How Romelu Lukaku (and Arsenal) Helped Chelsea Make It Look Easy
Soccer is supposed to be hard. Not on Sunday, though.
Sometimes, soccer seems impossibly complex. There are 11 players, all moving based on some combination of managerial instruction, their own volition, their own physical capability, and whatever they ate for lunch. How the ball moves up, down, and around the field is determined by -- well, what exactly? In a baseball game, a batter is trying to hit the ball and the pitcher is trying to throw the ball either past the batter’s bat or in a way that convinces the batter, wrongly, not to swing. In basketball, you’re trying to score, usually a three or a shot close to the hoop, before the shot clock runs out. And in football, pretty much everyone other than the quarterback is tasked with executing a series of movements, and it’s it’s all with the goal of moving the ball forward and into the end zone. With soccer, they’re trying to score, sort of, sometimes, but also probably not this time.
Perhaps “complex” is the wrong word. Sometimes, soccer seems impossibly random. The ball just sorta bounces around the midfield, one guy tries to play a through ball, it gets blocked, another guy passes it back to a defender, and they just shuffle it back and forth for a while until someone gets bored, tries to play the ball forward, and the other team wins it back, tries to counter attack, someone trips, the ball hits the ref, the counter attack continues, and here it comes ... nope, that’s a goal kick. Across the first two weeks of the Premier League season, there’s been an attempt on goal about every three and a half minutes, and there’s been an actual goal every 33 minutes. These are the best players in the world, putzing around and failing over and over and over again.
This push-and-pull of complexity and randomness is part of what makes the sport so compelling. Rene Maric founded the site Spielverlagerung, which published and still publishes dense tactical exegeses of the Danish Superliga and Celta Vigo’s newest coach. You and I can’t understand everything because it’s not written for us; it’s written for other coaches because it’s how a lot of other coaches think. Maric seems to be one of the hottest young coaching prospects in Europe -- first at Red Bull Salzburg, then Borussia Monchengladbach, and now Borussia Dortmund -- and that’s because this exhaustive, fine-tooth-combing helps make the teams he coaches better. Except, then some dude from Freiburg spanks one into the upper corner and your detailed notes on positional play and pressing triggers get thrown in the trash:
Other times, though, soccer can seem both simple and pre-ordained -- like during Chelsea’s first goal against Arsenal on Sunday.
The sequence begins with a throw in for Reece James, up on the right sideline, pretty much on the edge of the attacking third. He throws it back to Cesar Azpilicueta, who’s under no pressure and shuffles it sideways to Andreas Christensen, who’s also under no pressure. Christensen plays it to Mateo Kovacic, but he’s covered on all sides by three different players, so he slides it back to Antonio Rudiger.
Rudiger takes a couple touches toward the left sideline before playing it back to Kovacic. And then it begins:
The first pass to Kovacic resulted in nothing because they had three players behind him, essentially blocking off all of his potential forward passing angles. Everything starts to happen because when he receives the ball again, there’s no one behind him. If you watch the above clip, Albert Sambi Lokonga, who made a run to put pressure on Kovacic on the first pass, just ever so slightly drifts wide toward Kai Havertz before rounding his run back toward the center. Nicolas Pepe gets preoccupied with Rudiger, and Gabriel Martinelli seemingly tries to cut off the passes to Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen. That kind of positioning might be fine if A) his teammates were covering for it, and/or B) this was a player other than Mateo Kovacic. The 27-year-old Croat ranks in the 94th percentile or above among central midfielders for progressive passes, progressive carries, and dribbles completed.1 In other words, he’s always trying to move the ball forward. So he beats Martinelli with a quick open-close of his hips and then immediately plays a straight ball to Romelu Lukaku. It’s really impressive execution from Kovacic, but Arsenal also create the environment for Kovacic to make this happen. The best part of the GIF is Emile Smith-Rowe pointing at Kovacic, and then just sort of standing in no man’s land, blocking no passing lanes, as Kovacic slides the ball right past him and into Lukaku’s feet. According to Twelve Football’s model, although that dribble and pass removed five Arsenal players from the play, it still only increased Chelsea’s chances of scoring by two percent. Unlike the next one...
