Chelsea have had a torrid couple of weeks, losing to Manchester City, West Ham at home, Everton and drawing to Valencia in the last five matches. It looks like the sheer number of matches finally has taken a toll on the young inexperienced side. Lille, on the other hand, are flying high in Ligue 1. The compact defence of the Les Dogues has helped them to secure the third spot after 17 games in Ligue 1.
Although the UEFA Champions League was over for Lille, Chelsea had to win the fixture in order to guarantee them a Round of 16 spot as they were not to know the result of the other fixture of their group.
Frank Lampard reverted back to the 4-3-3 formation in order to seal the leaky defence. César Azpilicueta was stationed back to his original right-back position and Emerson Palmieri was the left-back for the night. Lampard welcomed Antonio Rüdiger with open arms as the Blues badly needed a backline shakeup. He partnered Kurt Zouma at the heart of the defence.
Jorginho was back in the starting lineup, with him, Mateo Kovačić and N’Golo Kanté manning the midfield. The usual Willian, Tammy Abraham, and Christian Pulisic lead the attack.
It was a dead rubber for Lille. Christophe Galtier preferred to rest a few of his main players and started the game with a mixture of first-team and second-string players. Galtier started with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. A new looking back four consisted of Zeki Çelik, Tiago Djaló, Gabriel and Jérémy Pied. Xeka and Boubakary Soumaré were stationed at the heart of the midfield. The front four had no regular starters. Thiago Maia started in left-wing, Yusuf Yazici was just behind the striker, Loïc Rémy, for the night. Luiz Araújo completed the lineup in the right-wing position.
Lille’s style of play
Lille have been pretty good defensively throughout the season. They conceded only 15 goals in Ligue 1 from 17 matches, third lowest in term of conceding goals. Lille is known to play an organised deep block of 4-4-2 against stronger opposition when out of possession.
Lille sat deep with three blocks of four, four and two and adopted the ‘pendulum press’ approach to press their opponent in the hope of preventing forward passes to the ball carrier and thus forcing Chelsea to play out wide.
Pendulum pressing means the forwards won’t go for aggressive pressing rather they would be blocking the passing channel to the opponent’s ball carrier. One player would be behind the ball carrier to mark him closely and another would be moving towards the opponent’s centre-back who has the ball in his feet. The player moving away from the ball carrier should maintain a position and body orientation where he blocks the passing channel to the carrier.
Kepa Arrizabalaga passed the ball to Zouma. As soon as the ball was passed to him. Yazici moved towards Zouma and Rémy kept tab on the ball-carrier Jorginho. Lille kept the first line of defence and the second line of defence very compact blocking any pass through the middle and thus forcing Zouma to play out wide to Emerson.
While the forwards worked on blocking the passing lane through the middle and covering the ball-carrier, the wingers worked on aggressively pressing the full-backs once the ball was played out to them.
This screenshot gives an idea of what Lille tried to achieve. Once the ball was played to Emerson, he was quickly pressed by Araújo and Xeka kept tab on Kovačić. Emerson had no forward passing option and thus had to play a safe pass back to Zouma. It’s the reason Chelsea played 231 lateral passes with Zouma playing 82 passes in the match while his average for the season is approximately 64.
To entirely comprehend what Galtier tried to achieve, here is a sequence of play.
Kepa passed the ball to Zouma. As soon as the ball was passed to the French centre-back, Yazici moved towards him as well as kept a body orientation to cover Zouma’s passing lane to Jorginho. Rémy breathed down Jorginho’s neck in case Yazici was unsuccessful in blocking Zouma’s passing lane and thus perfecting in ‘pendulum pressing’. Zouma had no choice but to pass the ball to Emerson.
Emerson passed the ball to Kovačić. Lille kept the midfield compact and Araújo pressed the Croatian aggressively, thus the Croatian had no option but to pass the ball to Jorginho. Jorginho was heavily covered by the Lille forwards and Xeka. The Italian played a first time ball back to Zouma.
Zouma, as he had no other option, passed the ball to his partner Rüdiger. The German seeing Azpilicueta not marked, quickly passed the ball to him.
Once the ball was passed to the Azpilicueta, Lille left-winger Maia quickly pressed the Spanish right-back. Rémy covered the passing lane to Rüdiger. Azpilicueta had no other option but to pass the ball to Jorginho, with Yazici lurking behind his back.
