Oh, the magic of the FA Cup. Leicester City came into the cup final as clear underdogs, with Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in great form and a UEFA Champions League final in their sights. But it was the Foxes who came out on top with a stunning Youri Tielemans strike, and two fantastic saves from Kasper Schmeichel. Here is our tactical analysis of the match.
chelsea – 3-4-2-1
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea set up in their usual 3-4-2-1 formation, with Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech advanced ahead of N’Golo Kante and Jorginho in both attacking and defensive phases. However, not everything was up to standard for Tuchel’s Blues. The most interesting tactical tweak of the match, and one that no one saw coming, was Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta swapping positions. The change was evidently made to deal with Vardy’s pace and power, but it was a massive surprise. Azpilicueta won a league title playing right-centre-back for Chelsea under Antonio Conte, while James had never played the position in his life. Tuchel knew he couldn’t leave the Spaniard out of the team for the final, but also knew he had to find a way to cope with Jamie Vardy. So although it was bizarre to see, it was another piece of Tuchel innovation. Unfortunately, it was one that ultimately didn’t pay off. It was James’ failure to play out from the back and pick the right pass that cost Chelsea the win, and who knows what would have happened if the experienced Chelsea captain was in that position instead. That said, the Foxes found it relatively difficult to cope with Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 system throughout the match, and Chelsea were probably the better team on the day.
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Chelsea’s shape and positioning remained flexible and adaptable in attack, with players interchanging and responding accordingly based on the movement of those around him. Other than the back-three and Alonso, each and every player made a variety of interesting movements around the pitch throughout, attempting to cause chaos for the Foxes.
One of the more common shapes was a 3-1-5-1, with Kante, Mount and Ziyech floating around and looking to pick up the ball. Timo Werner also dropped deep to pick up possession at times, dragging Jonny Evans with him as he did. Other times it became more 3-1-4-2 with Ziyech high alongside Werner, and then in different moments it looked like a very natural and normal 3-4-2-1, with Mount and Ziyech operating in close proximity. The problem that Chelsea had was the same problem we first witnessed in Tuchel’s very first game in charge – an inability to break down central channels. Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi were excellent in front of the back-three, and Chelsea found it difficult to find gaps in between Leicester’s centre-backs and wing-backs, which became the best place for the Blues to continue their efforts in the second-half.
Chelsea were slow to break down the Foxes, and failed to produce quality crosses into the box. On occasion, Jorginho was able to pick out a dangerous pass into a dangerous area, but the efforts that followed always came up tame. It wasn’t until very late on in the game when Chelsea were able to thread the needle perfectly in between the aforementioned gap, when Ben Chilwell raced toward goal on the end of a Thiago Silva looping pass. Unfortunately for Chelsea and Chilwell, the former Leicester wing-back was offside and the goal was disallowed.
So although Tuchel’s team kept the bulk of the possession and had their moments, they ultimately struggled in possession of the ball in adequately breaking Leicester down.
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Chelsea’s back-three defended the game expertly well, particularly Rudiger and Thiago Silva. Rudiger made the in-form Kelechi Iheanacho look very average, while Thiago Silva always dealt well with Leicester City’s looping passes over the top. Reece James also had a fine evening defensively, and was tasked with tracking the movement of Jamie Vardy all around the pitch. Given the 34-year-old’s quality, it was not an easy task to pull off. James often found himself even more central than Silva in order to deal with Vardy’s movement, which the Foxes could have done a better job at exploiting had Thiago Silva not been so adeptly positioned himself.
Leicester didn’t do enough throughout the match to properly trouble Chelsea’s defense, however, at times they found themselves in space in between the lines of Jorginho/Kante and the back-line. With a bit more composure and patience, the Foxes could have done more in taking advantage of the small opportunities they were given in this regard.
Chelsea pressed relatively high, but without much aggression in actually winning the ball. While Mount and Ziyech were quick to close down Soyuncu and Fofana/Castagne, the Blues didn’t have any real desire to win the ball until Leicester progressed into their half.
