Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Chelsea are faster, why did Tottenham use such a high line

Tottenham’s high line was extreme and artless. A game of who will beat who in a foot race, or who will play the correctly weighted pass, because Chelsea are faster.

Tottenham put their faith in Chelsea’s inability to put the correct amount of weight on their passes. They allowed Chelsea to play to their strength: speed.

They were nearly correct about the inability to put the correct amount of weight on their passes because Chelsea’s passes were poorly weighted for a majority of the game, with some exceptions, like Reece James’ trivela, for example.

Figure 1.1 - Reece James' trivela to Raheem Sterling over Pedro Porro's head.

The target was Raheem Sterling in the first half. Everyone in the stadium knew who would be on the receiving end of each progressive pass. Nicolas Jackson would only attempt to make a run when Levi Colwill, Reece James, Marc Cucurella, Mykhaylo Mudryk, and Cole Palmer were on the ball. Watch Jackson make a run when those four received the ball. It’s very hard to score when you don’t have a chance to touch the ball.

Figure 2.1 - Raheem Sterling ignores Nicolas Jackson and passes to Cole Palmer, despite the fact that Tottenham is covering Palmer.

The rest of the Chelsea squad actively avoids passing to Jackson, especially Raheem Sterling.

In the 57th minute, Chelsea subbed on Mykhaylo Mudryk to play on the left wing. The correct choice because that’s the wing Tottenham is allowing Chelsea to play in. Over Pedro Porro’s shoulder. Raheem Sterling moved to the right wing, and now Chelsea was ready to attack with speed in the second half.

The way Chelsea finally cracked the high line was fairly simple.

  • Get the pass out quicker, over the top, when the run is made. Sounds simpler than it actually is, but they are professional footballers so they’ll figure it out eventually.
  • Put the correct amount of weight on the pass. Too many inaccurate passes over the top in the first half.
  • Make the run deeper to give the ball carrier enough time to time the pass.

The first to make a deeper run was Marc Cucurella in the second half.

Figure 3.1 - Marc Cucurella begins his run while Reece James has the ball on the far side.

Look at how comically high the high line is from Tottenham. They were down to nine men at that point in the game. The entire team in one line waiting for the pass through. Bizarre.

Figure 3.2 - Marc Cucurella receives the ball.

Impressive timing from a full-back to judge when to make the run. Full-back to full-back from Reece James to Marc Cucurella.

Figure 4.1 - Raheem Sterling makes a run from a deeper position in a pocket.
Figure 4.2 - Raheem Sterling receives the through ball.

Then Raheem Sterling made the next deeper run, not standing on Tottenham’s back line, in a pocket so he can attack the space at full speed.

Figure 5.1 - Conor Gallagher makes a run from deep.
Figure 5.2 - Conor Gallagher receives the through ball.

And then finally Conor Gallagher from deep with a similar run as Sterling.

And no, Nicolas Jackson is not poorly positioned offside in the final two examples. You’re taught as a center-forward to stand offside on occasion so that when the ball is played over the top to someone else, you can simply turn around ahead of the opponent’s back line, get behind the ball carrier so you’re onside, and then tap in the cross.

Another impressive match from the Italian Guglielmo Vicario in goal for Tottenham. He has been more than good. The quickness off his line was the most impressive part of his performance. His decision making at which save technique to use, the speed, and then the firm hands. The technique on both of the saves for Jackson’s shots; one with the foot and the other jumping early diving with the left hand. Remarkable.

Vicario was doing a great job at sweeping but I think Chelsea’s inaccuracy with their passes made that portion of his performance look better than it actually was. Still incredible sweeping.

Ange Postecoglou was not bothered by the fact the high line was exploited:

“It is just who we are mate, it is who we are and who we will be for as long as I am here. […] If we go down to five men, we will have a go.”

With how much issue Chelsea has had against teams that use a low block, it made no sense for Tottenham to continue with the high line once they went down to 10 men. When Mickey Van de Veen went off injured, shortly after Cristian Romero’s red card, it made even less sense.

With a full squad, that high line can be very good, but it was fairly obvious that Chelsea should have scored at least six or more goals. They needed to change something.

Had they changed to mirror that of Brentford, Bournemouth, Nottingham Forest, and West Ham, they likely would have had at least left with one point, possibly three. It’s either stubbornness knowing they are wrong or a sign that Postecoglou is not great at making needed adjustments in the moment. I think it’s stubbornness.

Match: Tottenham 1-4 Chelsea, November 6, 2023

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