From zero (points) to hero
Daniel Siebert is a World Cup-bound official with a bit of a card-happy history – over the course of 40 games in the last year, he has issued 127 yellow cards (3.18 per game) and 7 red cards (18% of the time). The 10 he dished out in this game may have set a Champions League record, but isn’t even his greatest number this season, overseeing an 11-card thriller in the Europa Conference League Qualifiers on the 11th of August. The decisions he made essentially gift-wrapped the Chelsea win and essentially progression to the round of 16 (with a now 95.87% chance). Bemoan as they have done in Italy, their gripe is essentially more with the rules than the ref, and a tactically sagacious decision from Graham Potter may have been to accommodate the official’s nature.
Despite all this hoopla surrounding the game brought on by the ref himself, those sorts of things can actually be influential in both how a team is both set up to play tactically and the outcome of a game (ahem, Anthony Taylor). Knowing this in advance would have easily been enough for Potter to make the decision to put Jorginho into the pivot to secure more possession (reminder, we only had 51% at the Bridge) and let Milan chase the ball and be the team to put in challenges. And while despite such even possession in the first leg, we were clearly the better side and had played Ruben Loftus-Cheek in that holding role. The bold decision to change it and that Jorginho played so well to dictate the tempo further demonstrates how Graham Potter is getting the best out of his side and using it to its near every morsel. The total possession (70% in our favour) would be a misrepresentation due to the red card, but we did have 55% possession in the first 15 minutes, showing that we were largely in control of the ball. Jorginho was a major part of that.
The starting XI’s for either squad were similar to the first leg, with Milan’s changes being at the outside backs and the attacking midfield. Chelsea’s changes were both through injury and a tactical tweak in the midfield from Potter that quite effectively utilised Jorginho’s passing ability (those first half stats are downright impressive). We should also note he had 11 tackles and was one of few who did not get a card, wise both when he went for the ball and while on it.
Even with the Jorginho metronome in midfield, there was minimal rhythm to the game due to the constant officiating stoppages, all the more amplified by the inconsistency in the calls. In the opening minutes of the game there are three fouls that ought draw our attention, and ironically the first involves the duo of Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori. Initially, Mount is called for a foul on Tomori, and clearly despite minimal contact, Tomori pleads and gestures for a card while Mount is visibly frustrated…fuel onto the fire.
The second instance was a nasty challenge on Mount by Theo Hernández, but also demonstrated some of what we were doing the entire match as far as finding a passing sequence. Mount and James on the same side were lethal, working over the newly returned Hernández and Tomori for space and position on the ball. But beyond their specific passing and movement, balls around the wings and over top were being played on either side. In fact, on the opposite flank, Kalidou Koulibaly was sending them for Ben Chilwell and Chilwell was sending them for Raheem Sterling, and we actually had more attack down the left (38%) than down the right (35%) in this match for the first time in a long time. On this particular movement below, Mount is brought down from behind by Hernández and well after the ball was played, but James collects it in stride and plays a ball over the top to Aubameyang, who earns a corner – the resulting counter from this corner is discussed below.
And the third decision is the most frustrating of them all, as it was so clearly a misstep by Ismaël Bennacer, who put all of his weight on the ball, tripped himself, and Mateo Kovačić was clear on goal with a good chance while the game was still level. With passing options through to both Sterling and Aubameyang while under no immediate pressure, the play is called back. At this point, it should have been clear to every player on the pitch that this official was in some sort of mood, as he himself should have been sent off for denying us of a clear goal scoring opportunity.
By pulling the wingers deeper and central and creating what’s described as but much more dynamic than a traditional box midfield because of more situational positioning, the deep flanks were repeatedly open for either wingback. I mentioned above how many times lofted balls were sent down the left side in just to opening phases of the game. But, if the wingbacks were on the ball and the pressure shifted onto them, that space still opened up for those midfielders and attacking wingers to push through and exploit, once again putting us behind their defensive lines. Milan were trying to play a shifting back four, essentially rotating towards the strong side but with much greater gaps between the defenders – something Potter does much more effectively with his squad than Stefano Pioli. Their inability to shift and properly cover the runs on either flank was exploited, and it’s precisely what happened in Tomori’s forgettable decision to become the first Englishman sent off against an English side in the Champions League.
Mount’s run is directly into the half spaces that were open in the first game and open again in the second leg. He is brought down, denied a clear goalscoring opportunity, and it matters not that the shot was taken or that he tried to stay on his feet. If he wasn’t pulled back, he scores. That Tomori does it knowing the situation of the game is a rash and reckless decision that results in his dismissal.
The decision changed Milan’s formation to a 4-4-1, isolating Olivier Giroud up top and hoping to use his ability to hold up play to actually grow in both possession and goal threat, despite being down a man. Immediately after Tomori’s dismissal, they hit a 55% possession rate and their peak on the xG timeline. Unfortunately for their possession, and what has now happened a few times under Potter, when a team grows comfortable on the ball, our quicker and more progressive movement of the ball combined with our presence in the opposition box can almost seem like a counter-attacking side. The goal would be the easy cushion needed to take us to a 5-0 aggregate, even if there was a bit of luck in the buildup via an errant pass.
The substitutions in the 62nd minute changed us into a 3-5-2 for the end of the match, but it was done and dusted at that point. Conor Gallagher and Kai Havertz ended the game as our front two, the midfield shifted to a Jorginho regista role with Kovačić on his left and Loftus-Cheek on his right, but worryingly those changes might be due to injuries to Reece James and Mason Mount, some of our brightest attacking threats this season.
So with a comprehensive victory in what felt like a knock-out tie, we emerged the better squad, but that’s not to say that this game had no faults. Whether it was by design or by personnel, the threat on their goal was diminished with our increased possession but introduction of substitutes. Defensively, the pair of easy headers left open for Giroud in the first half, the movement of Rafael Leão to get around an injured James showed a clear issue of marking at the far post when opposition threaten our box, and the aforementioned corner that we earned in the Aubameyang long ball from the first half left us vulnerable via our positioning for a counter. None resulted in a goal and the clean sheet streak continues, but there will always be things to improve upon. After being bottom and going top of the group in Potter’s three Champions League games in charge while also winning twice in the league, there is little cause for concern, unlike for Fikayo Tomori…
Fikayo Tomori has faced Chelsea three times in his career. Scored an own goal in the first game, lost 3-0 in the second encounter and was sent off last night pic.twitter.com/XFfhtJSm94
Regardless of the official’s decisions, we won once more against the Italian champions to put ourselves top of the group. Potter-ball is in full season, and his psychological approach is reaping benefits and delving deeper into the football psyche…let’s just hope our physique can keep up.
On a personal note, as this marks one year of writing for WAGNH – 62 articles and countless thousands of words later – I wanted to take a moment to thank the community for all the positivity and support you all have directed my way through the comments and to my peers at WAGNH, who have been fantastic to work alongside and do a fantastic job of reporting on this most magisterial of clubs, as Ray would say.
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