How did Chelsea and Slavia produce a seven-goal thriller?

Chelsea Slavia Prague Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Artwork by @chapulana

The top four race is so competitive in the Premier League. Both Chelsea and Arsenal got 66 points but the Blues played one more game. Therefore, Maurizio Sarri played a strong team in this game to secure a semi-final place in the Europa League.

Slavia is the league leader in Czech’s top division with a 5-point gap and 33-goal cushion. They have beaten Sevilla in the last round and looking for more in the Europa League. They must score at the Stamford Bridge and prevent Chelsea scoring. This tactical analysis will reveal the tactics of both teams and the changes in the game. Why this game was fascinating?


Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis

Sarri took the game seriously and played Eden Hazard alongside Olivier Giroud and Pedro. Andreas Christensen replaced the injured Antonio Rudiger. Mateo Kovačić picked Jorginho’s role before the Italian replaced Ross Barkley. It was the usual 4-3-3 formation of Sarri.

Slavia started with a 4-2-3-1 but they usually lost shape in this match. Jindřich Trpišovský left Chelsea Academy graduate Miroslav Stoch on the bench. Lukáš Masopust played as a striker.

Defence of Slavia 

Since Slavia lost one nil at home, they had to grab at least a goal in London. Slavia did not sit deep and wait for Chelsea to attack. They pressed high. However, I believe Trpišovský’s orders were ambiguous as the press of Slavia was not effective. Usually, Slavia players would follow Chelsea players but they tended to chase the ball often. They did not have a clear defensive structure. Although Chelsea did not build-up through Kovacic they still managed to break the press through the use of long balls. Chelsea players were not marked tightly. Slavia just wanted to disrupt Chelsea’s build-up. However, the defensive line of Slavia is high, which left spaces behind for Chelsea to exploit.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Slavia press high but Barkley was free due to the lack of tight marking.

The key point of Chelsea’s defence in this match is the three midfielders. Kovačić, N’Golo Kanté, and Barkley usually moved to a side to defend in a formation of a 4-1-4-1 since in the defending phase Pedro and Hazard dropped to protect the wing, although Hazard’s defensive contribution was a bit low. The midfield trio were responsible for the central area. Chelsea did not want Slavia passing the ball to the centre. But there were weaknesses in this set-up, I will talk about it below.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Chelsea defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape.

Efficient front-three of Chelsea

The front-three of Chelsea played well in this game. Their efficiency in front of goal helped Chelsea scored four in the first half. Without Jorginho, Chelsea played long balls directly to find Giroud. The Frenchman’s body strength and height gave him a huge advantage to win battles in the air. He won nearly half in his aerial duels (5 out of 11). Chelsea started the attack after Giroud won the aerial duels.

Pedro was clinical in front of goal today. He shot three times in the box, scored two, the third one hit the woodwork and created the own goal of Simon Deli. Pedro’s positioning was good and he appeared at the right place, in the right time. His off the ball movement also allowed him to score the opener. Hazard was influential, he created a lot of problems for Slavia when he was on the ball. Hazard usually made the correct decisions. For example, in the photo below, Hazard just made a quick first-touched return pass to Giroud. Then Giroud continued the attack and scored created the second goal of Chelsea.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Simple one-two, spaces behind Slavia defenders

As I mentioned, there were spaces behind the defensive line. Chelsea players used some simple and quick passes to exploit those spaces. Chelsea attacked both sides by Emerson and César Azpilicueta providing width. All four Chelsea goals came from these kinds of attacking plays. The photo below showed how Emerson’s overlapping runs created the fourth goal of Chelsea.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Emerson overlapped

Slavia more aggressive

After half-time, there were changes from Trpišovský. Peter Olayinka replaced Masopust. However, the main point was Slavia became more aggressive in the second half. The press was more intense. If a Chelsea player turned successfully or dribbled past their opponent, Slavia player would make technical fouls without hesitation. For example, in 52’ and 58,’ they pulled Barkley and David Luiz. Sometimes the fouls were unnecessary as shown below, Luiz dribbled past a Slavia player but he did not have too many short options. He was still fouled.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Luiz was pushed

Trpišovský should have noticed the weakness of Chelsea’s defence. If Slavia could switch the ball from side to side, then the weak side had more spaces to attack. Therefore, Slavia should maintain width. The fabulous goal from Petr Ševčík can be attributed to this. Emerson is confused as he was in a 1v2 situation and he backed off. The former Czech U-21 got space to shoot. Indeed, Emerson misjudged the situation and made the wrong decision. He should never allow the opponents facing the goal directly.

Chelsea tried to press high on occasions. Azpilicueta would leave his position to press as well. This allowed Slavia players exploited spaces behind the Spanish. This caused a lot of problems for Chelsea as well. Chelsea’s defence lost shape after Slavia exploited those spaces. Slavia took control of the game in this period and scored two.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysis
Spaces behind Azpilicueta and Christensen

Sarri’s response

Some managers would ask their players to defend deep and replace attacking players with defenders in the above situations. However, Sarri used another way to consolidate Chelsea’s defence by replacing Barkley with Jorginho. Kovacic is a good player, but no one could replace Jorginho under Sarri’s tactics. Jorginho scans the pitch regularly and instructs his teammates on how to attack. His positioning and quick passes help Chelsea to build-up attacks and defend. Kovacic cannot fulfil those requirements. Chelsea’s defence backed off deeper and deeper as time passed. After Jorginho and Willian came on, Chelsea was defending higher again. This allowed Chelsea to regain some control over their Czech opposition.

Chelsea Slavia Europa League 2018/19 tactical analysisConclusion

Frankly speaking, Chelsea was the better team on Thursday night. Sarri admitted his team started badly in the second half. Eventually, the Italian manager’s tactical move improved the situation. Chelsea is still fighting for the top four, but they also want to win the Europa League.