Chelsea were in a state of discomfort after their loss to West Ham at home amalgamated with a draw in UEFA Champions League and a loss to the mighty Manchester City. Aston Villa, on the other hand, were doing quite well in the Premier League before visiting Stamford Bridge grabbing four from the six possible points in the last two games.
Chelsea needed the victory to come back to the path of winning and so did Aston Villa who are just one point above the relegation zone.
Frank Lampard started with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. However, he rotated his squad in a fight between getting the personnel right as well as keeping the squad fit. Injury-free Tammy Abraham was a breath of fresh air for Lampard, especially after Olivier Giroud’s horrendous performance against West Ham. He slotted right back to the front. Willian started the game after a much-deserved rest against West Ham.
N’Golo Kanté started the game instead of Jorginho, who deserved a rest playing almost all the matches for Chelsea. His form too was a worrying sign for Lampard, as he was not in his stride in the last few games. Andreas Christensen and César Azpilicueta were slotted into the centre-back and left-back position respectively in place of Fikayo Tomori and Emerson Palmieri.
Dean Smith too didn’t tinker with his formation and started the game with his tried and tested 4-3-3 formation. He made three changes to his lineup, one being a tactical decision, and another two a forced move.
Anwar El Ghazi’s injury meant the Egyptian Trézéguet started in the right-wing. Ahmed Elmohamady replaced the French Frédéric Guilbert at the right-back position. Marvellous Nakamba was brought to the starting lineup in place of Douglas Luiz, to tighten the midfield and provide an extra defensive cover. Rest of the team looked the same as against the 2-2 draw against Manchester United.
Pressing of Aston Villa
Aston Villa have developed their pressing each passing game. The Clarets try to maintain their position and man-mark the opposition defenders and press semi-aggressively in the final third in a 4-3-3 formation and when the opponent breaks out from the first line of defence, Villa midfielders create a five-man midfield and stays compact to prevent the opposition forward passes from the middle.
When the Chelsea defenders had possession of the ball, Aston Villa front three pressed high trying to prevent any forward passes and the midfielders stayed compact in the middle.
When Mateo Kovačić tried to open up a passing lane, Nakamba tracked him. It forced the Chelsea defenders to play out wide to the left-back.
As soon as that happened, John McGinn and Trézéguet created an overload in the wings forcing Azpilicueta to make a hurried pass in the front neglecting a safer back pass and thus resulting in a turnover.
The plan to force Chelsea out wide and then overloading the wings in the middle third with a winger and a midfielder seemed to work quite well for the Villans for the first twenty minutes. It resulted in numerous miss passes and turnovers from the Chelsea players.
Even when Kanté and Kovačić both dropped deep to open up passing lanes, a winger would move infield and mark one of the midfielders who does not have the ball. The forward, Wesley, would mark the midfielder with the ball. Even the other winger would stay narrow and force the ball to play out wide and then overload the wings.
On one such occasion, Kovačić was marked by the forward Wesley. Jack Grealish moved infield to keep a tab on Kanté. Trézéguet maintained a position where he could press Kurt Zouma (who is not in the picture) as well as create an overload along with McGinn in case the ball is played out to Azpilicueta. Mason Mount also found himself in an area well covered by the Villa midfielders.
Kovačić had no forward passing option but to play out wide to the right-back, Reece James. As soon as James received the ball, Grealish and Conor Hourihane moved towards James. James passed the ball to Willian in a tight space and it resulted in a Chelsea turnover.
When Chelsea would break away from Villa’s first line of defence, they would maintain a narrow 4-5-1 with five midfielders in their own middle third, staying compact to prevent a forward pass from Chelsea down the middle. It again forced Chelsea to play long balls or play through the wings.
On one such occasion, Aston Villa maintained a tight and compact midfield leaving no short passing forward option for Kovačić, who plays a long ball to Willian and thus results in a turnover. Aston Villa were really successful in this approach for the first twenty minutes and thus forced Chelsea to play a lot of miss passes.
Dean Smith has done his homework well. He knew Chelsea like to utilise the half-space massively, playing one-two in the danger zone and thus creating chances. Dean Smith tried to block the passes to the half-space by positioning his wingers narrow and compact with the midfielders.
On one such occasion, Trézéguet moved narrowly to block the passing lane to Mount who occupied the half-space. It forced Kovačić to play the ball out wide to Azpilicueta leaving Azpilicueta completely free.
Once the ball was passed to Azpilicueta, Trézéguet moved wide to mark the Spanish full-back.
Press of Chelsea
Chelsea’s high and aggressive pressing needs no introduction. Chelsea under Lampard has developed a serious skill of pressing with the help of the young guns. Though the Blues struggled in the first few matches of the season with the three blocks of defence, midfield and forward not working in unison, they improved quite a lot since then.
When Chelsea press, they commit the six front players in aggressive pressing, leaving one flank open. To prevent the opposition from switching the flank, the players generally press aggressively such that there is no time and space for the opposition player to switch the flank. But when they do not, the opposition takes advantage of it.
