Sarri’s Chelsea show possession means little without penetration in Leicester defeat - (2021)
In the first 55 minutes at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea enjoyed 75% possession and completed almost four times as many passes as Leicester City.
Claude Puel’s side were penned in their own penalty area, Jamie Vardy starved of possession in his own postcode as Leicester midfielders dropped deeper. Chelsea supporters waited for the opening goal like an expectant child on Christmas morning. And then, after two quick passes to find Vardy, Leicester took the lead. Maurizio Sarri has suffered his first home defeat as Chelsea manager.
Anyone looking at the raw statistics would be convinced that Leicester had completed the ultimate smash-and-grab win. These are days when defeated managers shrug their shoulders and bemoan their misfortune. Roll the dice 20 times, and eventually you’ll get double one – it's one of those things.
And of course those managers have a point. Eden Hazard hit the crossbar in the first half, Kasper Schmeichel made a tremendous save from the same player after the break and countless other times better composure or accuracy would have given Chelsea the advantage.
Having established that lead, Leicester would have been forced to come out and play and left gaps in behind. Even at 1-0, Marcos Alonso somehow contrived to miss a late one-on-one. This is the typical ‘big teams vs smaller team’ rule of thumb. To overcome the talent gap, you need a little luck.
Dominant yet toothless
But so too were Chelsea architects of their own downfall. It was Arsene Wenger who coined the term “sterile domination” when describing Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, referring to Arsenal happily ceding possession and territory but rarely feeling that their goal was under threat.
Wenger used the term with deliberate snide following a 3-1 defeat he felt was caused by Robin van Persie’s controversial sending-off, but he had a point. Barcelona were the masters of the art, but they had the best attacker in world football to complement it. Possession is nothing without penetration.
One of the most obvious changes at Chelsea under Sarri is the volume of passes. Last season, Chelsea averaged 471 successful passes per league game, ranking fifth in the division by that measure. This season, they have averaged 608 per game, ranking only behind Manchester City.
There’s nothing wrong with that by design. Pep Guardiola has made Manchester City one of the best teams in Premier League history with that strategy. But there have been times this season when Chelsea have been guilty of Wenger’s sterile domination. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – repeat ad infinitum.
Sarri's striker uncertainty
The problem with that appears to be twofold. Firstly, Chelsea lack a centre forward that Sarri is convinced by. The Italian is not sold on the merits of Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, instead picking Hazard as a false nine striker.
Hazard is too good to let that affect his omnisentience. Averaging more than a touch of the ball per minute in the first half is evidence enough of that. Hazard drops deep and wide because he has to. He is Chelsea’s one-man band, cymbals clashing and accordion squeezing out a tune.
But Hazard is clearly less comfortable as a centre forward than as an attacking midfielder with licence to stay in the final third. In October he called Giroud the best target man in the world, and we can presume from that that he likes to dance around such a consistent presence.
Asking even a superstar to do this much inevitably leads to him being spread thinly. Chelsea dominated Leicester in terms of possession or territory, but they were too easily marshalled by a defence led by the imperious Harry Maguire.
And then there’s the midfield. Sarri remains committed to a system that has N’Golo Kante as the box-to-box midfielder with Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic as the twin passers, but the combination lacks creative spark. Kante is a wonder of high intensity, but he is not a creator.
The knock-on impact is that Pedro and Willian have to drop deep with Hazard, and Chelsea become easier to defend because centre-backs can play facing away from their own goal rather than chasing back towards it and holding midfielders can muck in and help them out.
Each of Chelsea’s three substitutes – Giroud, Cesc Fabregas and Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked to address the problems in attack and midfield, but with no joy. By then Puel’s team had the bit between their teeth and delighted in playing on the counter. Puel might have been in a spot of trouble had this festive period gone badly. But this was an away masterclass.
Hazard deserves no blame for this. There can be few players in Europe who have a greater positive impact on their club’s performance In the Premier League this season, Hazard leads his Chelsea teammates for goals, assists, chances created, shots and dribbles completed.
Nor too should we expect Sarri to make sweeping changes. He is a footballing philosopher who came to spread the good word of his 4-3-3, and knows that it will take time. Pep Guardiola did the same in Manchester.
But Sarri must take care that philosophy does not become unwavering dogma. After defeats against Tottenham, Wolves and now Leicester, the buoyant mood of late summer has been replaced by a dose of winter reality. There are flaws to solve in this Chelsea team, and opposition managers are too clever to not exploit them.
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