Jorginho tried to quickly move the ball to Willian’s path. Willian too was well covered by the Lille midfielder, Soumaré and the left-back Pied and thus resulting in a Chelsea turnover.
What made this organisational block tick is that the Lille’s three lines of defences were close to each other and thus hardly leaving the Chelsea players to occupy the space freely.
When the ball would be played out to Chelsea full-backs, Lille wingers would aggressively press them and the Chelsea wingers would be caged in among three Lille players, thus cutting the forward passing lanes to the wingers.
Emerson was with the ball in the opposition middle third. Araújo pressed him aggressively. Emerson had two short options in Pulisic and Kovačić. Pulisic was caged in a triangle by the three Lille players. Emerson had no option but pass the ball back to the Croatian midfielder.
Chelsea’s approach in breaking the compact Lille midfield
Chelsea usually loves to attack by occupying the half-space and playing one-two in the final third or by delivering crosses from the flanks. Lille’s compact defensive blocks weren’t giving the Blues any opportunity to move the ball forward through short passes. Chelsea had very few short forward passing lanes and thus was forced to play long balls from the backline.
This screenshot depicts Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation as well as Lille’s compact 4-4-2. It was previously mentioned that Lille kept minimum space between the defensive lines and thus tried to avoid Chelsea players’ from occupying the space between the lines. When Kanté positioned himself in between the lines, Gabriel moved a bit up and remained close to the French midfielder. Rüdiger had no forward short passing lane and thus opted for a long ball to Abraham.
Zouma played six, Rüdiger eight and Jorginho 11 long balls. Whenever Jorginho would break away from the shackles of the two forwards, which was very rare, he would play occasional long balls.
Usually, Jorginho drops deep and forms a three-man backline to help in Chelsea build-up but against Lille he opted to stay in his original position. There were very few occasions where he dropped deep to form a three-man backline. But the problem to it was that whenever Jorginho dropped deep, Chelsea’s midfield would be non-existent.
This is a clear example of the non-existent midfield when Jorginho dropped deep to form a three-man backline. When Jorginho received the pass he had no options but to play lateral passes to the centre-backs or go long.
In Lille’s style of play, it was mentioned, Jorginho was pendulum pressed and whenever Chelsea would play out to the full-backs, Lille wingers would quickly press the full-backs.
Kovačić was often seen at the left helping out Emerson and opening a passing lane, however, it was often to the side of the left-back or just in front of him, where he would be caged by the Lille players.
Chelsea brought a little variation to the same approach and scored their first goal.
Kovačić occupied the left-back position and Emerson was pushed up from his original position. Pushing Emerson up seemed to do the trick for Chelsea.
When Kovačić occupied the left-back position, Araújo moved towards him and pressed the Croatian midfielder aggressively and the Lille right-back moved up to mark Emerson. Generally, Araújo would press the Chelsea left-back and Pulisic would be marked by the Lille right-back.
Kovačić played a first time ball to Kanté, who was in a more attacking position and he chested it down to Pulisic’s path. Emerson and Kovačić’s position helped Pulisic to be free from the Lille cage and he drove in and passed the ball to Willian.
Pulisic’s dribbling inwards attracted the Lille left-back towards him leaving Willian completely free in the wings. Pulisic passed the ball to Willian. Willian cut-back the ball towards Abraham for him to give Chelsea the lead.
Lille came with an approach to sit back with three defensive blocks and hit Chelsea with counter-attack. It is quite evident from the fact that the Les Dogues had a mere 16 positional attacks compared to Chelsea’s 54 positional attacks. Lille’s approach meant Chelsea had zero counter-attacks compared to Lille’s four counter-attacks.
Chelsea’s press needs no introduction. Whenever an analysis is done on Chelsea, the Blues’s aggressive press is often pointed out. In this match too Chelsea’s press was bang on and they allowed only a mere 6.27 passes per defensive actions (PPDA) and counter-pressed the opponent whenever they lost the ball. It resulted in a massive 44 recoveries in the middle third and 22 recoveries in the final third compared to 18 recoveries in the defensive third, which is a very rare scenario. Generally, teams recover the most number of balls in the defensive third.
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