This picture clearly demonstrates Chelsea’s pressing mechanism. Tammy Abraham stays on a centre-back Tyrone Mings, Christian Pulisic stays on the other centre-back. Willian keeps a tab on the villa left-back. Kanté marks Nakamba and Kovačić stays on McGinn. Mount marks Hourihane but does not press him aggressively. It allows the Villa midfielder to switch the flanks and play a long ball to Elmohamady in the right-wing. He has an enormous space to carry the ball and attack the opposition half without any obstacle.
Chelsea’s attack through the right-flank
Aston Villa’s tactics paid dividends in the starting minutes but good teams know how to turn the disadvantages into advantages. Aston Villa forced Chelsea to play from the flanks and James, Kanté, and Willian turned it into an advantage.
We generally see the full-backs making overlapping runs down the wings or in case of Manchester City the full-backs stays inverted in the middle third. James is a right-back who does both but in a little different manner. James has a knack of positioning himself inverted in the final third.
It leaves Willian with enormous time and space to receive a pass from Kanté and produce a delicious cross into the box. The cross wasn’t met by any Chelsea player but it was cleared away to the path of Azpilicueta.
Azpilicueta passes it to Kovačić who makes a lateral pass to James who has now positioned himself as the inverted full-back at the edge of the final third.
James receives the ball and passes it to Willian on the right-wing. It drew Grealish and the Villa left-back to the Brazilian.
Willian passes it back to James who now positioned himself a little further, in the final third, acting as a midfielder. He delivers a cross in the box and Abraham heads it in the past the Villa goalkeeper.
Chelsea attacked from both the flanks but it was the right-flank which gave them the lead.
Aston Villa’s defensive conundrums
As the match progressed and the game started to open up, Aston Villa occasionally struggled to maintain their compact shape in the midfield.
This picture vividly describes the defensive problems Villa created for themselves. Villa attacking midfielders and the wingers kept their shape but Nakamba was deep and therefore not in the aforementioned defensive setup and nowhere close to Pulisic. Kovačić passed the ball to Pulisic who had enormous space to attack the final third.
In another occasion when Nakamba was higher than the second line of defence, Chelsea were able to penetrate the Villa midfield through the middle
Nakamba broke the midfield line and went up to press Kanté. Kanté exchanged passes with Willian and played a forward ball to Mount. Since Nakamba was out of the setup, the compactness in the Villa midfield was lost and Kanté could play the forward ball.
Occasionally, even the gap between the second line of defence and the third line of defence was large.
Though no harm was done in this match, when the gap is large and there are opposition players positioning themselves in the gap, it may cause problems.
The major defensive problems Villa faced was in the final half an hour of the match when they maintained 4-3-3 formation out of possession. Mount is a master of finding himself free spaces in the opposition half or occupying the half-spaces. The combination of Mount and awareness of Kovačić helped penetrate the Villa defence number of times.
Kovačić receives a pass and produces a first time ball to Mount who has found himself free space in the opposition half.
The other method Chelsea adopted in breaking Villa’s 4-3-3 formation was driving runs of Kovačić.
Villa maintained a compact and narrow shape in the midfield. With no forward option to pass, Kovačić made a driving run from his half to the opposition half. Willian drifted in taking the Villa left-back along with him. It left a huge space for James to attack.
Kovačić is an essential cog to the Chelsea setup, especially when opposition adopts a defensive approach.
Aston Villa’s change in tactics
In the final half an hour when Villa were trailing, Dean Smith tinkered with his tactics a bit. When in the attack, he ordered his wingers to drift in and occupy the half-space or act as a second forward leaving space for the attacking full-backs to overlap.
In this image, it is clearly visible Trézéguet occupies the position of a secondary striker and Elmohamady makes a daunting run down the right-wing to deliver a cross into the box.
When Aston Villa wingers occupied the half-space it generally drew the Chelsea full-backs along with them. It left huge space in the flanks for the full-backs.
Here, James stayed along with Grealish who occupied the half-space between him and Christensen. Willian was narrow in the midfield, it led to Targett being completely free in the left-flank.
Azpilicueta maintained a very narrow shape even when Aston Villa right-winger did not occupy the half-space.
There were two occasions in the match when Grealish received a pass in the left-wing drifted inside with his smooth dribbling skills and drew out James out of his position. It left both the wings with massive space, Azpilicueta withholding to spread wide and Pulisic not giving proper defensive cover. Douglas Luiz who was subbed in for Hourihane performed the Irish midfielder’s role.
When Grealish drifted in, Douglas Luiz positioned himself in the left-flank which Aston Villa successfully did in the previous games to cause opposition troubles. However, on Wednesday night they couldn’t trouble the Blues.
Chelsea could have easily conceded the equaliser owing to the tactics implemented by Dean Smith but unfortunately, it was not his night.
Chelsea’s free-flowing football has been very interesting to look at but it eludes the fact that Chelsea is still struggling defensively. Lampard needs to work on the defensive aspect of the game in order to cement the top four place.
A defensive setup might be easy to look at, but it requires concentration and determination for the entire ninety minutes. People may ridicule the defensive approach sometimes Newcastle and Crystal Palace takes, but it requires long training hours to implement the perfect defensive organisation. Aston Villa midfield was continuously penetrated by the Blues owing to organisational lapses and it helped them to clinch all three points at home.
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