The wolf on the hill is never as hungry as the wolves climbing the hill
Complacency has rooted itself in this squad – we have only the FA Cup for which to vie and, even as far back as our elimination in this year’s Champions League, the top four seemed all but assured. And so we have been comfortable to sit on the top (four) of our hill and ride out the end of the Premier League season. After our latest folly, atop that hill is not where we are guaranteed to finish, and those climbing are now uncomfortably close.
In our latest instance of indolence, both the players and manager bear culpability. While lately individual errors have undone us, we decided to collectively fall apart in a most spectacular fashion against Wolves, further damning our home form. That we had two goals called off by VAR, one quite skeptically, underlines that we were content, rather hopeful, to play out a 2-nil result despite never truly being in control of the game.
Wolves played a smart 3-5-2 with a duo of dangerous attackers in Raúl Jiménez and Pedro Neto, who had willing runners joining them through the midfield and on either wing. Wolves looked to pinch the ball and move it vertically with speed, exposing both our formational positioning and recovery pace.
Our emphasis was to concentrate pressure on the right side, with a heavy overload clearly favouring it in our attack, while also using Mateo Kovačić to exploit the gaps that our overload would create from their central three midfielders shifting in cover. As they would pick up Christian Pulisic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kovačić would be granted acres of space to venture into and shift the frame of attack. Once again, far too often our switch of play would come slowly and nothing amounted from it.
Our wingbacks were invisible in the first half, and they were either swapped or changed at half due to their failure to properly cover defensively. In the centre of the midfield, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovačić faded greatly as the game wore on. Because of the combination of these two things, the midfield had large ebbs and flows to the game, and possession percentages varied greatly based on that, as does the xG timing chart.
Our high press was effective early on in the game, and they had many turnovers in dangerous and deep positions. While those turnovers, our press, and indeed our dominant possession would pin them largely in their own half from the off, they created the better of the chances. In particular, we seemed vulnerable from set pieces and quick counters (or even long balls), which is not overly surprising considering the offensive nature of our wingbacks leaves all sorts of space for the back three to cover. The plateaus in our xG timeline and the continuing rise of theirs shows that they were playing with consistency and creating an ever-rising pressure on our goal while we had bursts of decent play and descents in play.
If we were looking for a reason to be optimistic about this game, the clear standout is Romelu Lukaku, who bagged a brace and had an all around fantastic outing. His movement was better than we have seen, his press was more coordinated and engaged, and he even had a hand in both ruled off goals, one of which ought to be highlighted, as it should have stood.
Lukaku opens up the channel that Werner eventually exploits through his movement. Coming off the shoulder of his defender and showing for the ball, Kovačić begins the passing movement and finds Lukaku, who had dragged Conor Coady out of position. Lukaku picks out Pulisic in the half space that he had been occupying all day long, and Pulisic’s pass is put on a platter for Werner. While finishing tidily at the near post, somehow Werner was adjudged to have fouled Romain Saïss and Werner’s unlucky and unfortunate punishments in front of goal continued.
What is overly concerning is how vulnerable we seemed on set pieces. Their corners or free kicks from just outside of our box were very threatening, but they are actually among the bottom three in the league in terms of shots created and xG per set play. Chelsea had been great at defending set pieces, too, but have not been in the last few games – let alone that we were also much better at converting them. The defense has been rattled a bit in terms of sorting out coverage, and Loftus-Cheek and Lukaku were both to blame for mistimed headers in clearance which gifted great chances to Wolves in the first half.
In the second half, Chelsea immediately jumped on the front foot. Marcos Alonso would be replaced with Saúl Ñíguez and Reece James would swap with César Azpilicueta and take up the right side of the back three. The change was made because the front two of Wolves were successfully breaking the link between our back to our attack due to the wide positioning of Azpilicueta and Rüdiger against the narrow positioning of their press and Loftus-Cheek occupying a singular no. 6 role.
Reece James not only played considerably tighter to Thiago Silva, but his initial positioning and willingness to come inside contributed to our first goal. Stepping in front of Pedro Neto, James carries into a central position, drawing pressure from their midfield and freeing up Pulisic. Pulisic’s pass through to Lukaku is intercepted, but Lukaku does well to win the ball back, draw the foul, and subsequently bury the penalty.
Now on the front foot, a nice press initially from Werner and Ñíguez but joined by Pulisic and Lukaku would force them to play right back into pressure and a poor touch was pounced upon by Pulisic. The weight of his assist to Lukaku is brilliant and Lukaku’s smart positioning and use of his body enables him to rip a one timer with his non-dominant foot into the bottom corner.
One might think we would cruise at this point, but one would also be foolish to do so. Wolves made a trio of changes in between the 70th and 79th minute and would score their goals via those subs, but it also exposed our system’s deficiencies.
Kovačić turning the ball over is not the only part of the problem, we were outpaced in midfield and our wingbacks were too far up the pitch. Ñíguez sees the ball taken off Kovačić’s foot and is slow to react but also never hit top stride, because he could have contributed to the defense prior to the shot – he actually jumps out of the way rather than fouling Francisco Trincão. And Kovačić fouling his teammate Rüdiger didn’t help, but take nothing away from the shot, which left Mendy with no chance.
After they got one, I think many of us felt that they were going to get a second. They pressed harder and got plenty of chances good chances – and their possession rose to 60% while their xG rose from .8 to 1.9. Their substitutions paid dividends, but Ñíguez failed to impress as our first sub and adding Malang Sarr for Azpilicueta and shifting to a back four was only a wise move on paper. It ought to have helped handle their dual strikers by adding an additional body with a permanent defensive requisite.
Our game management fell off, too. Adding Havertz was certainly an attempt to eat up some time, but due to both that substitution and the time added due to the injury to Hwang Hee-Chan, an initial 6 minutes lengthened beyond that. It should have still been easy to see out those, but we were taking unnecessary shots after the 90th minute and losing possession far too often. There are many teams better at killing the clock than we are.
Conceding the way we did and as late as we did is inexcusable. It was not a fast break, it was not a set piece, and many players simply turned off. That there were 7 Wolves players deep in our area with only 6 Chelsea players back in cover, many of whom were covering space rather than providing a proper mark. The fact that it literally ends with a 5v2 at our back post in the dying minutes of the game as a cross drifts into that area is something that should have and did cost us points…and a bit of our sanity. Snap out of the funk.
But hey, Lukaku!
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