Chelsea ultimately made their way to the FA Cup Semi-finals following their failure to qualify for the next stage of the Champions League. Thanks to Kante’s link-up play which overcame the struggles Chelsea might have to face – which they already had encountered in the last Blues-Foxes clash. Conte’s men exploited the weakness in their opponents’ defensive approach which they were unable to do in the last home draw against the Foxes. Even though Chelsea were still lacking any threat from the wide and Hazard was still placed as the left inside forward than being at the centre, as it happened in the last clash, Chelsea this time found the way to successfully convert their attacking runs.
Leicester’s defensive shape
With their 4-4-2 setup, the home team executed a high press right from the start. Since Chelsea played with a 3-4-2-1 as usual, Leicester City were able to press Chelsea one-on-one and in fact, had one man extra in their backline when marking Chelsea’s frontline. During their defensive phases, they shifted to 6-3-1 to make a horizontally compact defence which made Chelsea struggle with their attacking chances.
Chelsea’s structured press at the back
As Leicester mostly play long, Chelsea shaped up their pressing structure to win second balls from the opponents, as well as from their own build up. Their backline did the job well in outnumbering and isolating Leicester’s front players. This structure allowed the away team to win second or third balls. This also kept the home team from delivering any coordinated offensive chances, except on a few occasions.
It was their same structured press which allowed Chelsea to isolate Mahrez on his counter, win the ball back, and initiate a goal-leading re-counter through Willian. While the opponent forwards put Chelsea’s backline under pressure due to their high press, Chelsea defenders also did a good job in checking on Mahrez and Vardy. As Morata was deployed more as the real nine, he comfortably converted Willian’s counter-cum-assist ending his goal drought.
Leicester overlooked open width during defensive phases
Even with the high press and compact defence lines, the Foxes were likely to come in with a risky defensive shape with respect to the field by often leaving spaces at the wings when not in possession. During defensive transitions when they were to shift to 6-3-1, Leicester left their wings open since their mid three were meant to narrow down the midfield. In multiple instances, Chelsea made use of these spaces. Yet the compact defence at the back didn’t allow the Blues to pose any significant attacking threat.
Secondly, ensuring horizontal compactness caused the Foxes to cover Chelsea’s active areas even if it would take them to leave spaces at the other (inactive) areas. Chelsea exploited this weakness in the Leicester defensive shape and scored their winning goal in extra time. Given that Chelsea have been unable to execute threatening attacks even after exploiting the wings due to Leicester’s compact defence, they could only score via counters and during transitions before the opponents organised their defence.
Since Chelsea got isolated at the width even when it was open, they still could make their way by shifting from wide to narrow in order to create and utilise space in the deeper region. Chelsea had already started holding their play at the left flank to pull defenders there and make space in the deeper region and at either end.
In the first half of the extra time, Hazard went deep with the ball. Before he got checkmated by the group of defenders, Kante dropped up at the left to receive the ball from him and dribbled to pull defenders towards him. This opened space in the deeper region to the right which allowed Pedro to follow up Kante’s high pass and head it beyond Schmeichel. Also, since Moses remained at the right flank pulling out Albrighton, the space for Pedro was created at relatively deeper regions in front of the goal than it would have been created otherwise – if Albrighton had been there to add in the horizontal coverage.
N’Golo Kante’s link up play did the job
For Chelsea’s winning goal, it was Kante’s link-up play which kept the game forward and then his hold up play which pulled defenders and made space for Pedro. The Frenchman utilised that space at the right time to successfully end his attacking run.
If the contribution for Chelsea’s attack-oriented game yesterday is to be given, it should be to N’Golo Kante’s link up play. The midfielder went all the way to not only initiate and facilitate mid-play transitions but also made sure to nullify as many opponent’s threats as possible. He always recovered his position during the transitions to stop any possible counter. He maintained the engine by channelling the ball back into attack. His midfield partner Bakayoko, on the other hand, kept making defensive mistakes which even put Chelsea at risk of conceding. This doubled Kante’s defensive duties.
Chelsea are getting better in counters by making their way out of compact defences. Their press structure to initiate counters and Kante’s link-up play on the counters gave them the edge over the Foxes defensively and offensively. Though, they still carry the defensive weaknesses in front of the goal at the individual front. The poor clearances of Vardy’s and Iborra’s shots by Christensen and Azpilicueta says it all. Following this, it was Caballero’s poor save from Iborra’s second attempt, which deflected the ball off to Vardy who finished the equaliser straightaway.