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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Chelsea 3-1 Sunderland | Free again Chelsea beat abysmal Black Cats

James Sutherland provides us with a detailed tactical analysis of the Premier League match that ended Chelsea 3-1 Sunderland

Chelsea recovered from a chaotic week and the firing of Jose Mourinho with a strong 3-1 win over Sunderland. Many saw the result as a rebound match for the Blues, recovering from the supposed poor form under Mourinho.

But the scoreline is slightly deceiving. Much of what went right in this game was the result of building improvement in the past several weeks, with Mourinho still at the helm.

Line Ups:

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Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma, Ivanovic; Matic, Fabregas; Willian, Oscar, Pedro; Costa

Sunderland (3-4-3): Pantilimon; Kaboul, O’Shea, Coates; Van Aanholt, M’Vila, Rodwell, Jones; Watmore, Defoe, Toivonen

Better build up from Chelsea

Oscar was the consensus man of the match. He completed double his season average passes, took double the touches he does on average, and got off almost three more shots than average.

His performance was just the surface of a team wide resurgence, however. The Blues looked, as a whole, more creative and adventurous. The midfield three connected with each other and Costa brilliantly, especially early in the game, using quick passing combinations to circumvent the weak Sunderland defense.

In the video above, Oscar picks the ball up in Chelsea’s half, runs down the field unopposed, and then connects with Willian for a great one-two.

These sorts of moves haven’t been seen from Chelsea players in a while. They served to open the field up for the Blues attack. There was more space for Costa to work in, and a purpose for him to drop back into midfield; Oscar dominated the attacking midfield; Pedro and Willian had plenty of room to make runs into.

But credit should also go to Sunderland’s defense and midfield. They were practically non-existent in the early portions of the game. The four man midfield failed to protect the three at the back, leaving acres of space between the lines.



Oscar served to spur on the rest of Chelsea, lighting a creative fire under the team. The problem here is that Oscar’s Achilles heel is consistency. He has never managed to keep up good form across a whole season.

At times last season he disappeared entirely, leaving Eden Hazard alone to carry the team’s offense.

If Chelsea is too reliant on anyone player, whether Hazard, Oscar or Willian, to fire up the offense, then offense will invariably collapse. Guus Hiddink will need to diversify Chelsea’s offensive capabilities.

Chelsea find finishing touch

In the past several weeks, Chelsea’s offensive output has increased. But the finishing hasn’t followed. Michael Caley’s expected goals maps show that Chelsea has consistently found good chances to score, but also consistently failed to put away those chances.

Against Sunderland, the story was different. Chelsea finally converted to expectations. Caley’s model projected the Blues to score 2 goals, plus one penalty, exactly the number Chelsea produced.

The better finishing resulted from a combination of several things. One is that, despite the impression given off by the media, Chelsea has been playing better since the start of December. A tough 1-0 loss at home to Bournemouth was followed by a fantastic 2-0 Champions League win over Porto. Then came the deceiving close 2-1 loss at Leicester, and the 3-1 win on Saturday.

Chelsea’s players may simply be finding their form again, and it showed for the first time on Saturday. With increased pressure from the fans on them, the players may have a more urgent need to step up their game.

Hiddink’s presence may also have influenced the quality. With the new boss watching, the players may have felt a need to impress him, and ensure their spot in the lineup.

What is the most important factor, however, is simply luck. Late in the Leicester game, both Costa and Loic Remy had several clear cut chances. They only converted one, either scuffing the others or producing saves from Casper Schmeichel.

Against Sunderland, the breaks finally went Chelsea’s way. Pedro scored after an Ivanovic cross bounced off two Sunderland defenders and landed right in his path. Ivanovic in turn scored a header on a poorly marked corner.

Although this seems like an overly simplistic answer, it is most likely the right one. Luck plays an important role in a sport with so many rotating variables. For much of the season Chelsea has just missed chances, or failed to get a penalty that would have changed the game.

Finally against Sunderland, the law of averages kicked in. Luck finally went Chelsea’s way, and this played an important role in the three goals.

Collective defending

Another result of Oscar dropping back was a great control over midfield. During the second half of the Leicester game, Mourinho took off Terry and brought on Fabregas, going to 3 at the back.

Chelsea immediately dominated the game more, almost simply by virtue of having 5 midfielders. Despite facing just a 3 man backline, Leicester failed to get any real offense going for the last half hour of the match. Matic and Ramires, along with collective pressure from Hazard, Willian and Cesc, shut down N’Golo Kante, the master of Leicester’s midfield.

Even without the 5th midfielder Chelsea dominated Sunderland. Often Cesc moved up, into the center of the attacking 3, and Oscar dropped back. This allowed Cesc to float in the open space in front of Sunderland’s backline, and create from up front, while Oscar still created offense from deeper up the field and shored up the midfield defense.


But more importantly was the aggressive counter press Chelsea put on for much of the first half. The Blues pressed Sunderland hard after losing the ball, forcing the Black Cats to pass backwards to Pantilimon or the defense. Sunderland never got an attack going until Chelsea toned the counterpress down in the second half.

This raises interesting questions about possible tactical/formation changes. Certainly Hiddink and whoever is next should look to install a more aggressive counterpress. With both John Terry and Gary Cahill on the wrong side of 30, the backline could use a little less of a defensive workload. The counterpress would also create more chances, and more quick counters, giving the attackers more room to create and flourish.

The 5 man midfield is also an interesting question. It would bolster Matic, who has had to cover for Fabregas all season, and allow Fabregas to retain his favored deeper position without hurting the team defensively. It would also allow for a harder counterpress, given that if one midfielder attacks the ball, there are four behind him (plus two more strikers) to cover for him.


This game was a step in the right direction for Chelsea. Put in context of recent results, and it becomes even more positive. The Blues have been playing more positively for much of December, raising some questions about the timing of Mourinho’s firing.

At the same time, Hiddink has his work cut out for him. Chelsea still lie 11 points off the top four, and just 3 points above relegation. The Blues still have work to do to save their season.

Written by James Sutherland

James Sutherland

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