Positional tactics that won Chelsea the midfield battle over Tottenham

Written by Matthew Mak

The third game of Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea is a London Derby, they travelled to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Thursday night. Despite both having 33 points before the game, the guests obviously outplayed the opponent and won with a one-nil victory.

What are the key messages in this game? A strong positional structure and tactical concepts of Tuchel were quickly implemented to allow Chelsea gaining the advantage at midfield. From this perspective, this analysis aims to dissect the fundamental elements to demolish the low block of Tottenham.

Lineups

Tottenham were without some key players, including Sergio Reguilon and Harry Kane. Therefore, Carlos Vinicius played as the striker and Ben Davies starting as the left-back. Some generated a 4-4-2 formation but our version from Instat is a 4-2-3-1. However, the differences in formation did not help to nullify the deficit at midfield.

Tuchel kept most of the players that started against Burnley. It was a back three on paper, but Cesar Azpilicueta was given a hybrid role between centre-back and right-back. Under the new manager, Mason Mount was much closer to the final third and he supported Callum Hudson—Odoi and Timo Werner, this double-striker system was a way that tried to release the strengths of the German international

  1. Options behind the lines and the overload

Mourinho isn’t stupid, he knew the opponent are going to put three midfielders at the centre, and his strategy was to instruct the wingers going inward to increase numbers. Therefore, the shape of Tottenham could be a 4-2-2-2, ideally this would have a “+1” advantage, allowing that one free player to cover spaces while the other three orienting themselves to the oppositions.

However, Tuchel was a step ahead in the setups. He improved Chelsea’s positional structure at the midfield, and the plan of Mourinho did not work.

The first thing he did at Chelsea was giving the players the freedom to stagger positionings. Under Frank Lampard, offensively, the team was often separated into two groups and totally lost control of the opposition midfield. Now, the issue was gone as the Blues always had free options behind the opposition layers, no matter they were facing two or three.

Mount, who would be nearer to the final third under the new manager, was the player that given the freedom to move behind the opposition midfield. Also, Tuchel brought Jorginho back to the team because of the verticality of the Italian midfielder was better than anyone else in the team. Therefore, when Mount drops behind the second layer to receive the ball, Chelsea could advance vertically as shown in the above image – the quickest way to move the ball forward.

And see how Hudson-Odoi’s positioning has occupied Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, keeping the Danish midfielder away from Mount. This special setup was a way to help Mount freeing himself.

The concept is to drop Hudson-Odoi at the right-half spaces, and in the same horizontal zone where Hojbjerg stays. Tuchel probably knew the Tottenham centre-backs were unlikely to stay extremely tight with the strikers, especially they have to leave the positions. When the strikers drop, the Tottenham players would want the midfielder(s) to cover.

Capitalizing on this feature of Tottenham’s defence, Tuchel cleverly overload Hojbjerg by using Hudson-Odoi (sometimes Reece James) and Mount to create a 2v1 situation. By position, Hojbjerg, as the defensive midfielder, should have oriented himself to Mount more often. When Hudson-Odoi drops, he was in a decisional dilemma given Eric Dier was not helpful.

For example, Hudson-Odoi could receive the ball freely when dropping to Hojbjerg’s horizontal zone, the Danish midfielder was with Mount initially. Meanwhile, Dier’s effort was to try instructing Hojbjerg to defend Hudson-Odoi with his fingers, which would not stop the Englishman attacker from turning.

The last example shows a variation of the situation, the concepts are the same – man behind the layers, creating decisional dilemma on Hojbjerg.

Here, Hudson-Odoi opened the option at half-spaces for Jorginho, and note that how Mount took away Hojbjerg away from the defence by making early runs. At that moment, Tottenham were almost a back five as the Danish midfielder tracked Mount, leaving spaces opened where Dier was reluctant to defend (again, you can tell from his body language).

