Blue Mondays: Chelsea & The Low Block

The lack of creativity in attack and the vulnerability to the press, and how Atlético may capitalize.


Over the course of the season, Chelsea have looked clueless when it comes to countering the deep lying, sit in type of defense known as the “low block.” The characteristics of this type of defense include standing off the players and inviting pressure, lofting the ball up field for a runner, and defensively flooding the area during set-pieces. Chelsea often tend to struggle in games where they have more than 60% possession. Even in opportunities where a long ball could be played, at the beginning of the season Lampard’s employment of excessive sideways and backwards passing allowed teams to reset their shape and get all 11 men behind the ball.


Instead of opting to find a teammate with a long ball, the option of passing backward to Mendy is usually utilized, especially by defender Antonio Rüdiger. This was a result of sheer tactical stubbornness and inflexibility associated with the Lampard era. Our main route of attack was finding either Ben Chilwell, Hakim Ziyech or Reece James and attempt to get a ball into the box for the strikers.


While the low block allows for plenty of possession in the surrounding areas of the box, Chelsea are yet to find the correct combination of attackers to unlock one of football’s most trusty defensive set-ups, and resort to either crossing the ball into a sea of opposition, or sideways passing until being dispossessed.


Change under Tuchel?

The arrival of Thomas Tuchel did something to temporarily rejuvenate the attack, in the sense that we’re scoring goals again, however the numbers don’t lie.


In the 6 Premier League games since his arrival, Chelsea have averaged 69.1% possession and 4.5 shots on target per game. This means we’ve had one of the highest possession rates in that time, whilst averaging the same number of shots on target as Leicester, who notoriously play anti-possession counterattacking football. This means despite being allowed to have the bulk of possession, we’re creating nowhere near enough good chances.


What’s more is we’ve created an astounding 85 shooting chances in those games, for an average of 14.1 shots per game. If only 4.5 of those are on target, that would mean we only have a 31% shooting accuracy per game.


It’s evident there’s been a lack of edge to our attack, as seen in Saturday’s game where Mason Mount failed to find both Tammy Abraham and Timo Werner, who were making movements in advanced positions.

Thiago Silva's injury: A low block is usually accompanied with a strong forward press from the front line. Since Thiago Silva’s injury in the Spurs game, Chelsea have looked very uneasy at the back. In recent games, Andreas Christensen was rattled by Vinícius, Son, Minamino and McGoldrick. Antonio Rüdiger opts to play a backwards pass rather than finding Werner or Hudson-Odoi on the wings, and the two goals we have conceded in the Tuchel era have come as a result of the press.


Seeing as both the goals were conceded by almost an identical manner, the 4 other Premier League clean sheets can be seen as a result of poor opposition quality rather than a solid defensive display. This is backed up by the sheer dominance in possession we have experienced, and the fact that all the teams we’ve played so far since Tuchel’s arrival have been in bad form prior to playing us.

More of the same in Bucharest? The worrying thing about this combination of poor offense and shaky defense is Atlético are perfectly suited to playing low-block counterattacking football. In their last 5 UCL knockout games, they’ve averaged just 38% possession. Atlético went on to win 3 of those 5 and averaged a staggering 27.5% possession over the course of their two-legged tie against Liverpool, winning both those legs by a 4-2 aggregate.


This season, Atlético have made some improvements in the squad, most notably Luis Suárez who has struck up a good partnership João Félix this season, often coming out to press defenders and winning the ball high up the pitch. Jan Oblak is also unafraid to punt to the wings in search of Thomas Lemar or Félix himself. Despite being on a poor run of form, they’ve remedied their attacking problems and now have the combination of blood and thunder defending, blistering counterattacking pace, and clinical finishing up top, which has seen them top the of La Liga by 3 points with a game in hand. What’s worth noting is that Atlético are just as exploitable as Chelsea are when given the ball for extended periods of time. In the 6 La Liga games they have failed to win this season, they dominated the possession in 4 and failed to score completely 3 of those 4 games. Tuchel may see an option on Tuesday to play them at their own game. The attack will need more link-up play and a good work ethic in order to attain a result at the neutral venue. This then would be my ideal starting XI.

(credit | www.buildlineup.com).


Olivier Giroud’s coolness in front of goal will be needed, but he should also drop deep and play passes with Werner and Mount, whilst simultaneously drawing markers from the Atlético defense.


Hakim Ziyech or Kai Havertz could start ahead of Mount, providing an alternate route into the box from Mount’s favored crossing. Reece James ahead of Callum Hudson-Odoi for defensive stability, and as a precursor incase Tuchel decides to withdraw Marcos Alonso and have a back 4 should, the original game plan not work out – allowing for the hypothetical introduction of Pulisic.


Alonso will naturally make overlapping runs beyond Werner to provide a late option for the cross, the expectancy is Rüdiger will be able to account for his absence. Kovačić and Kanté will provide the tireless box to box energy needed for such a big game, although should we be thoroughly dominating towards the end of the match, the introduction of Jorginho will provide incisive passing.

Reflection:

This UCL tie is mammoth in the context of our season. Relatively unproven to this point, a big performance will rubberstamp Tuchel’s credentials as a serious competitor for silverware, giving the team the aura of a European giant once again.


This game will be the real indicator of what to expect under Tuchel, as well as a sign of whether we’ll do well for the remainder of this season. It could also be the burial ground for excessive possession control with no end product.

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