Before Kick-Off

Expectations were very low for hosts Newcastle on this day: there was little to play for beyond money, they had four losses on the bounce, safety was assured, and one of their most-skilled players had to sit against his parent club. In the two prior Chelsea matches this season, Newcastle were widely outplayed and overmatched. Scoring had dried up, and their midfield had lost the magic discovered during March & early April.

While Chelsea had the FA Cup final as a back-up, they came into this fixture with the 4th Champions League spot on the line. Their form was the near-diametric opposite of Newcastle’s; Chelsea had taken 13 of the available 15 points from their last 5 league games. While some of their key players were rested for the FA Cup final, the bulk of their normal starting XI was retained for this game. Chelsea was the clear favorite at kick-off.

Starting XIs

When Newcastle Had the Ball

Newcastle used a variety of ways to build attack: the tried and true Shelvey long balls & diagonals, build up through the middle, and build up along the wings. Shelvey, Diame, Yedlin, Lejeune, and Ritchie had the most touches in the side, inferring that the right flank had a notable attacking presence and also that Lejeune continued his usual catalyzing ways.

In defense, Chelsea tended to have their back three in a mid-block setup, usually landing beyond the 18-yard box. There were usually 3 distinct bands: the back three, the midfield three plus the wingbacks, and the front two of Hazard & Giroud. Hazard & Giroud would casually press as the ball approached midline, and the 2nd defensive band would actively press if the midway line was breached.

When Chelsea Had the Ball

Chelsea tended to build with short passing, as only 6% of their passes were long balls. Their right flank occupied 45% of their total attacking efforts, primarily Victor Moses, Cesar Azpilicueta, Ross Barkley, and N’Golo Kante. 3 of their 4 total key passes came from the right side.

Without the ball, Newcastle employed a sort of counter-press, which is a rarity for the side. Usually, a compact 4-4-2 is formed on the low block, and the two forwards initiate pressing once the opposition reaches the halfway line. Against Chelsea though, the team collectively tried to deny Chelsea time and space on the ball. Wingers were seen closing down Chelsea’s flank as deep as Chelsea’s final third.

By The Numbers

StatNewcastleChelsea
Possession42%58%
Shots166
Shots on Target62
Corners42
Fouls1110
Chances Created810
Passing Accuracy77%86%
Dribbles Won414
Tackles Won2018
Aerial Duels Won2218
PPDA10.48.6
xG2.240.84

Note: Stats are sourced from understat and whoscored.

How the Goals Happened

23′ Gayle (NEW 1-0 CHE)

After a lengthy spell of possession, forcing Chelsea to play on the counter and some nice passing. Shelvey passes a laser-guided ball to Ritchie, 30-yards out on the right-hand side. Murphy runs in behind Victor Moses from the left but botches his attempt on goal. Murphy puts pressure on Courtois who manages to punch the ball off the line. Moments before, Gayle makes a really clever J-shaped run in behind, shaking off two off Chelsea’s three center backs who are three steps behind and head in the rebound. In the build up the most impressing thing to watch is Newcastle’s build-up – It’s slow, goes from left to right with almost every player taking part in the attack. When Shelvey receives the ball in a deepish position we can see Newcastle put themselves into gear and unlock Chelsea brilliantly with a pinpoint cross from Ritchie.

59′ Ayoze (NEW 2-0 CHE)

After some ping-pong in the midfield area, Diame blasts the ball into the running path of Murphy – who once again is a headache for Victor Moses. Murphy’s initial cross is won by Chelsea’s defense. Bakayoko, who has run back from to help their back five at the time, makes a poor clearance. The ball is picked up by Shelvey and blasted from 35 yards with Perez picking up a nifty deflection to put the ball in on goal. Here Chelsea’s Bakayoko and his decision to leave the defensive shape of five defenders and a midfield of three has to be questioned. Why? Because it leaves Kante hanging while they have more than enough players back with Emerson covering the back post.

63′ Perez (NEW 3-0 CHE)

“Lob it up to Williamson at the far post and we’ll take it from there” is a mantra we all know too well…but seemingly it has been mastered now. Ayoze picks up a free kick in a deep position on the right hand side. Chelsea line up 8 players on the end of the D bow versus Newcastle’s three making themselves likely to challenge the ball. Lascelles took up a Steven Taylor-esque position at the penalty spot to throw Chelsea off. Shelvey delivers a sweet ball to the far post where Lejeune has been allowed to make an unmarked run from deep. Lejeune passes the ball first time to Ayoze who is there to finish the tap-in.

