Big Match Decoded: Why Chelsea must compete to win the midfield battle

The big game on Saturday in the Premier League is at Stamford Bridge as Maurizio Sarri’s side hosts title favourites Man City. 

Chelsea have fallen out of form in recent weeks and Sarri-ball isn’t having quite the effect it was earlier in the season. Pep Guardiola is a master at figuring out how to stop his opponents playing their game and with City flying high in the league, could do some damage, if not end Sarris’ ambitious title ambitions.

Some key tactical decisions have to be made – where will the game be won and lost?

How Man City are dominating games

It’s essential that Sarri figures out how best to contest the midfield battle because nobody is better at controlling it than Man City.

Their shape changes from a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 to a 3-1-something (it varies constantly) in attack, with the defensive line pushing right over the halfway line to dominate the pitch.

Opposition teams tend to sit deep in a low block but this only results in them hoofing clearances away or City winning scrappy forward passes – both of which hand possession back to Guardiola’s team high up the pitch. City’s shape means they have players in position ready to deal with these situations and their passing is superb – less talented players wouldn’t be able to execute it well enough, and it gets the most out of the sort of player capable of doing so. Great players are able to play that little better in this kind of system.

It’s not that Chelsea need extra defensive midfielders to contest the positions, more that those in the two ‘eight’ positions must work tirelessly to push City’s passing back or sideways and to find positions to link passes when Chelsea do win possession back. Both sides play similar styles of football – high press, possession-based and attacking – but City’s shape allows them to swallow up the pitch and keep teams trapped near their own box.

Chelsea are a little more vulnerable in transition, but that is largely due to the benefit Guardiola has of having had more time to mould the team in his image.

Winning the ball back

City’s passing from the back is highly rewarding but is brave and requires near-perfect execution to avoid mistakes gifting turnovers in vulnerable positions – as Fabian Delph discovered with his error against Watford for the goal which nearly sparked a late comeback – and Chelsea will press high to catch John Stones and Aymeric Laporte out.

Similarly, although N’Golo Kante has incredible energy and is superb in defensive situations, his technical abilities aren’t as top level as the likes of David Silva and Bernardo Silva. Kante can be caught on the ball and his passes anticipated, though that electric turn of pace means the World Cup winner is capable of evading a tackle and creating attacking situations that way.

Man City’s focus will be on Jorginho. Spurs and Everton identified him as the tempo setter of Chelsea’s passing, reducing his average touches and passes per game by over half in doing so. By marking him out of the game they were able to disrupt Sarri’s style of play and nullify the attacking threat Chelsea’s midfield posed and forcing passes wide rather than through the middle. Guardiola will have a plan in place that involves players looking after Jorginho when he moves into certain zones.

Eden Hazard needs to get in the box

Hazard’s goals have dried up and other than the injury niggle he’s recently overcome, a key reason for this seems to be that he’s not getting into the box enough.

Eden Hazard touchmap vs Fulham, 3rd December

Credit:
OPTA

Hazard is still moving in from the left wing but just hasn’t been able to get into positions that allow him to score inside the box. Although Olivier Giroud hasn’t scored as many as Alvaro Morata, playing him ahead of Alvaro Morata may actually help Chelsea score, or at least create more as Giroud’s linkup frees up space for the wide forwards to exploit. 

Morata tends to play as the pointed edge of an attacking arrow but Giroud likes to drop, hold the ball up and feed others. With Giroud in the central striker position, Willian and Hazard can move into positions ahead of the ‘nine, and get more shots on goal. Morata stretches the play more and forces defenders towards their own goal with his style of running, which creates space in behind for Hazard and Willian to have fun in.

Both have their merits but Guardiola’s meticulous attention to detail means he will surely have his players aware of the differences between the two strategies and how to defend against them.