The last thing that you want after a crushing defeat at the hands of relegation rivals Swansea is the visit of table-topping Chelsea. Nine wins in a row Chelsea. But that’s what Sunderland face on Wednesday.
Chelsea have been on a roll since a 3-0 humbling at Arsenal. 9 games. 27 points. 21 goals scored. 2 goals conceded. It doesn’t get much better than that. Antonio Conte has well and truly found his feet at Stamford Bridge and has led Chelsea to a three point lead through 15 games. The likes of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses look reborn under the Italian’s leadership, and the general mood around the club looks a million miles away from last season’s.
They’ll expect to make it a perfect ten at the Stadium of Light.
Most expected Conte to bring his trusted three-man defence to the Bridge when he arrived in the summer. It had brought him a great deal of success with both Juventus and Italy, after all. But he resisted, and Chelsea were decent enough as they continued with their traditional 4-2-3-1. Decent, but not great.
But then they traveled to the Emirates and were blown away 3-0, and Conte realised things had to change. Out went the 4-2-3-1, and in came the 3-4-3. And they haven’t looked back.
The 3-4-3 starts at the back, with a three-man defence giving them more time and control of the ball. The outer centre backs are confident enough to step out of their starting position and push wide. This allows the wing backs to push forwards themselves and creates more space for them to roam up and down the wing. It also allows the central defender, usually David Luiz, to dictate play from deep - a throwback to the sweeper of yesteryear. In defensive situations, Luiz is more of a ‘spare part’, with the outer centre backs and wing backs doing the bulk of the defensive work - therefore negating his defensive weaknesses.
The wing backs are a hugely important cog in this system. They work tirelessly up and down the wing, providing defensive support, but more importantly, creating space for the likes of Hazard, Pedro and Willian. The wingers in this system typically play as inside forwards - they drive inwards to link with Costa and allow the wing backs to exploit the space outside of them. It’s no coincidence that Chelsea are seeing increased productivity from Hazard and Pedro in this system - luckily for us, Eden Hazard won't feature this evening.
Where do we start? They’ve won 9 games in a row with a +19 goal difference. Chelsea are efficient. They’ve scored 39% of their shots on target. Diego Costa has scored 12 goals from just 22 shots on target. They’re also great at creating chances in the opposition box - 58% of their shots have been taken in the penalty area. As a result, 88% of their goals have been scored in the penalty area.
Chelsea are extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet. They’ve attempted (355) and completed (208) more dribbles than any other team. They pass with 84.2% accuracy (3rd best in the league) and have racked up 25 assists. Unsurprisingly, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic pass with over 88% accuracy as they control the midfield.
They’re also mean in defence, allowing just two goals in their last nine games, partly due to their efforts in pressing the ball high up the pitch. They make 18.5 tackles and 14.4 interceptions per game. And they do it cleanly - 9.7 fouls per game is the league’s lowest total. As a result, they allow just 9.1 shots per game and make just 22.4 clearances per game. The defence is well protected.
Weaknesses are hard to find in Chelsea. West Brom gave them a good fight and showed one way to stop the 3-4-3 (see: ‘How Can Sunderland Beat Them?), but they still lost in the end. When the 3-4-3 wasn’t working, Conte changed the system and got the victory.
With 14.5 per game, Chelsea win the third least amount of aerial duels in the league. But we’re really clutching at straws here, though. They’re very, very good.
Key Player - Diego Costa
Costa is back to his best this season - and he even seems a changed man. His winner against West Brom was his fifth goal in six games and his 12th in the league this season. Conte has him firing on all cylinders again and has seemingly sorted his disciplinary problems. Costa, just one yellow card away from a ban, has gone 10 games without one in all competitions - his longest run since the 2010/11 season.
But that’s not to say that he’s no longer aggressive. Costa is as fiery as ever, but he shows controlled aggression, rather than being a nutter. Just look at his goal against West Brom for evidence of that.
The Brazilian-born-Spaniard international has been involved in 17 goals this season, more than any other player. In fact, he has either scored or assisted in 15 of his last 17 league games - only failing to do so against Manchester United and Arsenal.
The signs are ominous for Sunderland.
How Can Sunderland Beat Them?
That’s a tough question - Chelsea have looked unbeatable since their switch to a three-man defence. But West Brom gave a good account of themselves in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat and gave Chelsea one of their toughest tests this season. And that’s something that Sunderland can look to emulate.
Tony Pulis’ plan was for his defence to be compact and tight in a regimental shape, squeezing the space around Costa, Hazard and Pedro. As a result, Chelsea’s most dangerous attacking threats were forced away from Ben Foster’s goal as they looked to drop deep to get on the ball. Chris Brunt and Matt Phillips were positioned as a second set of full backs, sitting incredibly deep, to restrict the movement of wing backs Alonso and Moses. Chelsea’s attack thrives on moving into space at speed, but West Brom prevented that with a disciplined defensive shape. As a result, the Blues resorted to lofted balls which played into the Baggies’ hands, and they really had to rely on a defensive error to break the deadlock late on.
Whether Sunderland have the concentration, discipline and positional awareness to emulate West Brom is the big question. They certainly didn’t show that against Swansea. But stranger things have happened when Sunderland are involved.
- There have been over 2.5 goals in 15 of the last 17 encounters between the two teams in all competitions.
- There have been over 2.5 goals in 8 of the last 9 Premier League games at the Stadium of Light.
- Chelsea have scored at least 2 goals in their last 3 games against Sunderland.
- Sunderland have won just 4 of their last 13 games against Chelsea in all competitions.
- But 3 of those 4 wins have come in the last 6 games.
- Fabio Borini has scored 4 goals in this fixture, more than any other player set to feature on Wednesday.