On Thursday, Chelsea travelled to the Czech Republic to take on Slavia Prague in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Both teams had done well in the previous round, with Chelsea beating Dynamo Kyiv 8-0 on aggregate, and Slavia Prague narrowly beating Sevilla, the most successful team in the history of the competition, 6-5 on aggregate, after a thrilling second leg that was forced into extra time. This tactical analysis will look at how the match played out, and how the result flatters the Blue’s performance.
The hosts lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, a formation that they have rarely used this season. Jindřich Trpišovský’s has successfully led his side to be seven points clear in the Czech First League by playing one lone striker up top and two holding midfielders. His change in the formation was an attempt to put Chelsea’s backline under pressure with two strikers, and ensure his own midfield would not be overrun. Trpišovský also decided to rest a few of his key men ahead of the critical Prague derby, a match against their local rivals, AC Sparta Prague, on Sunday. Star striker, Milan Škoda was an unused substitute, and their key holding midfielder, Tomáš Souček, did not even make the squad.
Maurizio Sarri opted for his preferred 4-3-3 formation. However, similar to his opponent, several key men were rested, ahead of the Liverpool clash on Sunday. David Luiz, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, N’Golo Kanté, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Eden Hazard all found themselves on the bench. Instead, Olivier Giroud found himself starting up top, alongside Willian and Pedro. Mateo Kovačić also got a start, a player Sarri has publically stated that he would like to keep if Chelsea’s transfer ban is overturned.
Slavia Prague’s Pressing
It is no secret that Chelsea were the favourites going into this match. However, based on the performance for most of the match, it did not seem that way. From kickoff, Slavia Prague looked to suffocate Chelsea. This would ensure that they would never be comfortable and have time on the ball.
The first two minutes showed Slavia Prague’s players positioning themselves to make it difficult for Chelsea to play out from the back. Kepa Arrizabalaga is seen having the ball, yet he has no options. Every pass to a Chelsea player is dangerous because the position of the Slavia Prague players has cut off all the passing lanes.
Arrizabalaga plays it long to Alonso. This acts as a trigger for both Lukáš Masopust and Petr Ševčík to press him. Alonso loses control of the ball, and Slavia Prague win a throw-in in a dangerous area.
Chelsea’s poor performance
The pressing caused Chelsea to barely get out of their own half, which is telling from the statistics of the individual players. The front three players of Willian, Pedro, and Giroud had a combined 0 shots on target, and they lost the ball in their own half a total of 12 times, with six of them leading to opposition chances. The starting midfield three was also unable to create a single chance for their forward players throughout the 90 minutes. The players just did not seem to understand what Sarri wanted from them.
Unfortunately for Trpišovský, Sarri decided to resort to his star players that were being rested for the Liverpool match. Hazard, Kante, and Loftus-Cheek made an impact as soon as they were substituted on the pitch.
Hazard coming on allowed Chelsea to be a bit more direct and cohesive. He completed 100% of the dribbles he attempted, won 92% of his attacking duels, and had a pass accuracy of 96%. His forward runs opened up space for his teammates or forced the opposition’s defenders to foul him. He won 5 fouls, which allowed Chelsea to have freekicks from dangerous areas.
Here, Hazard makes a continuous run, and two midfielders follow him to cover him. This run creates massive space for Kovačić to work in. While Hazard does not pass him the ball, he wins a free kick in a dangerous position.
Hazard was much more productive than his fellow forwards, even though he came on as a substitute. This can easily be seen when comparing the heatmaps of Hazard and Giroud.
Keeping in mind that Hazard only played 31 minuites to Giroud’s 90, it reflects poorly on the centre forward. Similar poor stats can be shown for Willian and Pedro.
Both Kante and Loftus-Cheek were subbed in after poor performances from their fellow midfielders. While they did not impact the game as much as Hazard, they brought simple stability in midfield. Kovačić and Barkley were continuously getting overrun in midfield, and not offering anything going forward in return.
Kante, who played a bit deeper than he does typically under Sarri regularly broke up opposition’s play. This made it more difficult for Slavia Prague to counter-attack and press. In possession, he would resume his new box-to-box role and sprint forward.
Similarly, Loftus-Cheek was given a bit more license to dribble forward and occupy spaces in between Slavia Prague’s midfield and defensive line. He successfully completed two dribbles, the second becoming very important for how the goal came about. Loftus-Cheek picks up the ball in his own half and finds himself surrounded by opposition players.
He then decides to quickly drive forward, passing it to Willian.
Willian crosses the ball to Alonso who wins the aerial duel and puts it into the back of the net.
This match would be the perfect example of how superior tactics does not equal the superior result. Trpišovský comfortably beat Sarri tactically. His team pressed high and made it difficult for Chelsea to do anything with the possession that they had. However, Slavia Prague lacked the quality in the final third to produce some goals. Chelsea undeniably have a better squad, and individual moments of brilliance from Sarri’s substitutes allowed Chelsea to get the away goal. The Blues should consider themselves lucky to go away with the advantage, but they are undeniably favourites for the second leg of the quarter-finals in the Europa League.
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