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Tactical Analysis: Roma 3-0 Chelsea | Chelsea’s Possession Play Failed to Tear Down Roma’s Fortress


Ryan Tank provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League group stage match that ended Roma 3-0 Chelsea


Two diagonal aerial balls along with defensive mistakes by Chelsea’s back line were capitalized by El Shaarawy as the Italian forward put Roma 2-0 up. In the 60th minute, Diego Perotti killed off Chelsea’s hope as his screamer made it 3-0.

AS Roma: Alisson; Florenzi, Fazio, Juan Jesus, Kolarov; De Rossi, Nainggolan, Strootman, El Shaarawy, Dzeko, Perotti.

Chelsea: Curtois; Cahill, Luiz, Rudiger; Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Bakayoko, Alonso; Pedro, Morata, Hazard.

Essential attacking movements in the first half

Roma fielded their usual 4-3-3. Alisson in goal, Florenzi and Kolarov as full backs, and Fazio-Juan Jesus duo in the central area. In midfield, de Rossi in the six space covered the moves of Nainggolan and Strootman, who were initially 8’s but had license to roam into the wide areas and center around 10 and 9. In the last line, Edin Dzeko was flanked by Perotti and El Shaarawy.

Antonio Conte set up his team with 3-4-3/5-4-1. Fabregas and Bakayoko in the central midfield were flanked by Alonso and Azpilicueta on both wings. At the back, Courtois was in goal behind the back line that saw Cahill and Rudiger at half back flanking David Luiz – Chelsea’s center half. In the attacking line, Eden Hazard lead the forward line supported by Pedro marshalling the right area and Morata as the center forward.

Two banks of five in Roma’s attack

In their build up, Roma used a 2-3 shape in the 1st  two lines of the attack. Both Florenzi and Kolarov stayed wide while De Rossi occupied the central corridor in front of both central defenders. Eusebio Di Francesco didn’t use his full backs to provide maximum width. Instead, the full backs remained deep and stayed close to Jesus-Fazio axis, and left the higher zone to the 8’s and forward trio. In simple terms, Roma built up and attacked the opponent’s box using two-banks-of-five-ish basic shape.

Roma’s 2-3-2-3 wide

De Rossi, in this regard, had the same role to both central defenders. They tried to access the player in the space behind Chelsea’s pressing line. On the left side, such a space was often occupied by Perotti or Strootman while on the right side, the responsibility fell to Nainggolan and Shaarawy. Slightly different behavior can be identified between these two sides. On the right, Shaarawy started wide and occupied the wide corridor more often than Perotti did on the left side.

When the ball progressed into the middle third, both Roma’s 8’s would go up into the attacking-pocket space. Depending on where the ball was, either on the right or left, the ball side 8 occasionally adapted his positioning in regards to his duty in providing progression access or dropped closer to the 6 space to help pick up the ball into the more advanced locations. The trigger for the latter was when the home side needed to break the equilibrium point of the opponent’s low block. De Rossi usually accompanied by an 8 occupied the near half space as they needed to invite more pressure from Chelsea midfielders.

If the ball side 8 stayed higher, in the half space of the final third, he acted as the receiver to connect the progression to the center forward in the center or to the wide forward in the near flank. On other occasions, the said 8 and the wide forward made rotational moves and swapped positions to create more space for the wide forward to attack the central area.

Central midfielder (Strootman) with a wall pass into the width

This was the reason why Roma’s full back stayed deeper during build up. The full back didn’t always venture forward because the responsibility of providing the initial width was given to the 8 and wide forward. If there was a trigger that pushed the full back high into the final third that was when all the wide forward, ball side 8, and center forward tucked into the center.

Also, this was the first method of Roma’s final third attack. Ball side 8 moved wide to the flank and ball side wide forward moved into the half space. Situationally, as Perotti dropped into the middle third and progressed with speed, he could drag the ball side wing back out of his position which reduced the cover in Chelsea’s back line and thus forced Chelsea’s last line to shift toward the right side. This enabled Roma to generate the opportunity to attack the weaker side by playing a diagonal ball into the far flank.

