Chelsea pull out Manchester City’s back four in the Champions League final

Thomas Tuchel’s side cleverly dragged Pep Guardiola’s wing-backs up the field, creating space for others to create goal scoring chances

Chelsea’s Champions League final win over Manchester City was a tight, narrow 1-0 victory, with the manner of Kai Havertz’s winning goal reflective of a key pattern in the match.

In the first half, Chelsea, in a 3-2-4-1 formation, were able to get their their wing-backs free on the ball in the build up.

This was primarily because Manchester City’s front three pressed against Chelsea’s back three. The two advanced midfielders behind them closed down Jorginho and Ngolo Kante.

Therefore, when the ball went to a Chelsea wing-back (Reece James or Ben Chilwell), it was primarily the responsibility of City’s full-backs (Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker) to move higher up the pitch to close them down.

This was achievable if Chelsea built up with short passes on the same side, because the shorter passes created less space for the City wing-backs to cover, and more time to apply pressure. In some cases, as can be seen below, the nearest central midfielder could also come across and cover, leaving the wing-back free to stay deeper and track any forward run from a Chelsea #10.

The issue came, though, when Chelsea were able to either move the ball to one wing-back and then quickly switch to the other, or, when one of the back three or goalkeeper Edouard Mendy played earlier, longer passes to the wing-back.

A good example of this is shown in the video below. In this moment, Walker moves up the field to close Chilwell (which he does easily enough, because the build up is shorter so far). The issue is when Chelsea switch the ball across to James.

There are two reasons for this: firstly, the player who would normally be closing James, Zinchenko, has to fold all the way back in next to his centre-backs to provide cover for any forward run in behind from a Chelsea attacker, meaning that the distance to then cover to close James when he gets the ball is quite significant. Secondly, the other players who could theoretically cover for Zinchenko are now focused on other Chelsea players (such as the far-side central midfielder, who is closing his direct midfield opponent; and the far-side winger, who is concerned with the opposite centre-back).

Thomas Tuchel’s attacking strategy, therefore, was clear. In the build up, move the ball into wide areas to draw City defenders forward as they close the Chelsea wing-backs. Then, try to switch quickly to find the opposite wing-back, and look for killer passes into the gaps created in City’s back four.

The clear example of this, of course, was for the goal. In this moment, shown in the video below, James does not receive the ball on Chelsea’s right hand side. However, Zinchenko does move forward to be close to James in case he does receive the ball from Azpilicueta.

When the pass goes backwards to keeper Mendy, he then quickly plays towards Chilwell, who is free. Walker is drawn out, Chilwell combines nicely with Mason Mount, and suddenly, the killer pass is on, right between City’s left centre-back and left-back Zinchenko (who has had to cover significant amounts of space).

Havertz scores, and Chelsea’s narrow lead, manufactured through a clear and repeated attacking pattern, proves enough to win the Champions League final.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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