An additional element was the avaiailbity of the third-man. This was a new tactical concept that Tuchel introduced, and we rarely saw Lampard’s Chelsea using this pattern to offer passing option for the ball. Even if Dier were aggressive, Hudson-Odoi could quickly find Cesar Azpilicueta with a one-touch pass and Chelsea are in the final third. The synchronized timing of movement was another department that have improved.

2. Verticality at half-spaces and third-man plays

Continuing on the verticality topic, as pointed out, it was the quickest way to advance the ball and the attack. However, the drawback was the body orientation of the receiver was not opened enough, limiting his perceived visual information and angle for the next action.

Therefore, usually the team should offer the third-man to make sure there is a passing option after using verticality.

There was a great example that shows all of the introduced tactics above. Chelsea players executed them well enough.

The first image shows Thiago Silva on the ball, but he was without an option and Tottenham locked all midfielders, even Heung-min Son was trying to cover Mount.

See the proactive movement of Hudson-Odoi, who moved into the half-spaces with consciousness, creating a passing option for Silva.


This time Dier was tighter on Hudson-Odoi and prevented the turn. However, one thing that Tottenham did badly was the defensive output of the striker – Vinicius barely spent any efforts in the defensive phase. Therefore, Jorginho was completely free after his marker went for Silva. In this case, given the body position, the former Napoli midfielder had the best angle and vision to play the final ball.

The situation was clearer after Hudson-Odoi dropping. By spaces, Dier was bad at defending them in front. By opponent, Dier gave Hudson-Odoi too much freedom to do whatever he wanted.

The Mount-CHO overload on Hojbjerg still exists. Since Mount initially took Hojbjerg wider, the vertical passing lane was unprotected, so it was possible to find Hudson-Odoi as we indicated above.

Mount was not sleeping, he knew when there were spaces, he should go and exploit without nay hesitation. More often we saw him roaming behind the Tottenham midfield, but when the centre-back was out, he should go behind them.

In the three seconds that Chelsea constructed a favourable offensive occasion, Mount did not touch the ball. However, he was involved in this all the time, and the quick forward movement has opened the most lethal option. Jorginho, instead moving the ball out wide, could feed a through ball to find Mount, Tottenham were in danger.

3. Manipulating the opponents

Actually, there is one more question to address – why Chelsea were able to attack Hojbjerg that easily? How could they do that?

It was because of the manipulating the man-oriented habits of the oppositions. By taking the initiative, Chelsea could open spaces or unmask passing lanes since the opposition could merely react based on the Blues’ reaction.

Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho were improving as better midfielders because now they saw a greater picture. They knew their movements and positioning were going to affect the oppositions. Now, they made decisions that serves a greater picture purposefully. The point to emphasize was the positionings of Kovacic and Jorginho that left the vertical passing channel opened in the above image.

By positioning, the midfield duo kept two Tottenham players away from the ball above. Meanwhile, same elements – Mount behind the midfield, the overload on Hojbjerg, verticality at half-spaces and the body language of Dier appeared again.

One more example. Again, you could see when Hojbjerg oriented himself to Hudson-Odoi, he left Mount unmarked. Since the other two Tottenham players were tight on Kovacic and Jorginho, and Werner took Moussa Sissoko out wide, Mount was totally free behind the Tottenham midfield.

Guess Dier must be yelling to Hojbjerg, asking him to cover Mount above. But Tottenham would need a lot more than this to defend spaces in front of the defensive line.

Final remarks

It was a bit of surprise to see how quick the Chelsea players have picked up the key concepts of Tuchel. Of course, there are much more to be developed such as to communicate non-verbally, as well as the way to attack the penalty box. This analysis mainly focuses on situations in the first half and in the second phase. Tottenham went higher in the second half, leading to more transitional events and the low block rarely exists.

Anyway, the performance was good enough to register a win, which made Tuchel the first Chelsea manager to keep three clean sheets in a row in the first three game, the only one after Jose Mourinho.

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