This game was one between two teams fighting on the opposite sides of the table, Watford traying to stay one more season in the Premier League and Chelsea looking to return to the Champions League’s positions after Manchester United’s win. The Blues arrived with some doubts after last week’s defeat, albeit those doubts quickly vanished, dominating the whole game from start to end.
In this tactical analysis, we are going to explain how Frank Lampard’s tactics outperformed Nigel Pearson’s strategy to defend in a low-block. This analysis will depict how the Blues outplayed the Hornets by a positional play and using their attacking prowess on the flanks exploiting their quality superiority.
Lampard rotated the team from last week’s game, making four changes in the squad. Playing in them prefer 4-3-3 formation, Marcos Alonso stayed on the bench with Reece James taking his position shifting César Azpilicueta to the left, and Kurt Zouma paired Andreas Christensen to complete the defensive line. Mason Mount returned to the midfield line in place of the injured Mateo Kovačić, and Olivier Giroud returned to the starting lineup as the centre-forward.
In the Hornets side, Pearson deployed a 4-5-1 formation with three changes from their last defeat against Southampton. Adrian Mariappa replaced Adam Masina, with Kiko Femenia swopping sides and Christian Kabasale replacing Craig Cathcart. The former Chelsea player Nathaniel Chalobah returned to the starting lineup, moving Will Hughes to the left side with Roberto Pereyra making way.
The Hornets under Pearson always used a low-block; in this case, to counter Chelsea’s attacking prowess, they defended in a 4-5-1 formation. With Abdoulaye Doucouré dropping in the midfield line and the two wing-backs guarding the flanks, Troy Deeney’s job was to press the pivot in the Blues build-up. Through this strategy, in theory, the four back would be outnumbering the front three of the Blues, and the middle line marked their rival’s counterparts in the midfield, knowing the attacking positions that the full-backs deploy in Lampard’s tactics. In the next picture, we can see the defensive positioning of the Hornets keeping a compact vertical defense with three lines of pressure in a short distance, albeit horizontally gaps were left to be exploited by the Blues.
To further control Blue’s in-possession game, the Hornets used a space-oriented man-marking, while this kind of coverage is still under the threshold of man-marking, we can say that this one is a hybrid between man and zone coverage. They used this kind of coverage to keep the vertical compactness while marking the opponents that enter into their zone. Once the ball came into the midfielder’s coverage zone, they shifted into man-marking pressing the ball receiver, returning to the initial compact position after the ball went back. As we can see in the following picture, Ross Barkley dropped to pick-up the ball in front of the midfield line, and Chalobah pressed him tightly.
The Blue’s style under Lampard tends to exploit the flanks with the full-back and wings attacking at the same time. This tactic was well anticipated by Pearson, who overloaded the wide channels, outnumbering the Blues in the strong side with two midfielders supporting the full-back. Moreover, the defensive midfielder will drop inside the box to keep a four-men line defending the cross as depicted in the following shot.
How Chelsea beat the Low-block
Anticipating the defensive style used by the Hornets, Lampard deployed an attacking-minded positioning with a 2-3-4-1 formation in-possession in rivals half. N’Golo Kanté and the two full-backs positioned in front of the centre-backs building the game in the middle third. Mount and Barkley stay higher, joining the line of the wings; this four-man line would be positioned between the compact vertical block of the Hornet’s, with Giroud as the lone striker stretching the defensive line. In the next picture, we can see an attack of the Blues in the left flank with Willian, Mount and Barkley positioned in between the lines.
Watford low-block allowed Chelsea to control the ball close to the box; the Blues used rotations between the middle-three to get either Mount or Barkley in the build-up shifting their positioning with Kanté. Through this tactic, Chelsea used one of their attacking midfielders in the build-up combination play, increasing their penetration capacity due to their passing attributes. The time given to players of the caliber of Mount and the gaps left due to the lack of horizontal compactness of the Hornets allowed the Blues to break that low-block and score the first goal. In the next picture, we can see Chelsea opening goal, Mount rotated with the Frenchman and received the ball with time and space. He placed a trough ball to Barkley, who turned in between the lines to assist Giroud.
As aforementioned, the Hornets defensively overloaded the flanks in other to counter Chelsea’s wide play. The Blues read this correctly and left a wide player on the weak side to shift the ball and attack on the flank. Chelsea’s full-backs and wings excel in the one-v-one’s situations, so Lampard used this tactic to create a quality superiority in the weak flanks. In the next shot, we can see Barkley quickly shifting the ball to the right side, with James positioned next to the touchline with space to exploit.
In this way, the Blues used a positional superiority with the advanced midfielders and wings positioned in between the lines and creating a quality superiority on the weak side. The Hornet’s space-oriented man-coverage created gaps in their structure when pressing the ball carrier, with Giroud pinning the central defenders. The next picture depicts both Chelsea’s tactics combined to beat Hornet’s defensive lines. Gaps created when pressing the ball carrier with Mount collecting the ball in between the lines, at the same time Willian kept a wide positioning in the weak side, receiving the ball from Mount and trusting in his dribbling attributes skilled the full-back to create a chance for the Blues.
Chelsea controlled the game out of possession.
The Blues dominated the game when out of possession, denying space to Hornet’s players to combine and create a scoring chance. When defending in their half, Lampard deployed a defensive 4-1-4-1 formation with Kanté as a sweeper supporting the defense. In the next picture, we can see the Blues shape when defending, cutting off any passing option when Mariappa received the ball on the flank. In this way, Chelsea dominated the game conceding only 0.46 xG in the whole game.
After conceding the first goal, the Hornets tried to play out from the back, without efficacy. The Blues pressed high, forcing them to go long, ending the game with a 69% of possession. Chelsea high press involved the front three plus the two attacking midfielders in a man-marking and aggressive pressure, ending the first half with a low 9.8 PPDA. In the next picture, we can see, when the Hornets tried to play out from the left, Giroud pressed the centre-back, Willian positioned high not allowing a wide-pass, and Christian Pulisic tucked inside to mark the pivot who dropped deep. The attacking midfielders cut off the possible forward passes and press their counterparts who descend to support the Hornet’s build-up.
As mentioned before, Chelsea involved a lot of players in their attacks; this would mean being structured to counter-press in the final third with enough numbers to force a long ball from Hornet’s recovery. At the same time, Watford’s low-block left the team too deep, impossible to challenge that long ball. In the next picture, we can see after the ball was counter-press by Chelsea, and the Hornets launched a long ball; it was quickly recovered by the reset defense that Chelsea left at the back, regaining the possession with ease.
The Blues completely dominated the game, clearly depicted in the possession and xG stats. Pearson tactics to nullify Chelsea attacking prowess with a low defensive block were not competent enough. Lampard strategy created a positional superiority exploiting spaces between the lines and utilizing their wide players to outplayed the Hornets in the flanks.
This game has returned Chelsea to the fourth position, in what looks to be a fight until the last game of the season between four or five teams. The Hornet’s positioned fourth from the bottom with only one point from Aston Villa and Bournemouth, need to improve if they want to stay one more season in the Premier League.