Ajax will pose an unenviable task but one that must be overcome if Frank Lampard’s men are serious about topping their Champions League group. Besides the fact that the Dutch champions possess quality all over the pitch, it’s unfathomable to think but Chelsea will perhaps also be left ruing the fact that they have to return to Stamford Bridge, after securing their seventh consecutive away victory at Vicarage Road on the weekend.
There is some truth to this superstition though as Chelsea have thrived on the break catching teams out in the transition and playing their way out of the opposition’s high press through combination play out wide and the midfield pivot of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. Their struggles this season have thus been in breaking down deep-lying defensive blocks which look to condense the space in the middle of the park through the use of a three-man midfield, in the knowledge that Chelsea’s full-backs possess little in the way of an end product.
When at home The Blues have seen their crossing numbers increase, whilst the percentage of shots they take from wide angles dramatically decreases. This is a testament to the tactics away teams have tended to deploy this season and proves that whilst they may make use of wide areas at a similar rate to when they are on the road Chelse often struggle to exploit the situation because opposition managers tell their full-backs to play high and wide in order to show their man down the line and press them into delivering a ball into the 18-yard-box.
In games against both Brighton and Newcastle Chelsea struggled for long periods to break down said defensive structure and were ultimately reliant on a penalty and a kind deflection to open the scoring in the respective fixtures. It would be easy to say “oh but Chelsea still won anyway, what difference does it make” however that assertion is caveated with the fact that if there is no cohesive plan to Chelsea’s attacking play then they will always leave themselves open to conceding. Whether it be from a set-piece (Rodrigo’s winning goal for Valencia in the Blues’s opening Champions League game), a freak own goal (Kurt Zouma’s sliced clearance in the last minute to hand Sheffield United a point at the Bridge), or a VAR decision similar to the one seen against Watford on Saturday which completely changed the dynamic of the game. These goals are fundamentally not the fault of any specific defensive mishap regarding shape or tactics, but they are equally as detrimental and must be accounted for with a ruthless and precise attacking strategy not yet seen from the Blues when at home this season.
Ajax have an awful lot to play for, after Michy Batshuayi’s late winner in Amsterdam, and will not be just content with sitting back and soaking up pressure. This is a ploy that may well play into Chelsea’s hands however as only once have they conceded at home from open play this season. In order to effectively nullify Ajax’s threat, Lampard may have to learn a thing or two from the attritional tactics, his rival managers utilise when they themselves come to the Bridge. Compact in the middle and aggressive on the flanks, Chelsea need to prevent Ajax from getting shots off from within the 6-yard box. Seems like a vastly oversimplified tactic but it’s success ultimately comes from shutting off the overlap or underlap through playing with width and good communication – whilst the full-back engages the man on the ball his fellow centre-half covers any runners in behind with Jorginho dropping in as a third centre-back to maintain the shape. Shots from central positions always carry a threat but so long as Chelsea are quick to close down the space they can restrict these shots to well outside the 18-yard-box where the likelihood of them finding the net is severely decreased.
By restricting the space out wide Chelsea are also more unlikely to concede set plays in dangerous areas. Particularly when at home they have been privy to conceding from set-pieces, with both Rodrigo and Wilfried Ndidi scoring at crucial times to secure points for their respective sides at the Bridge whilst Edson Alvarez hit the woodwork in the reverse fixture from a free-kick. Ajax also posed the most danger in said fixture when they were allowed space on the flanks to cut in and whip balls to the back post for runners to connect with. Thus the idea of doubling up in wide areas is once again quantified.
Chelsea have Andreas Christensen, Ross Barkley, and N’Golo Kante back in training and available for the game and with only Nicolas Tagliafico ruled out for Ajax, there seems no reason as to why we won’t witness a spectacle as closely fought and competitive as the one that took place in the Johan Cruyff Arena last month.
UEFA Champions League
Chelsea vs Ajax
Kickoff: 20:00 UK time