Points via a perfunctory performance
It wasn’t pretty, it required rotations and adjustments numerous times, and it still never became truly convincingly dominant football despite more possession – fortunately none of that matters. Three points were secured and a clean sheet was preserved, quite literally saved, by a reinvigorated Kepa Arrizabalaga. Unfortunately, when your best player is your keeper, there will be plenty of talking points about how and why things looked wrong for large swaths of the first half.
The decision to start Raheem Sterling as a right wingback seems acceptable in concept – like Reece James, he can carry the ball well, can pick a cross, and likes to begin his attacks from wide positions. His tendency to drift centrally from those wider positions early on in the buildup is not like James, who can get central, but tends to arrive in a timely manner from a wide run. Sterling’s runs were coming centrally in the buildup, it destroyed the potential width we would otherwise have had down that flank, and it cause confusion in the roles required from the other central players. Because of that experimentation, the left side and indeed both of our double pivot midfielders were finding more success in transitioning the ball forward in the first half.
Aston Villa went for a relatively traditional 4-3-3, but their back line and midfield were very compact out of possession. This was offering few channels and gaps between their lines, something that Mason Mount (and Kai Havertz, just not as much of late) are deft at finding and exploiting. That did a great job of minimising both of their effectiveness. The tight spaces between their lines led to two other things. First, with their front three so isolated, they would lose the ball when trying to play controlled out from the back. Also, their effective transitions from defense to attack essentially bypassed their midfield via deep passes towards the flanks. Long balls were a worryingly effective means of attack. Our inability to deal with it led to an astonishing 23 defensive clearances. FBRef’s stats beneath their pass map below also show how accurate their long passes were, with many completing 100% and their overall higher than ours at almost 62%.
What their compacted back line and midfield three also did was frustrate our attack, and we only looked fluid when the transitions came quickly and caught a player out of position. While well aware of the fact that Tyrone Mings’ howler of a mistake gifted the first goal to Mount, a quick transition through midfield and to the left side found Ben Chilwell in the space he needed to cause the defense to be forced into the decisions that ultimately resulted in Mount’s goal. And while he had an extremely high chance of scoring that goal and by far our highest in the game (Sterling has a 29% chance in the 72nd minute and Mount’s second goal only had a 4% chance), a look at Villa’s xG map is testament to Arrizabalaga’s impressive performance.
Sterling’s tendency to come centrally forced Mount to cover for him positionally, and those interchanges were not fluid and may have hindered our offensive productivity. Considering it happened a few times, it seems to have been via Potter’s instruction, but with Mount stepping out of the attack, it was easy for their defense to shift and track the run of Sterling (especially as they came centrally) while leaving Mount to track back to responsibly cover the wider position. One thing that did work with this squad under Thomas Tuchel was overloading a particular side in attack, and with Mount dropping out in cover, that was not an option.
Both the midfielders and wingbacks were being beaten too easily, and the flurry of shots that were taken in Villa’s ascendency from the 15th to the 35th minutes (not ironically, the stretch where they held 57% possession) were all from a quick transition through the middle of the park and individual challengers beating our wide players too easily. The first of which Sterling is rooted, flat-footed, and squared up with Ashley Young, who gets through him easily and is wrapped up by Sterling. The advantage is played and John McGinn is first to jump onto it. He chips a cross towards the back post and Leon Bailey, who wins the header but thankfully only nods it onto the crossbar. While Sterling and Chalobah are beaten too easily down their side, both Cucurella and Chilwell have the sole task of marking Bailey, and yet both lose him.
The next moment for concern resulted from the same flank in the 21st minute, as two quick, long, and progressive passes combined with our confusion in the marking scheme and our back line was carved open. After recycling possession from their right through Emiliano Martínez, Ashley Young’s positioning and Ollie Watkins’ run both are exactly how to dismantle a floating winger and non-defensive wingback. By pulling Mount centrally through persistent attacks down their right flank, the quick switch catches Raheem Sterling and Trevoh Chalobah in a miscommunication of marking duties. Once they figure it out, they’ve already been picked apart. Even more glaringly, how their transitional midfield players (John McGinn and Jacob Ramsey) get so far beyond Ruben Loftus-Cheek (not even pictured he is so far gone) and Mateo Kovačić is deeply concerning. Fortunately, Kepa saved the day, and his alertness to immediately scream to the sideline official that Danny Ings was offsides while being pummeled with ceaseless ballistas shows just how peak his level is at the moment.
The last time Potter let them break our lines defensively in the first half before making an adjustment may have been their best chance of the lot. Again, quick transitions from side to side through a vacant midfield made our unfamiliarity with the marking responsibilities in this setup were blatantly apparent. From Martínez to our final third takes just about no time and four incisive passes to achieve, and again our midfield was far too easy to bypass. The effort is nearly capitalised upon when Bailey cuts back to beat Chilwell and crosses into our box. Ings actually splits the marking of both Thiago Silva and Trevoh Chalobah and should score. Fortunately, Kepa saves the day again with a brilliant two handed-save.
In the 37th minute, during the VAR review after a rather reckless challenge from Chilwell, Potter addressed the formation issues by slotting Ruben Loftus-Cheek into the wingback position, pushing Sterling forward, and dropping Mount into a more of a holding role to close out the half. This is never ideal, moving Mount farther from the goal and into a role that he doesn’t adhere to well. His bread and butter is breaking down defensive lines, not reinforcing them. Further changes came after the half.
Kalidou Koulibaly and Cesar Azpilicueta came on after the break for Marc Cucurella and Kai Havertz, both of whom weren’t having their best outings. This allowed Sterling (and Mount) to push up and focus on an attacking position with Azpilicueta as the right wingback. The possession did look more comfortable initially, but we cannot be blind to the opposition turning out chance after chance still. The play might have seemed better due to Kepa being challenged less, but both the attacking threat and xG timing charts tell a different story.
The next change was Conor Gallagher for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose name I haven’t yet typed in this article because he finished with 14 touches and had no real impact in the game. He isn’t the striker to drop in deep and connect the lines, and so his game was detrimentally affected by their compact defense and midfield. Gallagher did help to blend the gap between midfield and attacker, and the later change of Jorginho for Kovačić slowed the game into a more tranquil conclusion (likely also to give Kovačić’s legs a break.)
We are now second in the league in accumulated points (9) away from home, 6 of which have come in Potter’s perfect Premier League reign, and his four consecutive wins with clean sheets are the most since 2016. Nobody can say that we deserved to win this game with a straight face, but we got the job done largely through the restoration and faith in Kepa as a starter, and Potter is known to be as emotionally astute as he is tactically pragmatic. Perhaps that explains his record best.
Graham Potter remains undefeated as Chelsea manager:
Clean sheets: 4
It really is a glow up.
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