The pure action here is Lukaku drops the ball to Kovacic, who takes a touch and chips a pass into the box for Reece James. That ball, per the Twelve model, increased Chelsea’s chances of scoring by about 13 percent. From a Chelsea-only perspective, this happens because of 1) Lukaku’s ability to hold off Pablo Mari and recognize the pass to Kovacic, 2) Kovacic’s recognition of the space to run forward into, his recognition of the pass to James, and his execution of the pass to James, and 3) James’s recognition of the space, the bending of his run to stay onside, and his speed to cover the ground. However, four Arsenal players all converge on Lukaku, which leaves the guy who just passed the ball by all of them open -- again. Then there’s no real pressure put on Kovacic, who’s able to open his body and play the pass to James, unbothered. So, how the hell is James in so much space?
In the first screenshot and first GIF, you’ll see Mason Mount occupying Arsenal’s left back, Kieran Tierney. As Lukaku drops for the ball, Mount makes a run in behind Lukaku. Since the center back next to him, Mari, is occupied by Lukaku, Tierney can’t pass him off and has to follow Mount inside, which opens up all the space for James to move into. It’s a brilliant little run by Mount that doesn’t show up in any stats (yet) but also doesn’t matter if his teammates don’t execute with the ball.
There are all kinds of ways for Arsenal to deal with this. Simplest option: Have Bukayo Saka drop back. But based on Pepe’s positioning on the near side, it doesn’t seem like Arteta wants either of his wingers dropping that deep. (While this weakened Arsenal in the defensive third, it also didn’t seem to have any pay-off on the other end. The hosts attempted just six shots, and all of them were low quality.)The next-easiest would be for Rob Holding to be positioned way more centrally. Holding gets sucked out by the positioning of Kai Havertz -- he and Mount are so, so good at manipulating defenses without the ball -- so he’s not in position to cover behind Mari and potentially pick up the run of Mount inside, then allowing Tierney to defend James. Granit Xhaka could also drop in behind the advanced Mari, essentially swapping roles on the field for the time being and letting Tierney bump out wide.
But beyond the micro-decisions that could’ve stopped the movement this far down the chain, the bigger issues for Arsenal start earlier on. Unlike the other major sports, soccer is a game of trade-offs. If you consider Chelsea’s three attackers, plus their wing backs, as a band of five, then that gives them a numerical advantage against Chelsea’s back four. But that also should then give Arsenal advantage in the middle of the field. Chelsea only have Kovacic and Jorginho, while Mike Arteta’s team has Sambi Lokonga, Xhaka, and Smith-Rowe. Despite that, Kovacic single-handedly takes all of them out of the game with his first pass, and then they all pretty much instantly forget about him, and he gets the ball back with time and space to play it past them again. The cascade of bad decisions all begin once the ball gets into the feet of Lukaku. Outside of the initial pressure by Lokonga, Arsenal’s three central midfielders almost have no effect on how Chelsea play through this possession. None of them prevent the ball from getting to Lukaku, none of them prevent the ball from getting back to Kovacic, and none of them prevent Kovacic from playing the ball to James. Xhaka, in particular, isn’t marking Mount and isn’t shielding Lukaku. The only other player he can affect on the left side is James, and Kovacic just chips it over his head to get the right wing-back the ball.
There are a couple more minor errors from there. Tierney doesn’t cut out the square ball from James, and he does have time to get there; instead he angles his body to prevent a cut back. And then Mari just gets completely out-muscled and out-ran by Lukaku to finish off the chance. For Chelsea, the goal was like a three-man practice drill -- forward, back, over, and square. For Arsenal and Arteta, it was just about the worst thing possible: They made the game look simple, for the other team.
All data comes from FBRef, unless otherwise noted. Progressive passes are defined by the site as “Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch.” Progressive carries: “Carries that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 5 yards, or any carry into the penalty area. Excludes carries from the defending 40% of the pitch”.