Antonio Conte moved one step closer to achieving a debut season double as his Chelsea side overcame Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur in a thrilling semi-final encounter at Wembley. Conte surprised everybody before the game with the omissions of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa from his starting XI, but the gamble paid off with Willian, who came in for Hazard, scoring two of Chelsea’s goals. Tottenham had a surprise of their own on the team sheet, with Son Heung-min chosen ahead of Ben Davies in an unfamiliar left wing back position.
Chelsea’s defensive compactness
One of the main factors behind Willian’s inclusion ahead of Hazard was likely to have been the Brazilian’s superior defensive work rate. It quickly became clear that shutting off supply to Deli Alli and Christian Eriksen was a key objective of Conte’s, which he looked to do by deploying a very narrow midfield line within his 5-4-1 defensive block. Vertical passing lanes through the half spaces from Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele are often a key part of Tottenham’s build up play, but the narrow positioning of Chelsea’s wingers looked to force Spurs’ play out wide.
This naturally required high levels of defensive discipline from Chelsea’s midfielders, with Pedro and Willian needing to constantly work hard to get back into position in the defensive phase, something Hazard is sometimes lacking in. This proved to be very successful in stifling Tottenham, with Pochettino’s side rarely able to penetrate centrally through Chelsea’s block.
As a result, Tottenham looked to find different ways of creating goalscoring opportunities. Trying to use the wing backs as a wall pass to go around Chelsea’s narrow midfield before coming back inside was a common option, but the strong vertical compactness of Chelsea’s lines allowed their ball-near players to shut off passing lanes back inside before the wing back even received the ball. The relatively large distance between this Tottenham triangle also meant that these quick combinations were difficult to execute as the passes took a longer time to reach their target. Chelsea have been excellent at shifting their block to readjust to the ball position under Conte, and this defensive organisation was clearly on display again on Saturday, always managing to maintain compactness around the ball.
A more successful method of creating space for Tottenham was by drawing Chelsea pressure towards one side of the pitch before exploiting the resulting space on the underloaded far side. The far wing back or outer centre back would be used as the outlet pass, before looking to find one of Spurs’ attacking players in space before Chelsea could shift over across the pitch. This was the basis of Tottenham’s second goal, when Kieran Trippier and Eriksen created a 2vs1 against Marcos Alonso after a quick switch of play, creating the space for Eriksen to deliver one of the passes of the season for Alli to score.
Despite having just 37% of possession and eight shots, Chelsea managed to score four goals against the best defence in the Premier League. Excellent finishing ultimately made the difference for Chelsea on the day, with Willian, Hazard and Nemanja Matic all scoring low-percentage shots from which they did very well to hit the back of the net. This is reflected in the ‘expected goals’ of the match (graphic below taken from Michael Caley @MC_of_A), which is used as a general estimator of the quality of chances created in a game.
As a natural consequence of their low percentage of possession, much of Chelsea’s attacking play was in transition, as per their strategy for much of the season. Using the wingers as quick outlets to drive the ball into space was important in getting the team up the pitch, often off the back of some neat hold up play from Michy Batshuayi, in turn releasing the pressure on the defence for a while.
Late runs from Victor Moses were also an important attacking outlet for Chelsea, often after building play through the left hand side, thus creating more space for the Nigerian to run into by dragging the Tottenham block over to the other side. This was how Chelsea created a 1vs1 isolation for Moses to dribble directly at Son in the build up to the penalty, looking to take advantage of the South Korean’s lack of individual defending skills.
With the game tied at 2-2, Conte brought on Hazard and Costa on the hour mark. With the defensive foundations built, Conte hoped that his star attackers could use their individual brilliance to be even more effective against a tiring Spurs side. It was the Belgian that rose to the occasion, grabbing both a goal and an assist in his substitute appearance. Not only was he excellent with the execution of his actions – accurately fizzing a strike through a crowd of players into the bottom corner for his goal – his close dribbling ability also disrupted Spurs’ defensive system, constantly attracting Spurs players towards him and thus opening up space elsewhere on the pitch for his team mates to exploit.
It seems fitting in an FA Cup semi final that it was moments of sheer individual brilliance that decided the tie. Despite a lack of clear cut chances, clinical finishing was the difference and the quality of Willian, Hazard and Matic’s goals is the level that should decide close-fought matches in the latter stages of knockout competitions. Tottenham’s two goals of their own were equally impressive, with Harry Kane’s impressive backwards header and Eriksen’s perfect pass for Alli’s goal, but in the end, Chelsea once again found the perfect game plan to get the best out of their team. Their defence provided the solid foundation upon which their attackers could go and produce moments worthy of winning any football match.