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Harder, Eriksson, and Čanković - A closer look at Chelsea's progression play
Is there a deeper progression issue at Chelsea this season?
This past week has seen Chelsea come out with three wins from three games that a few weeks ago were considered in some quarters as early season-defining. Away games at Paris Saint-Germain and Brighton & Hove Albion are tough fixtures, each presenting its own complications.
Playing an away game in the UWCL against a top opponent would define Chelsea’s start to their European campaign. Given their challenges against Wolfsburg and Juventus last season, they needed to improve. The 1-0 win against Paris was scrappy but it was more important to take 3 points. Brighton have been a bogey team for Chelsea in the past, taking points off the champions over the last few matchups. Difficult circumstances with the pitch conditions and weather managed, Chelsea in the end ran away as 2-0 winners with a rotated side.
Denise Reddy’s side are improving, but each game seems to indicate that it’s happening in bits. Defensively, Chelsea are looking more assured whilst the attack is incrementally improving. The injuries to Pernille Harder, Fran Kirby, as well as Sam Kerr’s poor form are halting progress, but Johanna Rytting Kanneryd and Niamh Charles have emerged as worthy understudies.
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Overall, goals have been hard to come by, but Chelsea are still creating chances and could and should be finishing better. The last two games against PSG and Brighton represented consecutive games of an xG over 2. We can see chance creation in the final third isn’t much of an issue.
However, the travails of the previous few weeks have lingered within the structure of the midfield. The team is running into possession issues semi-regularly and looks to lack fresh in-possession ideas that cause Chelsea to go more direct or through the wide areas. The lack of a cohesive build-up plan from midfield, specifically their progressive passes, seems to have pinned back their progress and that originates from their system. Part of the problem has also been borne by the changes at the back, but more on that later.
Chelsea have changed systems to a 3-4-1-2 set-up, moving away from the 3-4-3 they used last year. The use of two split strikers coupled with a hard-coded attacking midfielder means there’s much more emphasis on using the central areas as a source of progression. The move away from a strict 3-4-3 to this hybrid 3-4-1-2 that shapeshifts from a back 3 to a back 4 seamlessly means the players need to understand the intricacies once again, as well as having to deal with a new set of player additions.
The system in theory is predicated on progression through the central areas with the addition of three midfielders. While the defensive midfielder is meant to anchor and recycle, the second central midfielder is meant to distribute and dictate the tempo of the team’s build-up. The central attacking midfielder is then the composite glue that brings the midfield and attack together through creative link-ups and chance creation going forward. For the most part, the wing-backs have been an integral part of the build-up and creation process so it’s little wonder that Guro Reiten and Ève Périsset are providing width and quality chance creation from the wide areas. While this isn’t necessarily an issue, it does make Chelsea a little more predictable, particularly in the build-up.
Don’t get me wrong, using the wing-backs to progress the ball isn’t a bad ploy, it arguably presents Chelsea with the freedom to move across the lines of midfield. However, the nature of Chelsea’s play makes them much more one-dimensional at times, which has led to a stagnation in their attempts to reach the final third originate from two potential reasons.
The first is the inherent forward-thinking nature of Chelsea’s wide players and the opposition team’s capacity to defend narrowly. This is particularly true of the mid-low table teams who will adopt a defence-first approach, focusing on creating solid blocks in defence and midfield, forgoing the wide areas. This makes it much easier for Chelsea to push their wing-backs up into space and start creating in the final third.
The emphasis on using the wide areas is evident in the two pass networks (Brighton & Hove Albion & Everton). Against more proactive opponents, Chelsea are pressed much higher up the pitch and central areas are often the first to be closed down. The ability to play out of the press becomes important but what’s more significant is the quality and profile of central midfield players – more on that later. At face value, it seems like the defenders trust their wing-backs to progress the ball further. However, this isn’t entirely down to trust or skill but rather the profile of players deployed in the middle.
Chelsea’s principles of play are rife throughout this clip. Hayes wants her players to be comfortable switching roles and positions to mirror a seamless transition from one formation to another, depending on the game situation. The initial moments of this build-up sequence capture Chelsea’s patient passing exchanges and each time one of the centre-backs looked central, there were three Brighton attackers pressing to close the spaces. It even forced Jessie Fleming to move wider to remove herself from the three markers cover-shadowing the two central midfielders. The eventual ball made its way to Périsset and back to Mille Bright who opted to go long in a hopeful attempt but the pass was intercepted. The build-up attempt was calculated and had intent but Chelsea seemed lost in the moments when the wide areas started to get congested.