The alternative of this first method was Roma made a diagonal aerial pass from the middle third into the center of the box. The player who often did this was the full back or any of the midfielder trio. It seemed to be that the principle of such a pass was to direct the ball into the location around the D-area of penalty box. It was not coincidence that the two Roma goals from the first half was coming from such a pattern.

Chelsea’s powerful defensive overload exposed Roma’s attacking issues

An issue in Roma’s attack can be identified here. As often seen, after a pass into the pocket space, Roma left that sector to the wide forward and 8. The issue arose since:

  • These two were often outnumbered by Chelsea’s low block thus beaten too easily;
  • The ball carrier faced the opponent’s goal with his back which made it even harder for him to generate quick-easy access.
  • Chelsea’s defensive overload was too strong which enabled them to utilise cover shadow to its maximum effect.

Particularly in regard to the last factor, Roma tried to overload the ball side using the opposite field players. For example, Perotti and Strootman shifted far to the right half space and flank to build a strong overload to help manipulate Chelsea’s ball side overload. But, as often seen, the spacing within Roma’s overload was sub-optimum, which, in turn, made it impossible for them to generate a safe access as well as manipulate such a compact defense.

Chelsea’s wing overload

Fabregas as a wide man stepped up and blocked Nainggolan passing’s lane. Rudiger-Bakayoko acted as twin-six and blocked the diagonal lane into the box. A backward press by Morata covered the space in front of Fabregas, Rudiger, and Bakayoko as well as contained Florenzi and De Rossi from generating easy access. It was even harder for Roma since there was no pivot inside the local overload thus forcing the possession to be circulated outside of Chelsea’s pressing block.

In some of their matches, Roma often managed to access Dzeko in the opponent’s box by playing a chipped diagonal pass from half space. Against Chelsea, the home side arguably failed to do so as Chelsea’s low block were able to block easy access from the wide area.

Chelsea’s build up: Alonso, Fabregas, and Hazard

Chelsea build up against Roma’s high press

This was one of the methods used in Chelsea 1st phase of attack. From a back three, David Luiz moved up, dragging Roma’s central forward to create space for Fabregas to drop into and progress the ball. The progression often saw Chelsea access Marcos Alonso on the wide left corridor. The key for Chelsea to cleanly access Alonso – apart from Fabregas’ passing ability – was the positional structure of their forward trio that pinned back Roma’s back line (see the rectangles). At times, Florenzi managed to find the right timing to challenge Alonso in the air, but Alonso’s aerial ability made it easy for him to win such an aerial duel. This was why, on occasion, Roma also used Fazio to cover Florenzi on this duel.

If the direct access to Alonso couldn’t be generated, Fabregas could play a one-two vertical short pass with the player nearest to and in front of him. With this simple tactic, Fabregas often managed to generate a more comfortable passing room. Such a one-two pass also provided more advantage for Alonso to rush forward so now Alonso had a better position to receive a pass from Fabregas. If the Fabregas option was not available, Courtois could play a deep pass to Alonso followed by Alonso flicking the ball on into the near half space, to Eden Hazard.

The other important element in Chelsea’s attack was the half space feature. They used half space to create progression access and often used Hazard or Pedro to occupy such a space. With a dummy move from the central midfielder, Chelsea often managed to open the passing lane for their 1st line to access Hazard or Pedro in the space behind Roma’s midfielders.

Half space feature in Chelsea’s ball possession

The other root cause that enabled Chelsea to find space behind Roma’s midfield line was because of the behaviour of Roma’s horizontal block shifting and the pressing orientation within. The pressing orientation and the need to keep shifting from one side to other side often left Roma’s 6 space less covered. For example, Chelsea made a patient circulation and shifted between both half backs. Supported by dynamic positioning and some back and forth passes during this circulation, they were able to drag Roma’s first line to move higher as well as create space for Fabregas-Bakayoko behind Roma’s 1st line of press. If one of Fabregas or Bakayoko got closer to Chelsea’s 1st line, there would be Roma’s central midfielder to put a blind side press on them. This blind side meant the presser had to leave his respective position thus leaving some space behind him.

