Chelsea 1-1 FC Barcelona: Tactical analysis
Chelsea's midfield masterclass stifled Barcelona in the first leg.
The much-awaited European classic between Chelsea and FC Barcelona lived up to its hype and produced an enthralling encounter. Honours were shared on the night as the score was 1-1 at the end of the first leg at Stamford Bridge.
FC Barcelona went in with an expected and predictable starting eleven but Chelsea decided to shift back to the 3-4-3 formation with Eden Hazard playing up top as a false nine. Antonio Conte decided to keep Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Alonso, Fabregas, Kante, Moses; Pedro, Willian, Hazard.
FC Barcelona (4-4-2): Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Paulinho; Messi, Suarez.
An interesting start to the game
From the word go, Barcelona pressed high up the field with Luis Suarez leading the press for the visitors. As a result of it, Chelsea's defenders had little time on the ball and had to try and find the farthest man from the goal which was Eden Hazard.
Lacking any physical presence up front, Chelsea struggled to keep the hold of the ball for long and were chasing the game during the first quarter of the game. It was at that time that Conte's decision to play without a designated striker looked like a wrong ploy to go with.
But despite all the possession, Chelsea's tactics on the night (which we will discuss in detail below) stifled Barcelona. Despite having nearly 75% of the ball, it was all possession and no penetration from the visitors.
Chelsea's midfield masterclass
What looked like a 3-4-3 system on paper, Chelsea effectively played with a 5-4-1 formation without the ball. A five-man defence followed by a four-man midfield closed down the half spaces for Barcelona with Eden Hazard being the sole man up front for the hosts.
Conte's strategy was to keep the midfield crowded and offer space to the opponents on the flank. Barcelona's best work this season has come from their midfield quartet who work best in the channels and the space between the defence and the midfield. Chelsea's midfield negated their Barcelona counterparts with the Catalans having no genuine winger to utilize the free space.
Also, Chelsea decided to mark Lionel Messi zonally and never committed too many men on the talisman. As a result, Messi who generally likes to drop slightly in midfield had to come a lot deeper to create an influence. He was often seen on the ball right at the halfway mark with Luis Suarez often left isolated up front.
But Messi being Messi, did get past the midfield shield of Chelsea couple of times but could not find a clear-cut chance on goal until he finally scored in the 75th minute.
FC Barcelona's shift in formation
Sensing their diamond midfield not having enough space to get the better of Chelsea, Valverde decided to stretch his midfield later on. Iniesta went to the left whereas Paulinho went to the right as Barcelona now shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. The plan was to stretch Chelsea's tight four-man midfield on to the flanks with Iniesta and Paulinho now operating on the flanks.
But Chelsea decided to continue their game plan and defended zonally. The four-man midfield moved in a rhythm where the man in possession was targeted and the other flank was left open. The plan was to crowd the player with the ball and not giving him the space to work with.
Barcelona could have damaged Chelsea by changing ends in quick succession but failed to do so. Before their goal, Barcelona's only clear-cut chance came to Paulinho who headed wide when Messi decided to switch play and cross the ball across the Chelsea backline. But Barcelona continued with their game plan which was effectively worked out by the Blues.
Why Conte's decision to start with Eden Hazard up front was right
If Chelsea had decided to go with say, Alvaro Morata up front with Hazard and Willian on the flanks, the Blues would not have been able to get the hold of midfield. It would have essentially been playing in a 3-5-2 formation or 5-3-2 without the ball as Hazard is not known for his defensive work.
Playing Hazard and Morata would have risked the entire game plan with Chelsea then falling a man short in midfield against that of Barcelona which has dismantled teams in Spain this season. Having that extra man in midfield helped in defending whereas having a fluid attacking three helped Chelsea in transitions.
All of Chelsea's attacks came through quick transitions with Willian and Pedro deciding to up the pace and looking to dribble past players. Eden Hazard wasn't as effective as a centre-forward as he would have loved to but his link-up play set up Willian on a number of occasions.
The Brazilian forward was absolutely unplayable at times. Willian's move of holding the ball, shifting his weight and shooting bamboozled Sergio Busquets on three occasions with one of them finally hitting the back of the net after two previous tries.
Playing Willian and Pedro in support of Eden Hazard was the best decision that Antonio Conte made on the night and if not for the single mistake that Chelsea committed in the build-up to Barcelona's goal, the Blues would have deservedly won the first leg and took a huge advantage to Camp Nou.