Tactical Evaluation: How Chelsea’s misfitting tweaks allowed Leicester Metropolis to take the FA Cup
Just over two weeks before that day in 2016, Leicester City celebrated a miraculous Premier League title after Chelsea put Tottenham Hotspur’s title win at Stamford Bridge on hold. Five years later, these two fortuitous allies had become adversaries in the FA Cup final.
Chelsea’s season had started well under Frank Lampard but a terrible form in which they fell out of European places from the top of the table spelled the end of the English manager’s tenure. He was succeeded by German tactician Thomas Tuchel, who almost instantly shot a hugely talented squad into the top four and back in two cup finals, one of which was the UEFA Champions League. A triumph in the FA Cup final would mean that the former Paris Saint-Germain manager confirmed his already successful appointment in the form of cutlery almost immediately.
Leicester City flew in the league again and this time wanted to correct last season’s mistakes by securing a top four result. In their history they had garnered pretty much every major award English football had to offer, but they had escaped the FA Cup three times right after death since their first final appearance in 1949. This was by far their best chance to change that when they returned to Wembley for the first time since 1969 for the grand finale.
After a hard-fought encounter, the foxes emerged victorious thanks to a screamer from Youri Tielemans. Tuchel’s team pick was pretty unsurprising, minus the absence of Kai Havertz and the predicted inclusion of Kepa Arrizabalaga, but the positions he occupied on some of his players attracted more intrigue. This is exactly what we will focus on in this analysis.
Changes to the law of defense
With Reece James and César Azpilicueta both at the start, most expected them to be used in the right full-back and right center-back, respectively, but the opposite was true in the game.
This was believed to have been done to contain Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, but it had some side effects when Chelsea were in possession of the ball.
James’ day wasn’t bad – he made more passes (89) and got more touches (106) than any other player on the field. Thanks in part to his heavy involvement in the build-up, 44% of Chelsea’s attacks came from the right flank.
The problem, however, was pushing Azpilicueta onto the right full-back. Of course, this wasn’t the first time he had operated there, but on most previous occasions when he had done so under Tuchel, his main role was of a defensive nature as Chelsea faced serious opposition (example: Real Madrid at UEFA Champions) League semi-finals). Therefore, in these games, the Spaniard’s lack of offensive productivity was not so much of a problem as his team was neither exposed to strong defense nor completely dominated possession.
Leicester, on the other hand, was more than happy to let Chelsea give the ball as they only kept 36.1% of it. This meant Chelsea had to try to dismantle their organized defense structure and for that a less offensive full-back proved detrimental.
The Chelsea captain managed just 28 hits in the opposing half, including just a key pass (which was miles from the actual danger area) and a single shot.
Even on the rare occasions when Azpilicueta held good positions, his end product failed his teammates:
Of course, from a man who is mostly a central defender, you can’t always expect precise crosses, which is why Tuchel sent Callum Hudson-Odoi on in the 76th minute, but by then it was too late.
The German coach was obviously asked about this decision after the game and he said:
“We changed positions because we knew about Jamie Vardy’s position. We wanted Reece’s power and acceleration to remove the threat. He did fantastic today. I am very happy.
“If Azpi had scored the goal, it would have been a great decision. It was a tactical decision and I’m very happy with the way we generally defended today. “
While he rightly claims that Chelsea defended well, the same couldn’t have been said about their attacks, which is why using a more offensive full-back, or at least sending Hudson-Odoi earlier, might have been more effective.
Big attackers swapped
A similar swap in natural positions was observed further up the field, when Mason Mount operated on the right side and Hakim Ziyech tried to work his magic on the left side of the attack.
Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out as the two only managed four shots (three of which were from outside the box) and two key passes, as many of their combined 104 touches proved to be pretty useless from an offensive point of view.
If they had operated in their natural positions, things might have worked better for Chelsea:
In that case, for example, Ziyech’s left foot could have released a curler in the top corner, but Mount could only pull a slightly distracted effort onto his weaker foot.
After Christian Pulisic replaced Ziyech in the 68th minute and Kai Havertz came on for Jorginho in the 75th minute to send Mount into central midfield, Tuchel’s experiment to swap his inside forward obviously didn’t work.
Leicester City’s heroic defense
Despite Chelsea’s offensive imbalance, they found themselves in promising positions, which is why Leicester City defenders – Wesley Fofana and Çağlar Söyüncü in particular – were stepped into action to save the day quite often, and they delivered every time.
Together, the two young central defenders made 23 defensive actions (attempted duels, interception and blocking) in a simply outstanding representation.
Chelsea were undoubtedly the better team overall, but they didn’t pose a real goal threat due to their slightly unbalanced attack. Leicester’s solid defense was problematic in that regard too, but even then things might have ended differently another day, if Chilwell had started his run a split second later, but it shouldn’t be.
The foxes’ target, as Tuchel said, came out of nowhere, which also describes their threat of attack fairly precisely. Hence, the ultimate difference turned out to be that Leicester had a moment of pure magic in it that Chelsea lacked.
This isn’t the first time Chelsea have looked pretty blunt in the final period despite dominating possession under Tuchel. In fact, their last Premier League game against Arsenal was a good example of this. Of course, Manchester City may not be so happy to sit back in the Champions League final, but the German tactician will certainly have to work on that, maybe even for his team’s last two league games in which they have to defend their top-four place, with Leicester to cross paths again.
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.