When the team-sheets for Chelsea’s match against Tottenham Hotspur were released at 3pm on Sunday, the Blues’ fans were unusually puzzled. Having spent the last 12 months being able to name Antonio Conte’s starting XI with their eyes closed, the Chelsea faithful were forced to dig into their inner tactician to work out what shape Sunday’s selection of players would form into.
Courtois, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Moses, Luiz, Bakayoko, Kante, Alonso, Willian, Morata
On paper, there were four centre-backs, two central midfielders and one winger – along with the mainstay wing-backs and striker. There were starts for Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Alvaro Morata and the supposedly unfit Tiemoué Bakayoko, highlighting that all the hoo-hah about Chelsea’s quiet transfer window was in the face of the fact that Conte has four new squad members to play with.
Here’s how the side appeared to actually line up, in a 3-5-1-1 formation:
So David Luiz was pushed into a central midfield role, and Christensen deputised for the Brazilian in the middle of the back three. With Gary Cahill suspended, Rudiger filled his shoes at left centre-back. Many questioned the signing of Rudiger, but the German has already been able to show his value to the squad, with his versatility allowing him to play in any position across the back five, and on any side.
The Catenaccio in full force
Due to the nature of the game, the back three were always going to be tested, and Spurs inevitably delivered the sledgehammer attack that we all thought they would. As Ruud Gullit pointed out so prominently on Match of the Day 2, Conte counter-acted this with a traditional Italian Catenaccio system. The tactic is almost exclusively revolved around defence and is deployed to limit space for the attacking team to exploit. Chelsea’s mere 32.5% possession and 70% pass accuracy highlights the tactic’s limitation on prioritising the attack.
With the nature of the deep defensive block, the Chelsea defenders were representative of a blue wall, and the statistics highlight the last-ditch nature of their defending. Azpilicueta and Christensen blocked two shots a piece, and in total the defence made nine blocks – five of which were inside the penalty area. Spurs’ opted to attack with the ball on the floor, meaning that the defence was only required to enter a single aerial duel within their own area.
Midfield and defence unite as one
The more aggressive defensive actions were ignited within the cage of the midfield battle. Both N’Golo Kante and Luiz made six tackles a piece, and Bakayoko was responsible for three interceptions. This did cause the Blues to cross the line on several occasions, and the midfield trio made a total of 12 fouls throughout the game – half of which were committed by new signing Bakayoko.
The more desperate style of defending was an obvious hindrance on Chelsea’s retention of the ball, and how they used it when given the opportunity. As mentioned, the overall possession and pass accuracy statistics were diminutive of the Blues’ usual standards, as Conte prioritised an ugly victory over aesthetical football.
Christensen (8), Azpilicueta (7) and Rudiger (4) made 19 clearances across the 90 minutes, and only made 77 passes between them – that’s five less than Jan Vertonghen made on his own. Whilst Christensen had a 100% pass rate, he only made 16 passes. In fact, the Dane only had 35 touches in the whole game – four more than Hugo Lloris who barely saw the ball during large periods of Spurs pressure. The four lowest touches for Chelsea along with Christensen were Morata (33), Bakayoko (32) and Rudiger (37), highlighting the impetus that was put on Conte’s most trusted players.
How the defensive trio compared
Thanks to Squawka’s performance data, the graph above allows a visible comparison of the three centre-backs influence throughout the game. As expected, Azpilicueta – who was captaining the side – performed at a consistently high level for the majority of the game. The Spaniard took responsibility of a relatively inexperienced back-line and was the possession outlet for the defence with 50 touches and 32 passes (the joint highest in the team).
What is most impressive about this comparison is the gradual uprise in Christensen’s performance. The 21-year-old had a quiet, if not disappointing, first-half, yet came into his own in the second-half, and finished the game as Chelsea’s best-performing defender. Considering Spurs’ increased pressure in the second 45 minutes, the fact that the Dane was able to step up in the high-pressure phases of the game will be a massive positive for Conte’s outlook on the player.
Rudiger, on the other hand, was consistently the weakest member of the trio. The German international is still getting up to speed with the Premier League and was more exposed than Christensen as he was playing on his weaker left side. There was a moment in the second half when Heung Min-Son was teasing him on the touchline and whilst it didn’t come to anything, Rudiger looked shaky in the one-on-one scenario. It’s still early in his Chelsea career though, and he will only get better with time under Conte’s tutelage.
The performance was a vast contrast to the permeable showing that we had seen against Burnley; the paper wall had formed into a granite barrier that only Michy Batshuayi was able to breach. It gives hope and settlement to Chelsea fans that had endured a week of criticism and speculation following the embarrassment at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, and for many this is where the season really starts.
Yes, Chelsea still need to bring in a few more new faces but the victory over Spurs highlighted that whilst the squad is thin, it’s members are warriors that Conte can turn to in search of a season-defining performance.
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