Wolverhampton Wanderers – Chelsea: Implacable Wolves Take Chelsea By Surprise With Second-Half Comeback (2-1)

Chelsea looked very comfortable in the first half, but were completely taken by surprise by Wolves after the interval. The home team compensated the difference in quality by showing some great fighting spirit combined with a brave game plan, eventually securing their first win since early October.

Tactical analysis by Rowdy Nossent.

Going into this match, Wolves did not manage to win any of their last seven Premier League matches. In order to stay away from the relegation zone, three points were definitely needed for Nuno Espírito Santo and his team. Chelsea got two wins in their last four Premier League games and with the huge weekend fixture against Manchester City coming up, Sarri’s men were seeking a win at Molineux.

There were two changes in Wolverhampton’s line-up compared to the 2-1 defeat against Cardiff last Friday. Romain Saïss replaced the suspended Rúben Neves in central midfield and Morgan Gibbs-White and Diogo Jota were playing instead of Adama Traoré and Heldér Costa. Formation-wise there were no changes made, as Wolves were playing in the well-known 3-4-3 formation.

Chelsea-coach Sarri made a total of five changes, compared to the 2-0 win over Fulham last Sunday. David Luiz, Jorginho, Mateo Kovačić, Pedro and Olivier Giroud were all dropped to the bench and were replaced by Andreas Christensen, Cesc Fabregas, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Willian and Álvaro Morata. Just like Wolves, Chelsea did not tweak their formation and started the game in their usual 4-3-3 shape.

Both teams’ general movements and positioning when Chelsea was in possession.


Chelsea’s domination and Wolves’ impotence

All season long, Chelsea’s favored attacking side has been the left flank. This was the case against Wolves as well, with Marcos Alonso pushing high up the pitch, Ruben Loftus-Cheek on support and Eden Hazard naturally drifting inside from his starting left-forward position. Chelsea thus had a dynamic offensive triangle that caused the home team a fair bit of trouble. Morata often pinned down the closest center-back, making it very difficult for Wolves to close down the ball-carrier when Chelsea attacked through the left.

Chelsea scored the opening goal within twenty minutes. In the game of football, goals are not always the result of the tactics on display by both teams. It will happen incidentally though, and was also the case with Chelsea’s opening goal, as it featured a left side overload. When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Marcos Alonso made an underlapping run,  Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. Hazard played a pass into Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who had some luck with his attempt being deflected into the goal of Wolves goalie Patrício.

Nuno had instructed his side to sit tight in a 5-2-1-2 low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. When the home team won the ball, they directly would try to find one of their two attackers or offensive midfielder Morgan White-Gibbs.

This plan was not successful in terms of creating chances, as Wolves did not succeed to create any of them in the first half. This was also due to the fact that Wolves were positioned very deep, which made counterattacking difficult. Whenever Wolves tried to play out from the back using short passes, Chelsea forced them to play an early long ball forward. N’Golo Kanté and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would step out and press the ball-carrying center-back, depending on which side Wolves played.

On a few occasions, Wolves did try to press Chelsea somewhat higher up the pitch. This was not without any risk. Because of Morgan Gibbs-White pushing up relatively high on the pitch to engage in pressing, the double pivot – consisting of João Moutinho and Romain Saïss – was exposed, as they now had to choose between protecting their defensive line or marking a Chelsea midfielder.

Chelsea created a big chance in of one of these situations, due to clever movement from Hazard. The Belgian dropped into the gap in midfield and could therefore easily turn, he then played a brilliant high through ball into Willian, who hesitated for a moment and failed to score, which meant the score at half-time was still 0-1.

Wolves renew game plan

In the second half, Wolves went with a more proactive style of play by pressing the back line of Chelsea in the early stages of build-up. A big difference was that Wolves tried to force Chelsea to pass to the flanks. They did this by blocking the central passing lanes. The front two got supported by Gibbs-White, who was told to mark Cesc Fabregas but release him when he moved to other areas of the pitch. The double pivot would step out to Hazard and Willian as they would pop up in the halfspaces,  If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. which left the Wolves wing-backs with the task to press the ball-carrying Chelsea fullbacks in moments of high pressing.

The more risky game plan came with the consequence of other spaces opening up, because Wolves not only committed more men forward in pressing Chelsea, they also committed more players forward when they attacked Chelsea. One of Chelsea’s counterattacks just after half-time from Chelsea almost ended in a goal, but did not thanks to a miraculous clearance from Wolves central defender Willy Boly.

Because of the troubles Chelsea had dealing with Nuno’s game plan in the second half, Wolves also were able to build more organized attacks. The main focus in this department was to overload the Chelsea back four. Wolves did this by switching to a fluid 4-2-4 shape in possession. Right center-back Bennett would position himself as a right back, allowing Matt Doherty to push all the way up to the position of right winger. With Gibbs-White positioning himself in between Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez, the Chelsea back four often had to deal with four attackers. After the break this led to confusion at times and helped Wolves to find space on especially Chelsea’s right wing, as Matt Doherty in particular played an outstanding match.

Impressive Gibbs-White and implacable Wolves

Speaking of performances; demonstrating his awareness, technique and pace, Morgan Gibbs-White put in an impressive seventy-minute-performance. In a number ten role that can also be referred to as a false nine role, the eighteen-year-old managed to link up play with Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez very well.

Around the hour-mark, it was a glimpse of class from the youngster helped Wolves in scoring the equalizer. Dropping into midfield, the youngster took on two players before playing a clever ball in behind Chelsea’s defense, offering Raul Jimenez a goal scoring opportunity which he took full advantage of: 1-1. Especially given the situation Wolves found themselves in before this game, the courage and quality Gibbs-White showed today is quite remarkable.

The second Wolves goal was a great example of the way in which Wolves managed to win the game: due to being simply implacable. An attack following a quick transition seemed to end due to an interception by Chelsea’s defense. However, Wolves midfielder João Moutinho reacted quickly and counterpressed Willian before making a strong tackle, leaving the Chelsea attacker in despair and complaining about a potential foul. The Portuguese then sent a pass into Matt Doherty, who found Diogo Jota on the end of his cross: 2-1.

For Chelsea, it turned out to be impossible to overcome this one goal disadvantage, even though they had almost thirty minutes to make it happen. Chelsea tried to force something by substituting Olivier Giroud on for the – yet again – disappointing Morata.

Nevertheless, this made no big difference in Chelsea’s attacking presence in the second half. Despite having a lot more possession, the Blues failed to exploit the spaces Wolves left as a consequence of their more attacking style of play in the second half. It has to be said that Wolves had a bit of luck with Hazard and especially Fabregas failing to hit the target both in late stages of the game. Besides these two attempts, Chelsea failed to produce any other goal scoring opportunities in order to come back from behind.


Chelsea’s first half performance left no room for imagination: Wolves were having a real hard time to adjust to Sarri’s side’s level of play. Chelsea dominated in every aspect of the game and anyone who would have said that Wolves were having chances to win this game at this point, would not have been taken too seriously. However, football remains football and therefore can sometimes be unpredictable.

Wolves was almost directly punished for taking more risk in terms of attacking and defending at the start of the second half, but after this they showed that a big difference in quality can be compensated with some old-fashioned fighting spirit, a well-designed second half game plan and some luck as well, which always helps, right?

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Rowdy Nossent is a passionate football coach, interested in tactical concepts and special individual players from all over the world. [ View all posts ]


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