The way Chelsea create chances under Sarri has led to some interesting combinations and positioning between the players. Sarri’s sides tend to enjoy lots of possession in matches; however, they do this in a different way to a lot of sides who have high possession numbers. As a general rule Chelsea are positioned particularly narrow across the entire midfield in comparison to sides like Manchester City who try to occupy as much of the field as possible. Whilst this provides lots of opportunities for quick combination play through the more dangerous central areas of the pitch it does cause some issues against sides who defend in a low block.
Sarri’s Vertical Play
Maurizio Sarri prefers a more vertical style of play with passes being played through the centre of the pitch in order to create chances. This does make Chelsea particularly narrow in attacking areas which can lead to issues in breaking sides down who defend deep. This was prevalent in the match earlier in the season against West Ham where they were able to defend deep and prevent Chelsea from being able to penetrate their defensive shape.
Without a presence in wide areas attacks can become predictable and easy to defend against. This is in part due to the lack of shifting that the defensive block has to do in order to prevent passes into dangerous central areas.
The beginning of a wing orientated approach?
In the last fixture against Southampton, there was a change in emphasis with more attacks being created in wider areas. This was particularly the case on the left-hand side of the pitch with Hazard, Alonso and Barkley combining, which in turn created space in the centre of the pitch. They were consistently able to create overloads on this side of the pitch with the help of Jorginho, which resulted in Southampton having to cover a larger area of the pitch. As a result, the Southampton defence became more stretched which enabled more space in the centre of the pitch once the ball was switched back inside from the wings.
In the West Ham game, Chelsea had a lack of presence in wide areas and created an xG of 1.44 despite the fact they had 72% possession. The Southampton match saw them have an xG of 3.55 with 65% possession. The extra attacking involvement of Alonso on the left-hand side supplemented by the movements of Hazard and Barkley undoubtedly played a part in the improvement in xG.
Chances from secure possession
When Chelsea have secure possession in the build-up and the opposition are in a low/mid-block they typically aim to create chances with quick combinations through the lines. This is facilitated by Jorginho, who positions himself to continuously receive possession. He is often the player who plays a pass prior to the assist. When the ball is received by Jorginho he aims to find one of the five players who are ahead of him. Kovacic/Barkley operate towards the left halfspace, where Hazard is often positioned, which enables them to use one-twos in tight areas around the box. Willian/Pedro work towards the right halfspace and are more disciplined in their positioning than the slightly more ‘free’ role that Hazard is given.
It is very unusual for a Chelsea player to take more than two touches of the ball in the final third of the pitch when they are intending to pass the ball. The only times they tend to take more touches are when they are dribbling. This makes it more difficult for the opposition to shift their defensive block as the ball is constantly moving around to different spaces on the field. This, in turn, creates spaces with which Chelsea’s more creative players are able to position themselves. When Sarri took over in the summer this was something that became apparent through various different videos showing Chelsea working on creating chances around the oppositions penalty area.
Chance creation in transitions
When Chelsea win possession of the ball in the middle third of the pitch they aim to exploit the spaces within the opposition’s block with vertical passes played into players positioned high up the pitch. This often involves a midfielder winning possession and playing a flat vertical pass into Giroud, Hazard or Willian/Pedro, depending on who is the furthest pass that can be accessed. They will look to combine with an onrushing midfield player so they can receive the ball with a forward facing view of the pitch. This helps to increase the speed at which the following action is able to be taken. The next action often leads to a pass into space for the players who have sprinted forwards to exploit the space left by the opponents.
It will be interesting to see whether Chelsea continue with a greater emphasis on attacking through the left side of the pitch, or if they will return to Sarri’s preferred method of vertical passes being played within a narrow shape. Switching to a wing orientated attack could be a tactic used against sides who are defending in a low block in order to stretch their defensive shape.