Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Enzo Fernandez should not be the one to drop between the CBs in the buildup for Chelsea

February 6, 2023 — Enzo Fernandez has signed from Benfica to Chelsea for £105m in this year’s January transfer window. This is a huge signing for the London-based club because Enzo fulfills the vital role of a creative deep lying playmaker who can connect the play and provide chances for Chelsea’s incredibly young and talented overhauled front line.

In Enzo’s debut against Fulham, Graham Potter elected to use a 4–1–2–3 / 4–3–3 with Enzo as the lone pivot. Fulham used a 4–4–2 out of possession.

Chelsea had trouble during the build up phase due to Fulham’s two center forwards matching Chelsea’s two center back pair 2v2, while also blocking off the passing lanes into the midfield of Enzo, Mason Mount and Connor Gallagher. The only safe pass they could make was sideways to either Marc Cucurella at left back or Reece James at right back. Enzo would often then have to drop back into the back line to help in the build-up and provide a numerical advantage 3v2 over Fulham’s initial press.

To understand why having Enzo Fernandez drop in between the two center backs in the build up when playing in a 4–1–2–3 is a bad idea and problematic when it comes to chance creation, you have to go back to Argentina’s World Cup 2022 knockout stage match versus Australia.

In the first half, Argentina used a lopsided 4–1–2–3 in possesion and Australia in a 4–4–2 out of possession marking man-to-man.

Argentina had trouble during the build-up phase due to Australia’s two center forwards matching Argentina’s two center back pair 2v2, while also blocking off the passing lanes into the midfield of Enzo, Alexis MacAllister and Rodrigo De Paul. The only safe pass they could make was sideways to either Marcos Acuna at left back or Nahuel Molina at right back.

To help, Enzo Fernandez dropped in between the two center backs as the +1 to create a numerical advantage versus Australia’s center forwards.

The problem with this is that it created a large chasm between Argentina’s back line and front line. Their structure resembled that of a circle with huge space in the middle. Sound familiar Chelsea fans?

They created very few chances and found it difficult to move the ball into Australia’s defensive end. It isolated the rest of the midfielders and forwards from the back line and did not play in to Enzo’s strengths.

Lionel Messi, as an inverted right winger, would often have to drop back into the middle to help connect the play and provide an outlet for Argentina’s back line. This took Lionel out of the attack if they advanced the ball forward because he would be too far attached from the midfielders and striker Julian Alvarez once he played the ball forward.

At halftime they made a crucial change that would greatly improve the effectiveness of Enzo and free Messi from the responsibility of linking up the play. They subbed in Lisandro Martinez, a center back, for Alejandro Gomez, who was previously playing at left wing, and switched to a 5–3–2.

Nicolas Otamendi occupied the space Enzo Fernandez was originally having to drop into during the build-up, with Cristian Romero at right center back and Lisandro Martinez at left center back providing width. Tons of triangles were created now that the space in the middle was occupied and Argentina had the numerical advantage 3v2 versus Australia’s initial press.

“Constantly creating triangles means that the ball circulation isn’t interrupted.” — Johan Cruyff

This allowed Enzo Fernandez to sit in the middle third where he thrives at the center of the play, to turn and connect the back line to the front line with his vertical or driven progressive passes.

This also allowed Messi to stay higher up the pitch closer to Alvarez, where Messi could drop and roam, but he wasn’t required to drop.

Before the substitution in the 50th minute, Argentina only took two shots with an expected goal total of 0.6. After the substitution, they scored two goals from twelve shots, accumulating a total of 1.1 expected goals.

Back to the match against Fulham; Chelsea had the same issue.

Enzo would drop, creating a large space between the back line and front line, similar to the space that was created in Argentina’s match against Australia.

If Enzo were to receive the ball, his only option would be to either play it left to right to Thiago Silva at right center back, or play a vertical pass out wide to Hakim Ziyech at right wing.

Had he played it to Ziyech, which he did do on one or two occasions, it would look something like this.

When Ziyech receives the ball, the only options he has is to:

  • Pass it back to Reece James
  • Attempt a difficult pass in to Conor Gallagher where he is surround by Fulham players
  • Take the ball down the line and attempt a cross in to the box
  • Attempt a speculative pass in to Kai Havertz behind Fulham’s back line

If the ball is played in to either James or Gallagher, Enzo will not be there in the midfield to link up the play because he is sitting on Chelsea’s back line, cut-off from the attack.

To learn from the mistakes Argentina made versus Australia, in order to improve the structure, to include Enzo and involve him more in the middle third, Chelsea could have taken off a winger and added another center back to the back line. They’d switch to a lopsided 5–3–2, similar to what was deployed during the World Cup.

In this example, Hakim Ziyech at right wing is replaced by Trevor Chalobah at right center back.

This allows Enzo to push in to the center of the pitch to connect the back line to the front line. The wing backs can advance higher and Reece James in particular has more space to work in up the right wing.

There are other formations Chelsea can try, but that’s not purpose of this post. The main point is Enzo Fernandez shouldn’t drop back in between the center backs in a 4–1–2–3.

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