A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s home tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Sunday lunchtime saw Chelsea host Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. With the race for top 4 places and qualification for next season’s Champions League getting tighter, this was a key match for The Blues to gain all 3 points.
Chelsea have undergone an extremely busy spell so far this year, with a Wembley final and progress in the Europa League, but they are now focusing on overtaking some of the teams higher than them in the league. After arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur lost on Saturday, Chelsea would move as high as 3rd if they won their games in hand.
Despite all this and being on a run of 3 victories, there was still talk in the media about Sarri’s job being imminently in the balance. Admittedly his team would need to make the most of their current form and ensure they win and maintain the pressure on their rivals vying for the top 4.
Sarri rotated his squad around and made 3 changes from the win over Fulham last weekend, with David Luiz, Mateo Kovacic and Pedro coming in for Andreas Christensen, Ross Barkley and Willian.
Nuno Espírito Santo made 5 changes to his starting line up. Rui Patricio, Matt Doherty, Jonny, Otto, Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho all returned in place of
John Ruddy, Ryan Bennett, Adama Traore, Morgan Gibbs-White and Ruben Vinagre.
With both managers opting for slightly more experienced and solid teams, it proved to be a very cagey match. The visitors were clearly happy to sit very deep and allow Chelsea plenty of possession. Their hopes lay in being able to counter attack against their hosts, but they showed the ambition of even doing this.
In turn, The Blues pressed high and similar to the match against Dynamo on Thursday, they would win the ball in their opponent’s half. They moved the ball around at a decent tempo, but they were constantly facing a wall of 9 outfield players defending for their lives and had few targets to aim for. Too much of Chelsea’s forward play was too central, when more width would spread the banks of defenders more. This lead to Jorginho needing to float the ball over the defence as the main route in attack. Unfortunately Higuain’s attempt was comfortably saved and Pedro miscued his volley attempt when he had more time.
As the first half ended, The Blues had only managed a few half chances and had not really troubled the Wolves goal. However the visitors had not even mustered a single attempt at goal. So much so that Kepa could have sat down and read a book.
While Higuain acts as a great central pivot for most of Chelsea’s play and he was a constant thorn in the Wolves defence’s side, The Blues struggled to get Hazard truly in to the match. Pedro was regularly moving into space and receiving the ball on the move, the Belgian always seemed to be stationary in possession and surrounded by 2 or 3 markers. Chelsea would need to create more spaces and utilise more angled passes.
But then on 55 minutes the sucker punch happened. A desperate clearance from the Wolves penalty area started the inevitable counter attack, which Raul Jimenez managed to bundle in the visitors first attempt at goal.
Immediately Sarri brought Ruben Loftus-Cheek on for Kovacic and The Blues mounted more pressure on the Wolves goal. Higuain, then Pedro and then Higuain again had chances for a quick equaliser but failed to convert.
Then, in another sign of Sarri being willing to make minute changes, he brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi earlier than he has in the past. But his team remained playing in a similar vein and Wolves were simply not being stretched enough in defence.
Sarri then replaced Jorginho with Willian as he changed formation. The 4-2-3-1 made a slight difference in that The Blues pressed slightly further up the pitch. However, there was still precious little movement in the penalty area from any Chelsea player.
Pedro had a long range shot tipped over the bar, Higuain couldn’t reach a ball that fizzed low across the goal mouth and Willian was unable to repeat his free kick magic from Thursday evening as Chelsea struggled to get an equaliser.
But then in injury time, The Blues reverted back in one of their simple tactics. Recently they have persisted with firing all corners in to the area with most of them frustratingly being cleared by the first defender. This time however they played it short. It seemed to confuse their opponents and the ball ended up with Hazard on the edge of the area. He dropped his shoulder, gained a yard and fired a shot in that curled just enough around the defenders and the keeper but also to nestle in the corner of the goal.
The Belgian talisman had struggled for most of the match to find any space or rhythm, but he still managed to fire in an Important goal. It was still 2 points dropped by Chelsea, but the relief of not suffering another embarrassing defeat cannot be underestimated.
The Blues can move on from this match with a record of 4 wins and a draw from their previous 6 matches and are still only 3 points from 4th spot with Brighton at home in hand. Their plight may be slightly worse for the loss of 2 points but they won’t come up against such an overly defensive set up as Wolves every week.
Santo’s side still have Premier League matches remaining against Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, and we can expect them to take points from some of those matches. After all they have won once, drawn 3 and lost only once so far away to the top 6 this season. Their defeat away to Manchester City was they only trip these failed to score in.
So The Blues had come up against a very tough opponent that was very hard nut to crack, but it also highlighted a big weakness in the side. A lack of use of the width to rain in constant crosses may not be just the fault of having wide players who regularly want to cut inwards with the ball. There was never enough bodies in the area to aim at and who was in there showed little ambition to be available for a cross to be fired in.
Maurizio Sarri made more of an effort to change things around than in almost all of his previous matches in charge, but the simple truth is that thanks to a lack of movement, Chelsea made it too easy for the massed ranks of the Wolves defence.
Surely the focus for the next few matches must be to work on creating more of a threat the the box. After all, Higuain and Pedro did this against Dynamo Kiev on Thursday, and with away matches in Kiev, Everton and Cardiff coming up, they will need to show more ambition in the box for these matches.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue