Brighton & Hove Albion — Chelsea: Gallivanting Gulls Break Free From The Lion’s Den (1-1)
If anyone had thought the initial stalemate between these two outfits was solely the product of a run of dismal form for the favorites, they were in for a rude awakening. Thorough knowledge of his craft let Graham Potter replicate the troublesome dynamic of the reverse fixture, earning a point by the end of the ninety minutes to heap even more anguish on Chelsea’s camp.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Brighton are a model case study into the transformation of a club. Lowly origins rendered top flight status a pipe dream that a cautious Chris Hughton could turn into a reality. But these selfish Seagulls yearned for more: to thrive, not merely survive, was the aim. Hence, in his place came Graham Potter, whose magic, backed with equally shrewd recruitment, has created a blooming outfit afraid of no one.
Their guests will be more acutely aware of that truth than most. Three weeks have passed since a 1-1 stalemate at the death virtually marked the demise of a league title charge for Chelsea. Injuries and COVID-19 cases have marred displays in a fatal slump of festive form, while protracted contract renewals are only one part of the explosive drama to envelope affairs. Now the latest victims of a blow from Manchester City, their objective is to stay well clear of the chasing pack for fourth place.
Predictions for the lineup of the hosts are quickly gaining notoriety: a prerequisite for any aspiring elite manager in the mold of the top three? Indeed, Potter’s flexibility has prompted the manager to employ multiple systems as the weeks have passed. A 4-4-2 diamond shape was on show at home to rivals Crystal Palace last time out. This time around, he seemed to pick a back three. Tariq Lamptey came back into the fold on the right, and Danny Welbeck stepped in for Neal Maupay in the attack.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel is equally receptive to tinkering. A hybrid 4-2-2-2/5-3-2 system, rolling back the years to his stints in Dortmund and Paris, stunted Spurs in the last four of the Carabao Cup. His latest approach saw three new men enter the starting eleven off the back of the slim defeat to City. Mateo Kovačić dropped to the bench, making way for Jorginho in the middle of the park. Mason Mount came in for Christian Pulisic in the attack, and Callum Hudson-Odoi got a chance from the off.
Fours not fives
In the end, Tuchel did not select the same 5-2-3 setup from the weekend. The German now entrusted the hybridity that had worked in the cup to make the difference. Evident straight away was a front two of Romelu Lukaku from the right and Hudson-Odoi on the left. The former had thrived as part of a dual strike force at Inter Milan, where his hold-up play in typically isolable rooms of the pitch was a core pillar of their attack. This absurdly troublesome quality at its peak came to the fore in this clash.
Brighton had their part to play in this dynamic thanks to the manner of their work without the ball. Welbeck might have been the man to break Blues hearts in December, but Potter refrained from using him through the middle as one might expect. In a mixed role of a winger and striker, he brought his strength to the table, lining up on the left of the midfield. So, Jakub Moder was the one to fill the striker’s berth in the defensive phase, where the home team initially operated in a 4-1-4-1 block.
This approach adopted a man-oriented style. From the right wing, Tariq Lamptey ran out to Antonio Rüdiger, closing the wide passing lane to Marcos Alonso. The right back Joël Veltman was on hand to move vertically and cover a deeper Mount. The central midfielders picked up their opposite men in the double pivot, and Steven Alzate moved over to his right to track Mount. Hence, Marc Cucurella pushed out of the chain to handle Hakim Ziyech, forcing Dan Burn to engage in duels with Lukaku.
19th minute: pressing sequence from Brighton. Lamptey pushes forward, marking Rüdiger, while Moder approaches Kepa. The goalkeeper hits a long ball into the path of Ziyech, whose aerial duel with Cucurella sends the ball down the line. Lukaku uses his body appropriately to protect the ball, but the weight of his layoff pass is too strong for N’Golo Kanté, whom Alzate denies possession.
Seagulls soar out of the traps
The stinginess of the hosts contributes to the sixth best defensive record in the league: a hallmark of their ability to pick up points by way of so many draws. Yet, this resolve was not what drew most admirers to Potter, nor, for that matter, what makes his team unique. Indeed, their methodical ball possession has kept their stake in many matches against the elite. This case was no different.
25th minute: final third transition from Brighton. Veltman steps beyond Hudson-Odoi, while Alzate’s diagonally offset position from Groß offers a route inward. Mac Allister can then run off the back of Kanté to demand the ball in the halfspace since two forwards and two wing-backs pin the backline.
Robert Sánchez has nailed down a spot between the posts since the end of 2020. His competency in the buildup phase is no small part of this development. Not deviating from integrating the Spaniard on the ball, Potter instructed the center-backs to split on the edge of their box. A base of four including Veltman could safely circulate the play, setting the platform for the transition into the middle third.
Here, Chelsea’s problems intensified. They dropped into a 5-3-2 block, deploying Ziyech as the right wing-back. Potter’s men then converted to a 3-1-4-2 offensive structure. Cucurella and Lamptey were wing-backs, while Veltman acted as a third central defender. But the crux of this interaction centered on the room behind the front two.
Alexis Mac Allister and Pascal Groß were a pair of wide eights whose role wreaked havoc. If Mount tried to make up for the underload in the front two through gambling on a back pass, then Groß was free. If the front two stayed wide, then Alzate had ample room to spin forward. If neither option was available, then Groß and Alzate could double up on Mount in the front block of five to generate a free man. Ball security, ambitious passing, specialized asymmetries: the heart of Potter’s craft at Brighton.
Clipping Brightonian wings
However, Brighton’s dominance again ran aground near the box. And their visitors would not fail to seize upon this window of opportunity, slowly adapting to the challenge. Kanté gained the license to scramble tight marking with more flexibility to roam higher. The fullbacks, including the conservative César Azpilicueta, also pushed up the flanks. In the 28th minute, these adjustments culminated in an attack through the right channel, where Kanté teed up Ziyech to slot a strike into the corner of the net.
What’s more, Tuchel had identified a solution to manage Brighton’s buildup. Now standing in the gap behind the front two, Mount tracked Alzate. A new 5-2-1-2 formation forced the hosts to modify their patterns of ball progression, robbing impetus before half time. Could the Seagulls soar once more?
Tuchel made another structural change ahead of the second half. His men shifted to a 4-2-3-1 shape in the buildup phase where Hudson-Odoi stayed on the left touchline while Mount was the number ten. Mount could still mark Alzate in this new role, but the value of the switch lay in its operation with the ball. The apt use of double width pinned Veltman, stopping him from shifting to Alonso. Lamptey, in turn, held back, letting Chelsea generate smoother patterns from the back. This war of minds wore on.
But Brighton would have the last laugh on the scoreline. On the stroke of the hour mark, Mac Allister’s corner delivery met the head of Webster, whose thunderous effort brushed past the reach of Kepa. Six substitutions, and a myriad of adjustments later, full time signaled a stalemate. Conversely, it was a win for football whose assembly of two brilliant managers made for an enthralling encounter.
‘Obstinately’ committing to a 3-4-3 system in the past, Tuchel was not reticent to adjust here. Yet, another labored display marked the fourth game of a winless streak stretching back to Boxing Day. The league might be elusive, but three cups are still up for grabs if they can find their spark.
Brighton’s fantastical journey continues. A high caliber tactical duel requires two exemplar strategists: Potter showed why he has such a stellar reputation for the umpteenth time. His employers have never finished higher than 13th in the top flight in their history, but no one could begrudge this outfit for setting a new club standard come May.
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