This week we saw the FAWSL kick off with newly promoted Tottenham visiting Chelsea. After analysis, it was clear that one team has been fighting within England’ top flight for some years, while the other are new to the league and looking to create a foothold. Chelsea’s composed defensive block and attacking structure proved to be the deciding tactics of the match.
With a 1-0 win and 3 points gained, Chelsea start the year off on a good note as they aim to return to Champions League play. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how they did it.
Tottenham are newly promoted from the FA Women’s Championship. With this promotion, Spurs have acquired nine new players. One of these players being Rachel Furness, who signed on loan from Reading the day before the match. Spurs are led by captain Jenna Schillaci, who has been with the club for over a decade.
Chelsea field a line-up that is mostly unchanged from the previous year. Last year saw Chelsea missing out on a Champions League qualification spot despite only incurring two losses during the season. Chelsea fielded a strong Champions League campaign last year, narrowly losing to the eventual champions Lyon in the semifinal. Matchday 1 saw Magdalena Eriksson make her debut as team captain.
Spurs began the game in a 4-3-3, while Chelsea aligned in a 4-4(diamond)-2 shape.
Spurs: trouble building out of the back
From the very instant that the match started, it was clear that Spurs intended to build out of the back to progress the ball down the field. Spurs aimed to open up the field as wide as possible through a structured staggering of their defensive and midfield players. The opening of the field would allow Spurs to progress cleanly with little interference from the Chelsea unit.
For Tottenham, this did not go as planned.
Spurs split their centre-backs within the 18yd box while the outside-backs pushed high and wide. The outside-backs looked to push high enough that they were just beyond the shoulders of Chelsea’s forward line. With the defenders set in a large U-shape, two midfielders dropped into the central spaces to aid in progression. This shape provided multiple passing options for each ball carrier while playing out of the back.
Chelsea, meanwhile, were content with the Tottenham centre-backs and goalkeeper having possession of the ball. Chelsea held their horizontally compact 4-4 (diamond)-2 shape. This allowed Chelsea to cut off central passing options and wait for the ball to eventually circulate wide to a Spurs outside back. Once the pass to the outside back occurred, Chelsea switched from high block to an aggressive press.
The nearest forward and outside midfielder together pressed the ball carrier while maintaining cover shadows. These cover shadows cut off the nearest passing options, while the Chelsea players pressured the Spurs outside back. As this happened, the remaining Chelsea midfielders marked the nearest Spurs players to cut them off as passing options. We can see this tactic playing out in the image below. Spurs are underloaded in the area near the ball 5v6. With Chelsea overloading the area, a turnover is inevitable.
Chelsea aimed to create turnovers in this phase of build-up knowing that Spurs would be overextended and in no position to defend central areas. Once a turnover occurred, Chelsea were quick to attack open spaces and the temporary vulnerabilities of the Tottenham team shape. This sequence led to the sole goal of the game in the fourth minute.
Bethany England won a turnover by pressuring and dispossessing Ria Percival. She then immediately turned and drove into the wide-open space outside of the Spurs box. Before any Spurs defenders could pressure her, she bolted in a long shot and what turned out to be the game-winner.
Chelsea midfield rotation
Chelsea maintained a 4-4 (diamond)-2 base shape throughout most phases of the game. That being said, the personnel at each position rotated nearly constantly. This allowed Chelsea to negate any (wo)man-marking pressing scheme that Spurs revealed.
We saw this mostly during Chelsea buildup through the defensive and middle thirds of the field. Ji, as an example, primarily lined up at the left midfield position. Despite this, it was not unusual to see her on the right flank or supporting the buildup in the pivot role.
As Ji’s movements happened, a teammate would move into Ji’s former space. Ji’s move dragged Tottenham midfielders out of position and left holes in the Spurs defensive block. Nearby Chelsea teammates were quick to recognize the newly opened space and promptly moved to it.
This near-constant movement by the Chelsea midfield helped to unsettle the Tottenham defensive block and create space to advance. This proved to be very effective. For most of the match, Chelsea had little struggle progressing up the field to the attacking third.
While possessing the ball in the attacking third, Chelsea created a structure to promote counter-pressing. If Chelsea lost the ball, they were positioned to win the ball back quickly and reestablish possession near Tottenham’s goal. Doing this allowed Chelsea to sustain long spells of pressure in the Spurs half of the field. While this aids in creating an effective attack, Chelsea simultaneously kept the ball a distance away from their goal for long periods of the match.
Chelsea did this by altering the shape of their diamond midfield when entering the attacking third. The outside midfielders Ji and Spence would both tuck in very narrowly behind upfield attacking players. This movement gave Chelsea a strong central presence and a platform to press immediately if the ball was lost.
In the image above, we can also see that the outside backs line up to provide width, but without moving outside the halfspaces. This narrow positioning allows Chelsea to keep seven outfield players in position to pressure a nearby Tottenham player quickly after losing the ball.
While at the final whistle the scoreline was 1-0, Chelsea dominated the match. Considering that the visitors are new to the FAWSL and have a flood of new players, Spurs did put up a good fight. Chelsea will look to move forward and earn a spot to fight in next year’s Champions League.
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