Chelsea’s change to 4-2-3-1 showed them going through the motions of Plan B

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea is challenged by Romain Saiss of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge on March 10, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea is challenged by Romain Saiss of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge on March 10, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) /
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Maurizio Sarri went through the motions of a tactical change against Wolves on Sunday. Chelsea’s confused execution shows how uncomfortable the coach and the players are taking even slight steps away from his rote norm.

Stripped of all context (in keeping with the best way of finding enjoyment in this season), Maurizio Sarri’s third substitution against Wolves was the one we were all waiting for. He withdrew Jorginho – significant in its own right – for Willian, putting the Blues in a 4-2-3-1 for the final 18 minutes against Wolves. Staying in our little vacuum here, it worked, as Chelsea salvaged a point with a 91′ goal.

Obviously, context complicates things. Sarri’s substitution and the attendant formation shift were the latest examples of Sarri’s pantomime management. He does the “what” without understanding the “why,” leaving everyone scratching their heads saying, “What? Why?!”

Withdrawing the deep midfielder for a winger to turn a 4-3-3 into a 4-2-3-1 is not a bad idea when chasing a goal late in the game. However, the 4-2-3-1 is an expansive formation, one that relies on ball movement up the pitch through the double-pivot midfielders, and then using the attacking midfielders to pressure the top of the opponent’s box.

As an example, see last season’s fixture at Southampton. Chelsea went down 2-0 in the 60′. Antonio Conte made a double substitution before the restart: he exchanged Alvaro Morata for Olivier Giroud, and brought off Davide Zappacosta in favour of Pedro. This took Chelsea from their 3-4-3 with Zappacosta as right wing-back to a 4-2-3-1. Marcos Alonso dropped into the back line at left-back, Pedro joined Willian and Eden Hazard in the line of attacking midfielders behind Giroud, and N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas adjusted themselves in central midfield.

In under 10 minutes, Chelsea led 3-2 on two goals from Olivier Giroud flanking one from Eden Hazard.

By contrast, Maurizio Sarri’s third substitution – Willian for Pedro – conflicted with his first: Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Mateo Kovacic. On its own, Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic is smart substitution and came at the right time in the game. Wolves were not peppering Chelsea on the counter-attack so they did not need Kovacic’s defensive acumen. Loftus-Cheek was far more likely to make direct runs that could get behind Wolves’ lines, or at least open a crease for Eden Hazard to run onto a through-ball.

Loftus-Cheek would be a good addition to the line of three attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. But with Willian on for Jorginho, Loftus-Cheek needed to play alongside Kante in the double pivot. This is very much not in Loftus-Cheek’s skill set, nor is it the best use of his talents. In true Sarri fashion, Loftus-Cheek was not where he should have been and was where he should not have been.

Because Loftus-Cheek is an attacking midfielder, he naturally inched up to spend most his time with the other attacking midfielders. N’Golo Kante was frequently calling to Loftus-Cheek to come back onto his line.

Kante needed Loftus-Cheek to drop back for several reasons. First, in offensive possession, the two holding midfielders are recycling options. They can each stay close to their triangles, allowing for quick interchanges and resetting the play. If one lingers amongst the attacking midfielders, the other cannot offer as much support because he ends up further from either or both sides.

Second, on the chance Wolves broke out, the Blues needed another midfielder in front of the centre-backs because they had their defence playing so high. The full-backs were almost fully forward, and David Luiz was nearly as close to Ruben Loftus-Cheek and the midfielders as he was to N’golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger minding the back.

The third reason hews closely to the second. Chelsea were playing so high up the pitch and Wolves were playing so deeply and compactly, the Blues had hardly any separation between their lines, let alone anything that could be recognized as and conveniently referred to as a 4-2-3-1. If Kante could find a bit of space between the defence and attackers he could put Chelsea in a 4-1-5, but quite often the Blues were in a 4-6. That is about as nonsensical and ineffective on both sides of the ball as it sounds.

The jumble of players, made worse by Ruben Loftus-Cheek being the wrong man in the wrong place, speaks to Maurizio Sarri’s pantomime. Chelsea changed players to nominally adjust their formation, but did not change their overall style of play to execute that formation. They set up in an expansive formation that requires separation between three, if not four, lines. But they did not adjust where they set their offensive and defensive lines on the pitch, nor did they adapt their circuits.

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When Chelsea switched to the 4-2-3-1 against Southampton last April, they had 54% possession over the 10 minutes in which they scored three goals. This was slightly less possession than they had in the game overall (58%). In their 18 minutes of 4-2-3-1 (4-6) against Wolves, Chelsea had 81% possession, compared to 76% for the game as a whole.

Maurizio Sarri wanted them to play to play 4-3-3 Sarriball in a 4-2-3-1 that looked more like a 4-6. And faster, he wanted it done faster.

Chelsea’s palpable discomfort with the unusual formation and squad is of a piece with Sarri’s conflicting substitutions and post-game criticisms. They clearly had not spent much time training in a 4-2-3-1, learning the nuances of positioning and passing that make it work, along with the macro elements of spacing and organization across the pitch.

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Switching the players to switch the numeric formation without making the broader changes show how Chelsea struggle with the “what” because their orders are divorced from understanding the “why.”