Rise of Chelsea’s pawns

Ahmed Walid
10 min readOct 30, 2021

In chess, the chess piece value gives us a relative worth for each piece. Each piece has a different value according to its strength. A pawn is worth one point, a knight or bishop is worth three points, a rook is worth five points and a queen is worth nine points.

Perhaps, a reasonable alignment with the football word would see the knight or bishop as the winger, the rook as the central midfielder and the queen as the Number 10. That leaves us with the pawn, the king, the defenders, the goalie and the forwards.

It’s tough to match the king with a single player due to its importance, perhaps the king is the whole team combined. The pawns attacking limitations makes it impossible to imagine them as the forwards, which only leaves the defenders and the goalie.

The movement of the pawn disqualifies the goalie simile, and the same movement makes them more full backs or wing backs rather than central defenders.

Initially, in the modern era, Full backs and wing backs were limited to their defensive positions. Overlapping once in a while, then they evolved. From attacking full backs who destroyed the wings to creators such as Dani Alves.

The pawn was then used more diversely, going inside the pitch as inverted full backs — or half backs — with Pep Guardiola to conquer the possession phase and be ready for the defensive transition. Or acting as the main threat inside the penalty area at the far post with Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta.

The full backs or the wing backs transformed from dull defenders, all the way to pure creators who are essential to their teams. Whether it’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at Liverpool, or Joao Cancelo at Manchester City, the full backs have conquered the chess board.

Liverpool and Manchester City are two of the three contenders for the Premier League title this season, their third musketeer is one whose last title featured dominance by the wing backs. Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea raided the wing area using Marco Alonso and Victor Moses as wing backs. As the league tried to adapt to Chelsea’s 3–4–3, the team from west London were moving towards their 6th league title.

Now in search of another one, Thomas Tuchel’s wing backs are playing a pivotal role in Chelsea’s rise. Since the arrival of the German manager to Chelsea last January, the wing backs have been switching positions regularly with the wide players to either disorganize the opponent’s defence or provide space out wide for the wide player.

The best example of this was at the game against Everton. Before Chelsea’s opener, Everton’s pressing scheme was containing Chelsea and there wasn’t any considerable threat from Tuchel’s side.

Under pressure and trying to create chances, Chelsea moved the ball to their left side where Callum Hudson-Odoi and Alonso reside. As Hudson Odoi was trying to get out of this position, Alonso made a dart inside the pitch in the space Mason Holgate vacated.

Alonso’s run stunned Alex Iwobi as Hudson-Odoi dribbled around the Everton players. Iwobi, who was operating as a right wing back, didn’t know whether he should commit to Alonso inside, allowing Hudson-Odoi space on the outside or keep his position in hope someone else covers for Holgate. Michael Keane was far and Hudson-Odoi’s pass found Alonso perfectly….

….allowing the Spaniard to put a low cross inside the box for the incoming Kai Havertz who probably would have scored directly hadn’t his shot been deflected off Ben Godfery into the net.

In this instance Iwobi held his position, but when the right-wing back follows Alonso or Ben Chilwell inside, it creates space for the wide player outside against the center back.

This was the case in the build up to Chelsea’s first goal against Norwich City. Chilwell’s movement inside the field dragged Max Aarons inside to vacate space for Hudson-Odoi to attack…..

…..and take Ozan Kabak on a drag race that the center back wasn’t ready for before dribbling past him to put in a cross into the box.

The switch also puts the left-wing back in a position where he might be the most threatening player in the box due to the lack of marking from the opponent.

In this attack against Tottenham Hotspur, the switch allows Alonso to find Havertz in space out wide…

….then Havertz managed to put in a cross that was too heavy for Romelu Lukaku to catch. The important thing to notice here is how free Alonso is, the nearest Tottenham player, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is completely focusing on the ball and not Alonso….

……which means that Alonso is completely free when Cesar Azpilicueta catches Havertz’s cross and plays it back to Alonso. Only an Eric Dier goal-line clearance stopped the Spanish left wing-back from hitting the back of the net.

In a similar situation though, albeit in a different game, Chilwell managed to hit the back of the net. At first, Timo Werner and Chilwell switched positions and the left wing-back was totally covered by the Brentford players.

However when the ball shifts to the other side, Sergi Canos — Brentford’s right wing-back — is checking over his shoulder to see where Werner is because the positioning of Chilwell is providing another problem.

As Chelsea go down the line, trying to put in a cross, Brentford’s back line drops deeper and Canos has to drop to track Werner at the far post. This all leaves Chilwell completely free on the edge of the box. N’Golo Kante doesn’t play him though and plays the ball back to Azpilicueta….

…who puts in a cross that was half cleared by Pontus Jansson, resulting in the ball falling perfectly in-front of the free Chilwell who drives it into the top corner to score the only goal of the game.

All of the above was an illustration of how Chelsea have utilized their wing-backs to improve in the final third.

