and this was also geared to take advantage of Chelsea’s weaknesses.
Wolves in possession became a 3-5-2 with the only structural change being the advanced positions of their wingbacks – Jonny and Doherty. The centre-backs spread out with Conor Coady in the centre with Romain Saiss on the right and Willy Boly on the left. Neves stayed at the centre of the midfield with both Dendoncker and Moutinho functioning as eights. Up ahead, the mobile pair of Jimenez and Jota stayed with Luiz and Rudiger – either threatening to make runs in behind when their wing-backs had the ball or dropping to receive centrally and hold up the ball until the midfielders made a run.
The way they tried to create chances wasn’t so different from Chelsea – forming triangles out wide and using third-man runs. From there, they’d look to cross the ball. However, Chelsea defended well, hence Wolves were limited to a grand total of one successful cross into the box. Their possession play was hindered by nothing other than their own defensive game as both the forwards would get isolated up ahead without any support from their midfield.
Chelsea primarily defended in their 4-3-3 but it was a fluid structure which sometimes became a 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 had Hazard and Higuain up ahead of a midfield and defensive bank of four each. They pressed hard off-the-ball and hence it sometimes changed to a 4-2-4 (when Kante or Kovacic decided to press the opposition midfielders). After pressing, Hazard would drop off into space instead of joining the midfield to aid quicker transitions after Chelsea had cleared the ball. This, however, left a hole in Chelsea’s defence on their left side (Wolves’ right) which was targeted well by Nuno’s men. Almost 50% of their attack came from this side as seen in the graphic below.
Although Chelsea dominated possession, Wolves controlled the match with their defensive performance. After Wolves scored their goal in the 52nd minute, they completely shut down shop and it was only a moment of sheer brilliance by Hazard that led to the goal in the dying moments of the game.
Wolves play Manchester United next Saturday in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. This is their only chance at showing something in silverware for what has been a great season regardless. Chelsea also play in a cup competition, albeit a European one, this Thursday against Dynamo Kiev. They have a three-goal lead and shouldn’t have much to worry about. Although, in football, 90 minutes is a long time.
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