In my mind, Chelsea didn’t want to end up in such a situation. If anything, I would hazard a guess that the move towards using Harder in a 3-4-1-2 as the No. 10 was a move closer to giving Chelsea a link player who has the creative freedom and skill-set to service the midfield and attack. The problem herein lies in Chelsea being blessed with numerous, excellent progressive carriers but lacking players of the creative ilk who can effectively control games – more progressive passers if you will. When you have a centrally focused formation, you intend to have at least two to three players that are competent passers and visionaries from the middle. The fact that Harder was injured in the warmup against Liverpool on the opening day of the season thwarted their plans. You could still see the system’s influence when Kirby played deeper that day.
Although the English midfielder looks to break in behind the opposition defence, Kirby can read the game from a deeper position extremely diligently. This pass over Liverpool’s defence wasn’t so much about the progression from deep, but rather her it was about the intelligence in picking out the right pass in order to move the ball into better positions to set up players. This game saw Kirby play in a number of positions and helped Chelsea to create a flow through midfield albeit in a 2-0 loss.
Part of the reason for the unsettled eleven is due to the number of injuries Chelsea have suffered so far this season. It’s not necessarily the number of injuries, but rather the specific personnel affected by them. Harder, Kirby, and Jalena Čanković have all been unavailable at various timelines which hasn’t given Chelsea time to settle on a preferred eleven under the new system. These three players are key to the way Chelsea want to operate and give a focal reference point in the midfield, and currently there's another player change in position instead that has affected this shift.
One of the successful aspects of Chelsea’s title-winning run last season was the platform the centre-backs gave the team in build-up. While the full-backs were interchangeable, it was in the middle where Hayes opted for continuity by playing Magdalena Eriksson and Millie Bright as a partnership. Regardless of the three- or four-at-the-back systems, their presence kept Chelsea‘s ability to play out much more consistently.
Eriksson is now playing more at left-back which has altered the dynamic of the team’s progression. When playing centrally, Eriksson was primarily Chelsea’s defensive progressive carrier into midfield, who could bypass the initial press before playing in one of the central players to then take it forward. Her ability to play short passes into the nearby players or longer diagonals gave them real alternatives in the middle and final third. Yes, Chelsea had a different set of central midfielders but the Swede’s intelligence in movement and decision-making was a major factor. Even when playing as the left-sided centre-back in the 3-4-3 she still finds the space and time.
The heat map and pass network paint a picture of Eriksson’s position and passing areas between 2021/22 and 2022/23. Obviously playing at left-back means she’s naturally going to drift out to the left more, but there is a higher frequency of passes going into the middle when playing as the centre-back.
At left-back, she needs to come inside before affecting play, passing, and being the last line of defence out wide; any loss of possession means she has to be wary of the space left in behind and any overloads can be disastrous. At the same time, as a left-back, teams will block the central areas which means Eriksson will be naturally inclined to play down the flank. Just taking an extra touch can invite pressure and better organisation from the opposition.
The pressure of playing out from an isolated part of the pitch can force Eriksson to rush her pass down the flank and take it out of play or be dispossessed. Here, she’s forced deep from West Ham’s press and though she passes the ball to Lauren James, the attacker has to drop back and is then pressed by 3-4 West Ham players. The time and safety afforded to play from a central position make Eriksson much more effective.
Hayes isn’t one to base her side entirely around one player — it showed in her change in wanting to play with Kirby, Kerr, and Harder as a front three — but a move to a 3-4-1-2 could signal her final roll of the dice. Playing her record signing in her preferred position whilst playing her teammates in more natural positions is a sign of wanting to get it right after two seasons of trial and error.
The returning Harder now looks match-fit and her performance against Vllaznia was phenomenal. Let’s not get it wrong, while the Albanians were far from a stern test, it showed how a Harder-like figure could influence the game from the No. 10 position. Until Chelsea can find a long-term solution to the Ji So-Yun-sized midfield problem and if they look to play Eriksson at centre-back, the progression issues will persist.
This is going to make both the No. 8 and No. 10 extremely important and the system needs Harder and/or Kirby to be fit. Čanković’s return cannot be understated either. The Serbian midfielder’s control and passing range will be a huge requirement to help bring stability to Erin Cuthbert’s anchoring role. It is perhaps the most important addition to the team after Harder.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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