UWCL: Juventus v Chelsea
Pernille Harder Chelsea's saving grace as the Blue's beat Juve 2-1 in second group stage match.
via Chelsea Women Twitter
14 October 2021
Before kick-off, Juventus had a stunning lightshow. Lights bounced off fans and seats in the Allianz stadium and it was a beautiful sight. A prequel to some 90+ minutes that would leave Chelsea and Emma Hayes with more questions than answers.
Let's get this out of the way early. The decision to back 3 with wingbacks instead of the flat back 4 they switched too later on, isn't one of the things to question.
Stay with me here.
I'm not saying the formation worked to the best of it's potential in the game. I'm saying, it's not Emma's decision to set up in a 3-4-3 that is hindering Chelsea. It's her decision to stick to certain intricacies hidden within the formation. Against Joseph Montemurro's Juventus those intricacies were exposed.
Chelsea named a pretty much standard and expected line up. 3-4-3 with what most would agree is their strongest possible XI.
Before we dive into criticising the bad bits, let's try and understand why the Blues' boss sticks to this formation with all the shaky performances.
● Chelsea don't really have the fullbacks to play a back 4 effectively. With Maren Mjelde still not fit, and Jonna Andersson experiencing a slow start, it simply won't be as effective. Jess Carter and Niamh Charles are both potential RBs but neither are natural defenders (more on Jess in a minute) and as the UWCL final showed that just won't work.
● Playing with wingbacks allows Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten get into the team at once without sacrificing one of the attackers. Both of whom are very crucial (rightly or wrongly but more on that later) to how Chelsea have played so far.
● It allows the front trio of Harder, Kerr and Kirby to be more free and fluid while offering solidity behind them, or at least it's intended too.
What really happened vs Juventus particularly in the first half? Why did last year's finalists look so uninspiring?
Chelsea started the game very energetic. Constantly pressing and closing down Juventus players in their own defensive third. (Chelsea have 3 players trying to win the ball back with a quick counterpress)
But as the game wore on, Chelsea's biggest issue became more glaringly apparent. The midfield. With the 3-4-3 formation Emma Hayes deployed Chelsea had 2 midfielders centrally against 3 in black and white. It was a numerical mismatch that really stifled the visitors. To make matters worse, Montemurro obviously asked his attackers to back of Chelsea's back 3 instead of pressing them. This led to a host of issues.
● First Juve's front 3 were now almost always blocking off all passing lanes into the midfield duo of Ji and Leupolz. That meant central progression was near impossible.
(Juve's attackers are almost man marking Ji and Leupolz. In this sequences Carter brings the ball out, realises no option is available then passed back to Bright who loses it and Juventus spring a quick counter)
(Again, the front 3 aren't really pressing so the midfield had literally 6 Juve players against 3 for Chelsea)
● Second, it forced Chelsea to almost always go wide in build-up and try to create from there. That meant crosses. 21 of them. Unsurprisingly only 3 connected.
● Thirdly, it caused Chelsea to have almost no chance to create from the centre. A problem Chelsea compounded by Ji and Leupolz being too flat and almost on the same horizontal line in the first half.
(Ji has the ball, Leupolz doesn't make herself an option and stands on the same line without any movement and Ji passes it backwards)
Chelsea's backline somehow contributed to this. Either by instruction or skillset, none of the centre backs, particularly the outside pair of Eriksson and Bright, carried the ball forward enough. It's a huge issue. The back 3 always stays as a 3. There's no threatening progression coming from them. Bright and Eriksson would pass to the wingbacks and hang back rather than offer an option or would ignore space to drive forward into and pick a safer pass. It meant the team was disjointed. Just what Montemurro wanted.
Gama for Juventus actually looked like exactly what Chelsea needed at centre back. She was constantly getting forward and carrying the ball once she saw an opening. At one point, she was calling for the ball to be played through to her when she was trying to beat the offside trap.
Because Juventus defended in a compact 4-3-3, it felt like they had a box of 6 around Chelsea's midfield at all times. They didn't seem particularly bothered by the possibility of Chelsea putting in crosses from wide areas. Rightly so. Gama dominated her box.
Speaking of crosses, they were a nightmare for the London club. Deep early crosses in particular. It's how the Juve equalizer arrives eventually. The early crosses took advantage of Jess Carter's lack of height and natural defensive instinct. Once Chelsea were out of shape a quickly released ball would do the trick. Here's some different occasions where crosses were played early by the Old Lady to varying degrees of success. One led to the goal, one to a significant penalty shout, another to a header off target.
It wasn't all bad from Hayes' women. Individually, Jess Carter and Pernille Harder were bright spots. Jess in particular was oddly pulse controlling. Twice she used her pace to stop Juve attackers from getting clear cut chances 1v1 with Berger. She displayed some very measured passing over long and short distances. Of all Chelsea's players she was probably the one who looked sharp in the most moments. Harder as well was solid even before her goal. She was the one who with her intelligence started to drop into the midfield to help Ji and Leupolz. She was popping up in very influential areas in the attacking third as well and performed her now weekly routine of sparing Chelsea's blushes.
As a team, the second half was much better done. Tiny tweaks made the 3-4-3 work better. Ji was pushing up higher and Eriksson was bringing ball out more often. The switch to a 4-3-3 showed that as a viable option at least for certain games. There was also the professional last 15 minutes. The players saw out the game and closed it out very well.
And so, on a night where Chelsea got 3 points in Turin, Emma Hayes would board her flight knowing she has decisions to make. Back 3, stick or twist? Risk the back 4 without the fitting fullbacks? Her team has had to struggle and earn their results of late. One of the world's best tactical minds has work to do. Knowing the Blues' boss, a solution is imminent.