False 8: A Tactical Approach to Chelsea’s Counter-pressing

Antonio Conte’s struggle to maintain the balance between Chelsea midfield solidity and attacking fluidity is going and the team is improving in distribution and defensive compactness. However, some major issues still needs to be addressed. One of them is Chelsea’s counter-pressing. In most of the fixtures they lost, they had to struggle under heavy pressing by opposition to hold the ball beyond half line.

In the recent fixtures, Blues did show good response to opposition’s pressing using one-touch layoffs, long passing, and compressing at one side to make space at the other, which allowed them to break the pressure. But this was mostly occurred in positional pressing i.e. when the opposition was pressing only on-the-ball and adjacent players but not in the remaining areas.

Conversely, when Chelsea faced coordinated pressing – i.e. compact pressing in all areas of the pitch – they found it almost impossible to make their way to opposition’s half. Not to mention their struggle to enter the attacking third in the fixtures against Manchester City, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, and Roma. In short, Chelsea has time and again proved to be weak when pressed intensely all over the pitch.

One tactical solution to this is to deploy a consistent False 8 role in Blues squad. A False 8 is the more attack-minded player placed in the midfield to solidify it, like the real 8. But, unlike the real 8, False 8 tends to bump forward to join attack instead of creating opportunities for his teammates from the midfield. False 8 can break opponents’ press stretching their midfield and front to make space for its teammates.

As Chelsea are using 5-men midfield recently, it can restrict space for the defenders to bust forward during fast counterattacking opportunities. In that case, the role of False 8 comes into play who would be just be an extra central midfielder to contribute to midfield solidity in defensive phase only while creating spaces and serving as an attacker at other times.

Chelsea have already deployed this role using Fabregas or William in midfield but it needs to be consistent. In their clash against United, Fabregas was free to roam and was less responsible for defence which allowed him to create so many chances. The Spaniard is thus a good candidate for False 8 considering his ability to create dangerous attacking moves.

Fabregas does play in midfield usually but the tactical advantage of using False 8 – to stretch compact pressing – is not realised yet. With Hazard doing well as False 10 and Morata as both real and False nine, Fabregas as a consistent False 8 will improve the balance of the team especially in build-up phase under a tight press.

Also, since Chelsea usually find it difficult to hold the ball in the attacking third under oppositions’ intensive pressing, the coordinated counter-pressing by all the false roles in midfield and front would allow them to penetrate into the final third more frequently and put pressure on the opposition. Though this would require Morata to drop back more often.