Thomas Tuchel’s previous attempt at Champions League glory was empowered by Paris Saint-Germain’s pressing schemes against RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich. At Chelsea, and despite the lack of a pre-season, Tuchel significantly improved the team’s ability to press and counter-press.
Not only that, the German coach has also improved Chelsea in the four phases of play, taking them from 10th spot in the league to 4th and a place in the FA Cup and Champions League finals.
Yet, this can all crumble. Liverpool’s rise since the return of Fabinho and the fact that Chelsea have to host Leicester City at the Bridge, means that one win in their remaining two league games might not be enough.
The recent dropped points against Arsenal and Brighton might prove to be the thorn in Chelsea’s league run since Tuchel took over — only Manchester City have accumulated more points in that period. The nature of the games against Arsenal and Brighton might have wider repercussions though. An effect on the FA Cup and Champions League finals.
Multiple teams have found solutions to disrupt Chelsea’s build up by pressing their double pivot while adding tweaks of their own. Manchester United tried using their wide player that was on the other side of the ball to help in pressing Chelsea’s double pivot, Everton used Allan to pick up any Chelsea forward dropping to support the build up while Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes pressed Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, then Brighton added to Everton’s approach by sticking their wide center backs to Chelsea’s wide players who also wanted to drop and help.
This eventually leads us to Manchester City and Arsenal who used a hybrid approach. A free-man in midfield to pick up the Chelsea player dropping centrally to support, man-marking Chelsea’s wide forwards using the wide center backs and rotational players to press Chelsea’s double pivot.
When the ball was on Chelsea’s left side, it was Emile Smith Rowe and Mohamed El Neny pressing Chelsea’s double pivot with Martin Odegaard moving out towards Antonio Rudiger.
When it was on the other side, Odegaard moved inside to help El Neny press Chelsea’s double pivot as Smith Rowe’s task was different, and that would be pressing Cesar Azpilicueta. In both scenarios Thomas Partey was patrolling the zone behind the 2 v 2 in case any of Chelsea’s front three wanted to drop centrally. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s wide center back man-marked the wide Chelsea player dropping to support near the touchline. In this example you can spot Gabriel glued to Christian Pulisic.
In the first half this pressing scheme limited Chelsea’s build up and a few examples showcase that perfectly. Here, as Bukayo Saka moves up to face Ben Chilwell, El Neny is marking Jorginho and Rob Holding is moving all the way up into Chelsea’s half to man-mark Mason Mount and eliminate him as a passing option.
Chilwell then decides to play it down the line for Kai Havertz, but Pablo Mari is sticking to him. It’s important to note here the positioning of Partey and Smith Rowe, the first is protecting the zone in case any Chelsea player pop up and the latter has been marking the 2nd half of Chelsea’s double pivot in Billy Gilmour since Chelsea’s build up moved to their left side. Mari and Saka doubled up here against Havertz and Arsenal regained possession.
Another example illustrates Smith Rowe’s role when Chelsea were building up on the left side. Here, Jorginho dropping deeper than Gilmour attracts El Neny and theoretically creates a passing lane into Gilmour, but the presence of Smith Rowe inside the field to help in pressing the double pivot denies that.
Chilwell chose the safe option in Jorginho, but El Neny pounced forcing Jorginho into an error. Another progressive option for Chilwell could have been Mount, but Holding was again tracking his movement.
Furthermore, the pressing scheme forced Chelsea multiple times to go long, making it easier for Arsenal’s aerially powerful back three to deal with Chelsea’s highly technical front three.
Eventually, the pressing paid off. In the build up to the goal, Kurt Zouma passing options were curtailed. Saka was ready to press Chilwell down the line, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was blocking the passing lane into Thiago Silva while being ready to press Kepa Arrizabalaga in case the ball went backwards, Odegaard was pressing Zouma and blocking the passing lane into Gilmour who has El Neny near him and finally Smith Rowe had already started his run towards Jorginho even before Zouma played the pass. The other important point here is that Zouma’s technical ability with his right foot doesn’t give him the option of a long ball towards Azpilicueta.
Zouma found Jorginho, but the presence of Smith Rowe forced the Chelsea midfielder into a sloppy pass that could have directly ended into the net. Well, it did after an effort from Arrizabalaga to save the day. The scorer, deservedly for his pressing role, was Smith Rowe.
Arsenal were fortunate not to concede the equalizer, Havertz missed an early 1 vs 1 against Bernd Leno and Olivier Giroud hit the bar in the second half. However, Arsenal’s deep 5–4–1 block minimized Chelsea’s threat, restricting them to creating low quality chances. The other only two high quality chances from open play Chelsea had fell to Mount, his efforts though were blocked by Holding and saved by Leno.
Arsenal’s pressing and defensive solidity earned them three precious point at Stamford Bridge. The last time that happened, Mikel Arteta was on the field rather than on the bench.
Pressing Chelsea’s double pivot using different templates proved effective in recent months. Their upcoming opponents in Leicester City and Manchester City won’t make things easier, and they’ll probably target the same zone.
Last season, Tuchel’s pressing schemes got him closer than ever to Champions League glory. This season he needs to find a solution against the press.