Chelsea – Brighton: Welbeck Equalizer Silences The Bridge (1-1)
At a raucous Stamford Bridge, it was the side in light blue whose resilience thwarted the lofty ambitions of the hosts. But that side was Graham Potter’s Brighton rather than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who appear to be running away with the Premier League after yet another setback for Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
With a shock loss to Leicester city halting Liverpool’s attempt to catch Manchester City, Chelsea had an important opportunity to make up ground in the title race and protect themselves from a top four fight. With Jorginho’s penalties and Lukaku’s return lifting them against Aston Villa, Tuchel at least had a strong side to call on, though they faced a particularly mean defense in Brighton.
Three changes were made to the side that started against Villa, with Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante being replaced by Andreas Christensen, César Azpilicueta, Romelu Lukaku and Mateo Kovačić. Interestingly, Reece James played as the left wingback, with Christian Pulisic taking up the position on the right.
While their record in the league seems unimpressive, what the table does not reveal is the epic injury crisis that Brighton have experienced. Though known more for his fluid, patterned buildup play, it is the defense that has been Graham Potter’s calling card this season. despite the sale of Ben White and injury to captain Lewis Dunk, Potter’s side have maintained their status as one of the elite defensive units in the league, which has carried them through their goalscoring issues and their run of 12 games without a win. Despite these issues, the defense promised a stern test for Chelsea, and it was unsurprising to see Potter make the switch to a back three for this game.
With captain Dunk out through injury, Marc Cucurella, Dan Burn and Joël Veltman made up the defense, flanked by wingbacks Solly March and Tariq Lamptey. After serving his suspension, Yves Bissouma returned in midfield alongside Adam Lallana, supporting the trio of Alexis Mac Allister, Jakub Moder and striker Neal Maupay up front.
A tale of two halves
At the outset, it has to be noted that this game was characterized by both teams taking turns playing the protagonist role in either half.
Gotta love the 'Hollywood story arc' here.— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) December 30, 2021
Big favorites Chelsea dominate the opening scenes, underdogs Brighton dominate the central movie story line.
Then it looks like game over, before the ultimate shot rescues a point for the happy end.#CHEBHA pic.twitter.com/M0U5MurNCg
In the first half, Chelsea controlled the game, with Brighton’s set-up – while promising – ultimately yielding little. The tables were turned in an absorbing second half, where Brighton took over the game and consonantly, upstaged Chelsea as far as the expected goals metric is concerned.
Brighton lock the doors, but Lukaku holds the key
One might assume that Lukaku’s goal upon his return against Aston Villa was the key reason Tuchel picked him to start, but it can equally be argued that this was a game where Lukaku needed to start. Already, Tuchel had shown his respect for Brighton by benching Marcos Alonso; against the searing speed of Tariq Lamptey, it was perhaps the right decision to go with the much more defensively stable Reece James. After Pulisic’s showing on the right wing against Villa, Tuchel continued with him in that role, with his speed being a key factor in this decision,
However, as the pass map shows, the wingbacks had little impact, and this was the result of how stable the Brighton defense looked outside of a few isolated moments. Their defensive block played in a hybrid 5-3-2/5-2-3 formation, with Mac Allister usually playing a bit deeper than counterpart Moder on the right.
Brighton’s 5-3-2 shape, which could turn into a 5-2-3 shape when Mac Allister triggered the press.
One reason for this could have been the likelihood of Chelsea rotations on the right, since pushing Mac Allister on Azpilicueta could have resulted in Mount dropping to receive behind the double pivot. Instead, by keeping Mac Allister a bit deeper, Potter ensured that the midfielder’s run triggered the press from the defender and wingback on his side, which offered the same amount of protection while minimizing the risks.
Playing James on the left meant that he was naturally disconnected from the play, but equally striking was how little involvement Pulisic had from his position on the flank. Brighton were unafraid to press high, often sending Bissouma and March forward to match the Chelsea players in buildup. With the wingbacks largely isolated, it fell to the center-backs to break the first line of the press by carrying the ball, which was a task that Rüdiger seemingly relished. Still, his carries rarely led to promising opportunities, despite the German driving into the Brighton half.
