This road Leeds to relegation
Ending our exasperating profligacy in front of net against Leeds was certainly a welcomed and wonderful feeling. While it was a relatively comprehensive victory, to nab three goals while limiting ourselves to an xG under 1.5 after such dreadful finishing lately, all while keeping a clean sheet and zero shots on target, allows us to appreciate it all the more.
This game was bound to be open based on the way Jesse Marsch has been setting his side up to play. They actually had the more deceptive team sheet, and their typical 4-2-3-1 lineup was the assumption from all outlets prior to kickoff. As they had done against Manchester City a few weeks back and with similar expectations for the gameplay, it turned into a 5-4-1, at least for 20 or so minutes.
With a mismatched lineup and marks both at the wingback position and in their defense, as our offensive three preoccupied virtually their entire back line, the game played clearly into our favour even before the sending off. There is some semblance of the Bielsa press and running still in their squad, but they had less synchronicity and coordination than under their former manager and it became quite easy to play through the gaps. If you intend to press high, you need to be compact and coordinated in your movements. Without that, the spaces become available, especially in the midfield, and you are carved open. That inevitably meant a high defensive line from our opposition, and it was Lukaku’s bread and butter.
That same high line would play a role in our first goal, under which circumstance Lukaku would actually drop deep to facilitate our forward movement. Their concentrated press on the ball left holes of open space on the far flanks and Reece James and Marcos Alonso were loving the space they were afforded. After picking the ball up from Alonso, Lukaku switches play through Mount to James and then attacks the space in front of him. James carries into the box, feigns a cross, and drops a dink to Mount, whose finish is put on a postage stamp.
With both teams playing to Lukaku’s strengths, his confidence was growing – his pirouette towards the end of the half was an indication of that resurgence. He had a beautifully taken, lobbed goal ruled (rightly) for offsides, but was thriving under the circumstances, with chances sprinkled all throughout the first half.
And if Lukaku was finding spaces galore while Leeds had eleven men on the pitch, he found more when dirty Leeds’ player Daniel James (former red devil) decided to retaliate for a legitimate non-call for his dive with a lunging tackle Mateo Kovačić, earning himself a seat in the dressing room and a second red in the first half for their second game running. Their offensive game died immediately after, and their xG timing chart below provides a proper laugh.
Additionally, their shift to a 5-3-1, with defensive duties now assigned to their attacking midfielders and our overwhelming midfield play, took their situation from bad to worse. While our possession stats were relatively even (Leeds 48% to Chelsea 52%) at the start and despite our dominance in the first 25 minutes, Chelsea more easily grew into the game and finished with about 70% overall.
Reece James was also exacting every bit of effect that he possibly could. Our pass matrix shows him as the most passed to and from player, but his forward distribution was tremendous. He passed progressively to Lukaku and Pulisic an admirable 5 times each, but to Mason Mount astonishingly over 20 times, an illustration of just how destructive our right sided attack was – it amounted to 48% of our attack on the day. And with no youth in the legs of our left side, there is no doubt that both that is by intent and to our benefit to save Alonso, our only viable left wingback, as best as we can for the weekend.
Reece James’ game by numbers vs Leeds (78m):
100% tackles won
95% pass accuracy
79 passes completed
10 ground duels won (most)
6 ball recoveries
5 chances created (most)
5 attempted take-ons
5 successful take-ons (most)
3 fouls drawn (most)
The second half began much as the first – controlled possession throughout the centre of the park with sustained dominance in the middle third, an early goal to relax the tension, and low xG opportunities gone begging. While the pass map below may initially seem like a bunch of dots, make note of how it quite literally mimics the heat map, meaning we had comfortable and controlled possession, but also that we took our time in deeper positions to build up the attack. When teams sit in a low block, we are doomed to suffer – even Lukaku cannot break that down. When a team plays as Leeds did (again, even prior to Daniel James’ dismissal), and, more importantly, as Liverpool will do, does Lukaku or Havertz serve the club better? There is now nigh equitable testament to either case, and Tuchel has a luxury of choices in the position (but not so much in the midfield).
After working so hard and doing so well in the opening phases of the game, the happiness effused when Lukaku was able to pick up a well taken goal of his own. The fact that he has the composure to finish when he decided to, regardless of ridiculous complaints it should have been put in on his first touch, again demonstrates the confidence and quality Lukaku is capable of producing. Let’s have it on the regular.
If Leeds are relegated, good riddance – our clubs have plenty of history as is, and to subjugate them to the Championship is the cherry on top. Any team that whistles for a player being subbed as their ankle was nearly broken and does the same for a supporter who collapses in the crowd ought to have their feet shoved right into their mouths.
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