Roma’s pressing orientation exposed their own 6

After making an onward press, Strootman had to get back to his post in Roma’s midfield. Such a defensive movement often created horizontal gaps between Strootman and the wide forward. With the right timing and passing speed, Chelsea’s ball carrier often managed to access the free man behind Roma’s midfield.

Chelsea promising build up not properly utilized

Following their deep pass method, there were some promising situations gained by Chelsea. First things first, it allowed Chelsea to speed up the attack and thus the ball arrived in the final third quickly. The second advantage of playing such a deep pass was Roma’s defensive block were forced to drop far into the deep area which, in practice, made it nearly impossible for them to maintain the harmony. This, in turn, had some negative effect on the spatial compactness. One good example was from the 14th minute. A deep pass was received by Alonso. Followed by Alonso’s movement into the half space and a short pass to Morata, in the same half space, Chelsea suddenly generated some promising passing options.

Chelsea after deep pass from Fabregas to Alonso. Morata actually played it back to Bakayoko. The other two light-blue arrows indicate the other passing options

This scene with Bakayoko making a weird decision as he took a long distance shot even though there were some more promising options around. On different occasions of Chelsea attack, they failed to create a valuable chance because after such a pass into the half space, the next pass was usually played into a less-strategic location instead of being played to the other more strategic options.

Chelsea slightly adjusted their attack

After the break, trailing by two goals, Conte made some changes. In Chelsea’s build up, there were more deep passes – by Fabregas – into the center area of the last line. Such passes were released from either early or middle third.

In the middle third, there was usually some interplay in short passing combinations before the ball was played directly to Alvaro Morata in the last line. For example, when Fabregas tried to progress the ball into the higher ground and Strootman put a press on him, Fabregas would play it to the near flank to the near wing back to loosen the initial press. And, as the presser dropped into his respective position, in Roma’s midfield line, the ball would be played back to Fabregas followed by Fabregas making a deep pass to the onrushing Morata.

Also with Willian coming in for Cahill, Chelsea’s wing back offered a different dimension of attack. Willian was positioned narrower than Azpilicueta was in the first half. The Brazilian tucked into the half space as Chelsea looked to overload the space behind Roma’s midfield with more players.

The other minor adjustment was the positional play between Alonso and Hazard. In the second half, Alonso occupied the half space more often than he did in the first half. This adjustment was to keep the opponent guessing as well as provide more space for Hazard to generate his explosive movements from the wide corridor. Interestingly, Alonso would start his move from the wing corridor in Chelsea’s middle third as he had to provide progression access through the wide area. Once the ball was played into Alonso and he managed to control it properly, Alonso would quickly search for the nearest player available to help carry the ball into the more advanced area. At times, along with Hazard they doubled-up on the flank as well as created a triangle with the nearest central midfielder. With this triangle, Chelsea would find it easier to secure possession before progressing into the higher ground. Should the ball progress to the free man in the half space, Chelsea generated several attacking options. They could play it through to the weaker side by switching it to the opposite flank or they might be playing it around the ball-side area; right into the space behind Roma’s midfield.

One of the best moments was the build up from 60th minute. A patient build up found its progression location through Alonso on the left wing. With his excellent technique, Alonso managed to beat Florenzi. The wing back then moved higher into the half space. After a short passing combination in Chelsea’s middle third, the ball was played into Alonso’s feet. Followed by a long diagonal ball to the far flank, Alonso managed to access Willian which provided the chance for a cross into the near post.

If the attack continued through Hazard’s sector on the left side, as expected, he would make a diagonal run toward the box. Roma usually dealt with it by creating an overload with the ball side 8 and the nominal 6 condensing the ball sector along with the press by the ball side full back plus support by the ball side central defender.

Roma back 5 provided more security to their intermediate defense

Shaarawy and Florenzi were replaced by Gerson and Manolas. These substitutions transformed Roma’s shape into a 5-3-2-ish one. One positive effect from this back 5 was that they were able to use the players from the back line to secure the space between the middle line and back line. For example, when Chelsea made a pass into the Roma’s right half space, Manolas – the right half back – would step up to press the Chelsea player receiving the pass and vice versa to Roma’s left side. Also, with three central defenders, Roma were able to build safe possession as they would be more than happy to circulate it across the back line to invite more pressure from Chelsea’s players.

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