Tactical Analysis

Thanks to Hazard’s counter runs in the dangerous area, Chelsea FC won the FA Cup final against Manchester United, landing their only silverware of the season. With a strong midfield and defensive coverage, the Blues were able to block almost all attacking options for United. Jose Mourinho’s men came up offensively better in the second half but thanks to Courtois – the saviour – Chelsea survived.

Chelsea’s midfield overload and low block defence

Conte deployed a 5-man midfield against Mourinho’s men at Wembley to extend the defensive coverage. With a highly dense midfield, Chelsea could track back in the defensive phase straightway to form a low block defence. Giroud, the real nine, also contributed in blocking the middle of the park by often checking Matic.

Giroud checking Matic in the middle of the park.
Giroud checking Matic in the middle of the park.
Chelsea's midfield overload.
Chelsea’s midfield overload.

Alternatively, when the opponents went deep in their own half, Chelsea just pressed enough to keep pushing them back without attempting to win the ball. This made them available to track back and crowd up their defensive zone when needed in case the opponents would penetrate the midfield.

Chelsea's press at the width forced Herrera to pass back.
Chelsea’s press at the width forced Herrera to pass back.
Again, the dual pressing by Hazard and Fabregas at the width forced United to pass back.
Again, the dual pressing by Hazard and Fabregas at the width forced United to pass back.

This way from the middle Chelsea overloaded the zone while from the width they formed a coherent yet dynamic pressing structure to battle any advanced move by the opponents from there. Like the past few fixtures, Kante controlled the central midfield while the wide CMs joined their wide teammates to form the press structure. This rendered United almost hopeless in initiating any attack, at least in the first period. Even though United switched flanks to make spaces, Chelsea’s low block defence ensured decent horizontal compactness.

Chelsea’s direct play and counter runs

With Hazard as a false nine and Giroud at the utmost front as a real nine, Chelsea had two advanced options to play direct and initiate counter runs. Hazard dropped back in some instances to win loose balls. The direct play and the counter runs led Chelsea to win fouls in their final third – one of them turned into the goal-leading penalty.

Hazard had Jones chase one of his speedy counter runs to the box where the Belgian was slide tackled by the central defender and won penalty.
Hazard had Jones chase one of his speedy counter runs to the box where the Belgian was slide tackled by the central defender and won a penalty.

In the second half when United sped up their attacks and goal attempts, Chelsea intensified their low block defence. As they had only a few bodies to go forward, whenever any Chelsea player won a tackle, he was outnumbered going up to the final third while losing possession. Conte’s men mostly played defensively in the second half while throwing long balls only to push the game back in the opponent half. Indeed, at that time avoiding an equaliser was more important than anything else.

United trapped in their own possession play

Chelsea’s defensive coverage at the both the depth and the width made the Red Devils trap in their possession play and forced them to push the game back or switch the plays, isolating their wide players from the deep forwards, by reducing their attacking options in the offensive third, or by just restricting their possession play in their own half.

Chelsea's defensive coverage forced Pogba to switch the play to the other flank.
Chelsea’s defensive coverage forced Pogba to switch the play to the other flank.

Chelsea’s opponents did use the flanks to make their way up the pitch. But as Chelsea were able to smoothly form their press structure at the wider zones, they isolated their opponents at the width from their teammates at the depth and won back possession eventually.

Rashford had to drop back to help his teammates but Chelsea's press structure isolated the wide opponents from their central attacking options especially Sanchez (orange circle).
Rashford had to drop back to help his teammates but Chelsea’s press structure isolated the wide opponents from their central attacking options, especially Sanchez (orange circle).

For most of the game, Chelsea allowed United to lead the possession and made the Red Devils trap their possession play. United even avoided Chelsea’s midfield by throwing long passes from the half line to the attacking third. Yet, since Lingard had to come back frequently to match Chelsea’s midfield numbers, the Red Devils were left with only Sanchez and Rashford in the final third versus Chelsea’s low block defence. Thus they ended up losing possession in the final third.

Here again, United's attacking options reduced as Lingard had to drop back to help his teammates.
Here again, United’s attacking options reduced as Lingard had to drop back to help his teammates.

Conclusion

Chelsea’s counter runs worked well in their favour by winning them the penalty. However, if they would have conceded an equaliser, that would have been enough to shatter their defence and force them into conceding another, maybe a late, goal. Let’s not forget that Jose’s men started threatening Chelsea in the second half but their goal attempts were loosely created or not so well articulated to get past Courtois. Overall, it seemed a bizarre game as the eight-time FA Cup winners played with a low-block defence against United’s 4-3-1-2 while conceding a lot of possession to play tricky counters. But they have secured a very tactical and a very important win as the season concludes.