Wolverhampton Wanderers – Chelsea: Wolves Tame Limp Lions To Stall Title Charge (0-0)
Slipping away from the summit, Chelsea’s pursuit of the league title led them to a tricky test at the Molineux. A back five, deep block, and drilled pack of wolves returned Thomas Tuchel to where his tenure began but eleven months at the helm could not avert another stalemate.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
“We will build a team that nobody wants to play against.” At the outset of 2021, a 0-0 draw to Wolves in his dugout debut at Chelsea did not put off Thomas Tuchel from setting the bar high. The manager has ruthlessly pursued this target but would going back to where it all began let him resharpen focus?
The European champions kicked off the new campaign like a freight train. Heading the three way race for the Premier League title a third of the way into the fixture list, Chelsea have shown their success is no fluke. Yet, in a marathon of highs and lows, this challenge demands perfection at the highest level. Four points adrift of the top spot, they simply cannot afford to lose more ground on the establishment.
But trust their opponents to make them toil for three points. The new leader of the pack, Bruno Lage, may have transformed his men into a more attractive outfit, yet, Wolves have not lost the Portuguese pragmatism of his predecessor Nuno. Stymying the verve of Liverpool and Manchester City, a pair of 1-0 losses were a credit to their stinginess. Yet, the top two found a way. Would Chelsea do the same?
Mired in an injury crisis, Tuchel has been deprived of his main options in the middle of the park. But a clean bill of health for N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić has not ended his rotten luck. Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the double pivot from the 1-1 draw to Everton, were missing with injuries. So, the manager brought Kanté straight back into midfield while Trevoh Chalobah deputized next to him.
His opposite man Lage, on the other hand, could return Raúl Jiménez to the lineup off the back of his one game suspension for a red card at the Etihad. Deploying the forward as part of a front two in a 5-3-2 shape rather than the 5-2-3 system from midweek, the manager dropped Francisco Trincão to the bench. In his place, Leander Dendoncker got a starting spot on the right of the three in the midfield.
Switching to a 5-3-2 formation, Lage sought to maintain stability in the middle of the park. Jiménez would slide across to cover César Azpilicueta but the front two of him and Daniel Podence kept an eye on Chalobah. The wing-backs, especially Marçal on the left, shuttled aggressively to shut down their opposite men. A tight midfield three closed out the center, leaving Chelsea to face a familiar problem.
What a dreadful result for Chelsea. If you hold out against their strong starts, you stand a good chance and their buildup has turned very predictable, once against a consistent mid/low block, in recent weeks (vs United & West Ham.)— Joel Parker (@Joelissimmo) December 16, 2021
A worrying trend
In their spells on the ball, Chelsea rotated from their 3-4-3 offensive structure. Azpilicueta stood a little wider than Antonio Rüdiger on the right, willing to threaten forward in the halfspace from deep. Ahead of the back three, the double pivot then split. To the left, Chalobah sat at the base of the midfield while Kanté operated more progressively. But less certain were the roles of the attackers.
Chelsea’s offensive structure with an asymmetric back three as well as lateral rotations between the attacking midfielders and wing-backs.
Christian Pulisic featured in the middle of the frontline, tending to drift to the left. Mason Mount then operated high in the right channel, swinging between a more central position of a ten and a second striker. Hence, Hakim Ziyech would roam a little deeper in the left halfspace, offering Rüdiger an option to progress the play around the midfield to break into the final third. So, many players found themselves in unfamiliar roles, and the lack of automatism soon became apparent.
In the first 10 minutes, Chelsea mainly moved the ball directly. This phase saw the front three line up near the last line, drifting away from the pockets between the lines. Hence, even with Kanté’s role, they often lacked connections to the rest of their teammates. Over time, the structure changed a little. Around halfway through the first half, Mount began to operate in the channel between Rúben Neves and Dendoncker. A more staggered layout helped activate the left flank, but the guests had offered next to nothing in front of goal by the break.
Minor faults, major consequences
Indeed, it was Wolves that came closest to breaking the deadlock. A quarter of an hour into the contest, the hosts slipped through a pressing sequence, shifting the play to the left wing. Marçal’s delivery eluded Jiménez only for Podence to prod the ball home into an empty net. An offside flag spared the blushes of Tuchel’s men; however, the scenario pointed to chinks in Chelsea’s armor.
🗣️ "VAR is there to help the referees, so VAR should be more careful when analysing."— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) December 19, 2021
Bruno Lage was unhappy with the VAR decision to rule out Daniel Podence's goal in the first half of their draw against Chelsea and says his side deserved more than one point. pic.twitter.com/06Ud2TX4Fu
The visitors shifted through multiple mechanisms in their high press. From time to time, they worked from a 5-2-3 block, where Mount folded inward behind Pulisic while Ziyech ran out at Max Kilman. So, a 4-4-1-1 configuration could arise since the back five swung across while Reece James watched the switch to Roman Saïss. More commonly, a 5-3-2 system emerged. Here, it was not Mount that moved back to reshape the midfield. Instead, mimicking the attack, he stayed in the frontline to the right of Pulisic, and Ziyech dropped on the left.
38th minute: pressing sequence from Chelsea. James denies the switch to Saïss, the front three shifts narrowly, forming an asymmetric 4231 shape, and Pulisic sprints out at Jose Sà to force a long ball.
In either instance, James held a higher position up the field. However, he did not always drop back cleanly into the backline away from the ball. Such shifting errors then froze Azpilicueta to his inside, giving the front two chances to run the channels and threaten their guests. Indeed, Dendoncker’s headed effort in the 41st minute, the best of the half, rooted itself in this dynamic. Chelsea needed to fix up if they were to get the victory.
Good but not good enough
Before the start of the second half, Tuchel forced the issue. Even though he could only pick from a selection of four outfield players, the manager turned to his bench. Chalobah departed the field with a knock, making way for Saúl Ñíguez. More changes soon followed.
On the right, Mount continued to make his mark off the ball. The attacking midfielder repeatedly moved wide to aid progression into the final third. He often acted as a transit to carry the play into this zone while Azpilicueta moved further outward to form an asymmetric back three. In others, he pinned Marçal, helping his teammates circulate quickly from the flank back into the center.
Pulisic then supported Alonso and Ziyech on the left. Once a calf injury forced off Ziyech in place of Kovačić, the structure altered. The substitute sat outside of the 5-3-2 block in the halfspace while Alonso held the width on the last line and the striker roamed on the shoulder of Kilman.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, more stable dominance did not translate to chance creation. Their bailout card manifested with thirteen minutes to go on the clock. Pulisic burst into the box, taking Alonso’s threaded pass into his stride, but Sà parried his strike. The stalemate continued till the final whistle.
For the third time this month, a deep block from Wolves pushed one of Europe’s elite outfits to the limit. And third time lucky, Lage’s men reaped a reward from their efforts in this game. The stalemate underlines the strength of this team under their current manager, who has guided his men to eighth place. Awaiting the visit of Watford on Boxing Day, they will harbor ambitions of getting back into Europe to reaffirm their status as the side no one wishes to face.
On the other hand, Tuchel will be frustrated at dropping more points. Chelsea now lie in third place, sitting six points behind a rampant Manchester City. What’s more, a shy display marked the latest in a string of performances where the Londoners have stuttered against a stubborn block. Flashing signs of brilliance after the international break, they must not let their hope slip away over the hectic schedule.
More broadly, this run raises questions of just how good Chelsea are. Still yet to get the best out of Romelu Lukaku among the plethora of attackers, their ceiling could be frightening. But if their floor does not match that of their rivals, that flaw could prove to be their undoing.
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