On the whole, Brighton stood firm on the defensive end, with only those moments where Lukaku received while fending off Burn causing concern. This is owed to the Belgian’s technique in these situations, and there were a couple of instances where a more fortunate bounce would have put Chelsea in a three-versus-three situation with Lukaku in position to loft the ball for his partners. While no goals arose from this situation, Chelsea did knock on the door a few times through Azpilicueta and Rüdiger. Ultimately, it was another Lukaku goal that gave them the lead, though the second half would be a different matter.
Brighton on offense
The visitors stretched Chelsea thin from the buildup stage, with Cucurella holding a much wider position than Veltman on the right. This prompted Chelsea to move into a 5-1-3-1 shape off the ball, with Mount moving across to cover the Brighton center-back and Kovačić pushing up to cover Lallana.
Brighton prompting Chelsea to push up and cover the spaces.
This allowed wingbacks March and Lamptey to move into high and wide positions, with central midfielders Mac Allister and Moder taking up positions in the halfspaces. The idea was perhaps to play out through this flank/halfspace connection, but Chelsea proved capable of breaking it up in the first half. As a result, there were only glimpses of how the visitors could hurt Chelsea, most prominently when Cucurella motored up the pitch to overlap March on the left. This was possible because of the “double width” maintained by Brighton on the left. Occasionally, Brighton also brought both Mac Allister and Moder on one side, leaving space for March, Cucurella and Maupay on the left. These slight variations were seen towards the end of the first half, and perhaps was a harbinger of the second half takeover.
Brighton begin to impose themselves
At the beginning of the second half, it looked like Brighton were sitting in a 5-4-1 shape, counting on Chelsea turnovers in their territory to act as the trigger to push forward. But this did not prove to be the case, as Brighton continued to commit to pressing Chelsea from buildup (this time with Cucurella and Veltman aggressively tracking Hudson-Odoi and Mount who had switched sides).
With Trevoh Chalobah replacing Christensen in the middle of the defense and Marcos Alonso having been sent on in place of the injured James, Chelsea had already undergone two alterations to the defensive line. Brighton seemed to understand how odd gaps popped up between the members of this makeshift back five, and the front three of Maupay, Mac Allister and Moder maneuvered into better positions within the structure of the Chelsea defense.
With the Brighton wingbacks providing sustained width, Azpilicueta and Rüdiger had to ensure that Pulisic and Alonso were covering their assignments, which led to gaps opening up between themselves and Chalobah in the middle. Runs into these channels were the source of some of Brighton’s better moments, which was aided by how Lallana and Bissouma ran the show in the middle. Particularly, March usually had a good amount of space on the left and was heavily involved in Brighton’s play.
This was a direct consequence of Chelsea’s sunken defensive block, with out balls into Lukaku becoming the main way of escaping Brighton’s sustained pressure. This goes back to how Tuchel needed Lukaku more than the striker being a luxury addition to the squad, since his ability to receive progressive passes is a trait no other member of the squad possesses.
This game state continued as Brighton never let up on the pressure, while Chelsea rued the early opportunity they had to go 2-0 up through a solo Hudson-Odoi breakaway. Though Lukaku continued to be a magnet for progressive passes, Brighton sent on Enock Mwepu and Danny Welbeck to keep their foot on the guess. Their efforts ultimately bore fruit, as Welbeck’s superb header managed to find its way past Mendy for a deserved equalizer.
This is a catastrophic result for Chelsea, who had an opportunity to capitalize on Liverpool’s earlier failure to chase Manchester City down. Guardiola’s men had taken care of business against Thomas Frank’s Brentford, and Chelsea needed a result to keep alive their hopes of catching the Sky Blues. With this draw, their hopes for the league have all but evaporated; barring a collapse, it seems like the Premier League is once again Manchester City’s to lose.
If there was ever a result that wasn’t a win but felt like one, this was it. Potter has shepherded his side through an astonishing injury crisis, and this was a deserved result for their resilient display.
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