This has to be something straight from the training ground, Chelsea’s players are packed in really tight and not even paying attention to Lejeune’s free run to the far post – possibly because Lascelles antics have thrown them off.

Key Tactical Points

The balance of play between this game and the December reverse fixture couldn’t be more different. At Stamford Bridge in December, Chelsea had connected 17 key passes and had completed 20 “deep” passes compared to Newcastle’s 0 deep passes.

In this game, Newcastle had 6 more key passes (10 to 4), had 1 more deep pass (4 to 3), and attempted one of the highest volumes of passes in their entire campaign (406 passes). Chelsea had a higher share of possession, but that’s about all they came away with.

So what caused this shift between the two fixtures? A number of things:

1) Dropping the 3-4-2-1 for the trusty 4-2-3-1

The 3-4-2-1 might have been a necessary evil, but an evil it was. Having three at the back means that some midfielder is replaced by a centre back. “Build-up play” becomes extinct, especially if the side is short on talent.

In this 13th May fixture, the 4-2-3-1 ensured that there was a midfield trio that wouldn’t allow the midfield to be overrun.

2) Chelsea’s Static Attack

With Willian on the bench, Chelsea were short a creative, industrious attacker – and it showed. Often, if Chelsea were able to get the ball toward Newcastle’s final third, the passing became listless and languid. Occasionally, Ross Barkley would make a run into the box and Newcastle’s organization would be tested. In fact, Chelsea’s best scoring came after Barkley dribbled the ball forward on a counter-attack, then laid it off to Hazard, who then centered it (more or less) to Barkley’s continued run. In terms of overlaps, relentless runs, mazy dribbling, accurate crossing, or any other type of attacking move that generally pulls a defense apart, Chelsea had little to show for that on this day.

3) Newcastle’s Widespread Defensive Pressure

While Mo Diame continued to be an absolute menace to the opposition, he gets his plaudits later so we’ll focus on the others here.

In the December fixture, Newcastle allowed over 14 passes per defensive action. In the May home fixture, they only allowed little over 10 PPDA.

What makes these numbers interesting is that the number of defensive actions between the two games is nearly identical. What brought the PPDA average down was something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet – pressure.

Chelsea attempted and completed significantly fewer passes in this May fixture because Newcastle were denying Chelsea time to think on the ball. Fewer passes came off, and the ones that did were a bit more sloppy and wayward.

In turn, this allowed Newcastle to win back the ball when Chelsea were perpetually trying to re-organize themselves. Time and space were afforded on the ball, and Newcastle made Chelsea pay for it.

Newcastle’s Man of the Match: Mo Diamé

Newcastle’s midfield destroyer has to win this. Diamé won 6 out of 9 tackles, had a 91% pass success with most of the happening in the middle of the park and approaching the final third. With his aggressive but selective pressing, he almost created a great goal for himself. First and foremost his battling performance allowed the wingers and Shelvey, in particular, to run free.

Honorable mention: Ayoze Pérez

Perez’s two goals and clever play was a joy to watch. His performance wasn’t in any way light-weight as much of his criticism has been pointed towards his physique.

Chelsea’s Man of the Match: N’golo Kante

Kanté’s efforts cannot be overlooked. Kanté was their most outstanding player. Completed 3/3 dribbles, 5/5 tackles, had 5 interceptions, supplied the keypass to Pedro late in the game, and completed 89% with the hard majority of those passes happening in the middle & final third. His performance was undermined by his midfield counter parts, Bakayoko and Ross Barkley. Their lack and failure in defensive efforts can be seen in their tackling performance with Bakayoko completing 5/9 tackles and Barkley not completing his only effort (0/1).

In Conclusion

On the eve of the 2nd of December 2017, Newcastle United left Stamford Bridge soundly defeated and mired in their worst slump of the season. At full time, it felt like Newcastle were years away from being able to square up to a side like Chelsea.

That reality would arrive only 6 months later. Through a slightly risky pressing approach from Rafa to a multitude of brilliant individual displays (earned through months of development and graft), Newcastle attacked as well as they defended against the previous title holders.

The lads played arguably their most complete game of the season, and every aspect of this win was earned.

“We finished in tenth position, it was a great game with great goals, and a really good atmosphere throughout the whole game and especially at the end. It was pretty much a perfect Sunday.” ~ Rafa

HTL.