Chelsea’s second half at Everton flowed directly from “best 45 minutes” in first

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Ross Barkley of Chelsea is tackled by Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Chelsea FC at Goodison Park on March 17, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: Ross Barkley of Chelsea is tackled by Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Chelsea FC at Goodison Park on March 17, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) /

Chelsea’s first half against Everton was quintessential Sarriball, so it is little surprise Maurizio Sarri deemed it the best 45 minutes of the season. The two halves, though, were not much different than they appear.

If you are of the belief that possession equals control, passing establishes dominance and scoring is only a matter of who finishes their chances rather than how they are created, you should  – if you’re honest with yourself – have a hard time distinguishing Chelsea’s first half against Everton from the second. The Blues had more possession in the second half than the first. They made only 16 fewer passes in the second than the first. Yes, they took five fewer shots, but only one fewer shot on target. Why, if not for those two Everton goals, Maurizio Sarri would have been in his rights to say this was the most complete performance of the season.

That would be the logical conclusion to draw from his comment that the opening half was “probably the best 45 minutes of the season.” Sure, Everton did a lot more in that second half, notably their seven shots on target leading to two goals. But no one judges Maurizio Sarri for his defensive solidity – not even himself.

The first half was the sort of bloated caricature of possession-based football that Chelsea have come to embody this season. There is no real point in talking about the passing circuits, possession patterns and where (nowhere) they led. It was indistinguishable from every other instance.

Gonzalo Higuain contributed a few more shots to his total this season. His runs off the defenders’ shoulder are still decent, and credit to Jorginho for finding him and sending the pass over the top.

However, these moments rarely flow from the build-up. The purpose of the build-up is to – wait for it – build up to something. The passing, the runs on and off the ball, the dribbles and feints are all meant to dislodge the opponent from their shape, creating space where once they defended.

Sarriball, in the friendly context of Serie A, was quite effective at this. In the Premier League, though, the opponent does not take the bait so the build-up builds and builds to nothing. When Jorginho or some other Blue spots Higuain making his run it has little to do with the circuit preceding it. Higuain sees the opportunity, Jorginho or someone else on the ball sees the opportunity, and there they go. It’s like a counter-punch, without the counter and lacking some of the punch.

This feeds into the narrative that Gonzalo Higuain – like Alvaro Morata before him – is solely responsible for the failure of these chances. And to the extent that any player is responsible for the ball that comes off his foot, it is.

But the quality of a chance is about more than the location of the shot, even if that is the main factor in the expected goals (xG) stat. The Blues are not dragging the goalkeeper out of position any more than they are the defenders. Higuain is in alone with a bit of space and time, but not as much as he would have if the build-up built to anything, and with the goalkeeper in a good position to make the save. This combination forces him to either rush his shot or aim for a narrow shooting lane to goal, with such results as shots going over the bar or off the post.

The “mental block” Sarri spoke of follows from the tactical nihilism of the first half. Chelsea had their usual copious possession, passing and chances created with their usual nothing to show for it. They followed their instructions and game plan to the letter, and it got them nowhere. All expenditure, no return. Full execution, no reward. They did everything Maurizio Sarri trained them to do and they could not score against one of the Premier League’s great banter clubs.

They followed their game plan – again, and we can’t stress enough that Chelsea are executing Maurizio Sarri’s system with almost malicious compliance – and it brought them nothing, and they had 45 minutes of the same ahead.

Chelsea had Everton on the back foot for the first half, and Everton probably were well and truly fearful of the situation. When the half ended, Everton rightly felt like survivors who could do more whereas Chelsea were resigned to knowing they could not do any more.

Chelsea went into halftime knowing they would probably need a moment of magic from Eden Hazard if they were to win. Everton, on the other hand, went into halftime thinking “They haven’t changed a thing since we drew them 0-0 at Stamford Bridge. Lads, we can do this!”

Neither team made any tactical changes in the second half. The difference between the two clubs was mental. Chelsea’s tactical impotence prompted their mental breakdown in the second half, and enabled Everton’s resurgence.

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Maurizio Sarri does not understand these mental breakdowns because he does not understand what a failure his system is. He thinks the first 45 minutes were the best the club have played all season. If he believes that, he is not going to make sense of anything else.