Earlier in the attack, in the build up and the progression phase, Chelsea faced multiple issues last year as teams in the Premier League found a formula to press and contain Chelsea.

Improved performances on the ball from Thiago Silva have helped Chelsea in this area, as well as the return of Trevoh Chalobah after spending three seasons out on loan.

A major improvement in these phases have come as well from Tuchel’s usage of his wing-backs inside the field.

Rather than sticking to the touchline in the build up phase, Chelsea’s wing-backs move inside the field to disrupt the opponents’ pressing and marking scheme. In this example, Norwich were trying to mark Chelsea’s double pivot while pressing the first line of defence. In the top left corner of the screen, Reece James is in Kenny McLean’s blind spot, waiting for an opportunity to move inside the pitch. As Thiago Silva plays the ball into Jorginho….

…..and McLean moves out to press Chalobah, thinking that James is still towards the touchline because he was in his blind spot, James was moving inside to present an unmarked progressive passing option. By doing this, Chelsea managed to bypass Norwich’s press.

Another example here shows, the same scenario. McLean is moving forward to press Jorginho, thinking that Mateo Kovacic will play the pass into the Italian midfielder. But behind McLean, James is making an inside run to present a better passing option than Jorginho. Kovacic smartly plays the ball into James….

… who should have done better in this situation and played a pass into the space towards Mason Mount. The positioning of James here disrupts Norwich’s back line because Ben Gibson has to move up and this creates a space through-which a through ball can be played towards Mount.

These inside runs totally manipulated Norwich’s midfield whose main concern was stopping the double pivot, but making runs behind them were Chelsea’s wing-backs. Here, Chilwell moves inside and presents himself as a passing option behind Norwich’s midfield while Kabak and Mathias Normann are focusing on Kovacic and completely blindsided by Chilwell’s run. The Croatian manages to find Chilwell who is given more space centrally because of Havertz’s diagonal run that drags Grant Hanley with him…..

……but the lack of support from Mount and James on the right side slows down the attack which allows Norwich to re-organize their defence.

Another advantage of these movements is that it confuses the opponents’ wing-backs like in the first goal against Everton mentioned above. Here, Malmo’s defender Lasse Nielsen doesn’t commit to Azpilicueta because he knows the real danger is Mount out wide. And as there’s a possibility of a pass in behind Malmo’s left wing-back Martin Olsson, Nielsen moves away slightly from Azpilicueta, allowing the Spaniard to receive the ball comfortably….

…playing a one touch pass into the path of Kante, while Havertz was making an angled run into the box….

….to help the Frenchman finding him with a simple pass. Havertz’s shot didn’t go past Johan Dahlin, but it showed how effective Azpilicueta’s movement inside the pitch was.

Earlier in the same game, there was another run from Azpilicueta that mesmerized the Malmo defence. The Swedish side were trying to press Chelsea’s first line and the double pivot, which forced Thiago Silva to go long towards Lukaku…..

….and as the ball is in the air you can notice Sergio Pena and Bonke Innocent high up the pitch due to marking Jorginho and Kante respectively. The important player here however is Azpilicueta, who while the ball is in the air is moving inside the pitch behind Malmo’s midfield.

Azpilicueta continues his run centrally and at this point Olsson is confused, he doesn’t know whether he should follow Azpilicueta or return to defend his space that is being attacked by Mount. Meanwhile in the center circle, Lukaku receives the balls and plays it into Werner…..

…..who should have played the pass into Azpilicueta in-between Malmo’s central defenders. This screen grab shows Azpilicueta behind the defenders, but he’s been accelerating for a couple of seconds while the Malmo defenders are just beginning to start their runs backwards from rest position.

Chelsea’s 5th goal against Norwich encapsulates most of the ideas behind these movements. A high press from Norwich to press Chelsea’s defensive line and the double pivot sees Edouard Mendy playing a long ball behind Norwich’s midfield….

…..and the Chelsea players moving inside behind Norwich’s midfield are Chelsea’s wing backs, James and Chilwell. Due to their movement, Norwich’s wing-backs also follow inside the pitch. James manages to control the ball…

…..and a quick passing combination puts Kovacic in acres of space out wide because Normann — highlighted in green — is central, as well as Aarons who followed Chilwell. Meanwhile further ahead, Hudson-Odoi is dragging Kabak into an unfavorable territory for the Turkish defender.

Hudson-Odoi then got the better of Kabak, and luck favored the Blues as Hudson-Odoi’s cross was deflected off Aarons and Tim Krul into the net. This goal was pure fortune, but the build up to the goal was the best presentation of how the movement of the wing-backs inside the field help Chelsea in possession.

Tuchel and his coaching staff have transformed Chelsea’s wing-backs, from players only providing an attacking option out wide to catalysts who improve Chelsea in possession, while still providing the same attacking threat.

Everyone wants their pawn to reach the end of the chess board, but why promote your pawn to a queen when your pawn can play like a queen.