LEICESTER CITY – 3-4-1-2
Leicester City also set up in the shape that they have become accustomed to in recent months, particularly since the injury to Harvey Barnes. Jonny Evans’ selection was the one major gamble for Rodgers to take in his team’s 3-4-1-2, and it was a gamble that didn’t pay off. While Evans dealt well with Werner’s movement, he couldn’t last more than 35 minutes, and Marc Albrighton came on to replace him. The selection of Ayoze Perez ahead of James Maddison was also a slight gamble, but one that paid off more, as Perez’s movement in various moments troubled the positioning of Kante and Jorginho. In defense, the shape certainly became more of a 5-3-2, with Ayoze Perez often tucking to the side of Ndidi and Tielemans. Other times he remained higher and detached, ready to be a secondary outlet for the striker’s to knock the ball to in transition. But the key was in Thomas and Albrighton/Castagne holding withdrawn positions, and playing a much more defensive role in the team than an attacking one.
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Despite winning the match, Leicester City struggled to adequately break Chelsea down for the vast majority of the game. Usually after winning the ball they looked to hit direct passes into the strikers, or opted to give them something to chase instead. Both ideas resulted in the Foxes often giving the ball right back to Chelsea, who defended Leicester’s many attempts to do this superbly well.
That said, Rodgers’ game-plan wasn’t simply to just hit long passes and hope for the best. Leicester also attempted to play out from the back and work the ball around, which in the end likely killed off several important seconds. The Foxes played out in a triangular shape between the three centre-backs, working the ball often to Soyuncu on the left to then thrust it forward for Thomas or Ayoze Perez, who looked to receive the ball in the left half-space higher up the pitch.
They never really found the perfect pass into Chelsea’s half from these moments of build-up, but again, it was crucial in allowing the Foxes some level of control in the match. The Foxes didn’t have many chances to score or any long-standing possession, but they converted their best chance of the match and ultimately won the game when Tielemans thundered the ball into the back of the net from outside the eighteen.
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Out of possession is where Leicester City were particularly fruitful. Wesley Fofana and Youri Tielemans dealt with Chelsea’s left-side expertly well for the majority of the first half, while Wilfred Ndidi’s careful positioning and sublime tackling stopped Mason Mount from getting into the game. The minimal positional changes that the Foxes had to make throughout in defense ended up meaning very little, as each player performed just as well as the last.
Notably, the Foxes pressed higher and with a bit more intensity than usual, with the two central midfielders and Ayoze Perez looking to remain compact around the player with the ball. The forwards were aggressive in trying to limit Chelsea’s build-up, with the wing-backs also becoming engaged in the press upon a pass into Chelsea’s wide-men. Their overall defensive shape massively aided in their ability to score the goal, as James’ woeful pass into central midfield was intercepted by Ayoze Perez and Luke Thomas. The Foxes broke quickly from there, and Youri Tielemans produced a moment of magic.
The one weak spot available to exploit was the space in between the outside centre-backs and the wing-backs, which Chelsea could have done more in properly plotting around. N’Golo Kante found himself in this space around the halfway point of the second half and delivered a fine ball for Marcos Alonso, but the Spaniard’s header was fruitless in the end. The Blues found their way into the box on two more crucial occasions before the 85th minute, with Kasper Schmeichel coming up with two unbelievable stops to save the day. The first was a near shoulder-breaking save onto the post from Ben Chilwell’s superb climbing header, and the second was a strong left arm to keep Mason Mount out toward the end of the match. From then on Chelsea resorted to hitting hopeful high balls toward Olivier Giroud. Caglar Soyuncu dealt with every single one of those attempts excellently well, never losing an aerial duel up against the Frenchman and killing Chelsea’s momentum.
Chelsea could have done more to break Leicester down, but in the end, the Foxes hung onto a massive 1-0 win, securing their first ever FA Cup title.
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So there it is! A tactical analysis of Leicester City’s massive FA Cup win over Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. With these two teams set to play again in four days time, the story is far from written in the race for the top four. But the story has been written in the FA Cup, and the book ends with a stunning Leicester City victory. Thanks for reading and see you soon!