For the ultimate game of the season, both Watford and Chelsea had very little but pride for which to play. With Watford already resigned to relegation and Chelsea with third place essentially wrapped up, we expected to see a bit more rotation in the squad and some of the fringe and academy players to get minutes. While the former was true, it seems likely that the academy had already been dismissed for holiday prior to this game, as none were even on the bench.
Thomas Tuchel sent out our familiar 3-4-3 while bestowing minutes on Saúl Ñíguez as one of the no. 6s and Kenedy getting the nod at wingback. The average player positions show two things – that we were very regimented and rigid in our formation (I have never seen a lineup/player positions map mirror one another so closely) and that Watford were heavily concentrated on their left due to our propensity to attack down the right. It was also affording more space on our left flank, and Kenedy was playing very direct and with speed, something that has been missing from our attack at times this season. It was nice to see him contributing greatly to our offensive output. Saúl himself would even contribute to that offense early on, taking a few shots and even narrowly missing wide in the 15th minute after a coordinated high press would cause a turnover just outside of their box.
Kenedy would also grab an assist from some well-worked ball movement and through a passing pattern we have exploited repeatedly this season. While he was having success down his flank, on this occasion he would switch the ball through the back and take the ball to the opposite flank with Ziyech and James working some tidy passes and forcing their back line to shift, all while now leaving Kenedy open on the opposite flank.
These quick switches of play in attack have reaped benefits all season long – it played a part in why Reece James and Ben Chilwell were so effective in the beginning of the season. We have had problems breaking down teams in a low block but also have been frustrated at times by a packed centre of the park. It’s easy to see both from the above images and simply because of their formation, Watford were literally doing both. That almost certainly is why Havertz was preferred to Lukaku, so that we would have more fluidity in our movements and interchanges up top to break up their marking. A back four that was playing as narrowly as Watford were cannot cover the width of the field on both flanks. This is why the switches were both important and effective.
After receiving from Ziyech, who brings the ball centrally before making the switch to Kenedy, Kenedy is afforded time in the box before being closed down. With both Mount and Havertz occupying great spaces, Kenedy picks out the latter at the far post for a tap in as easy as you’d like. The scintillating start to the game would finally see us grab an early goal and play out a comprehensive first half – and we would make history while heading in to the break with the lead.
Once again, the one thing left wanting was our finishing. Havertz could have easily had a hat-trick, as two scrumptious balls over the top from Kenedy found him past their back line with only the Daniel Bachmann to beat. He was denied on one with a decent save from close range while the other came off the crossbar.
And on finishing, there is a high probability that our slow and possession-oriented game has created a hesitancy from some players to take on shots unless the ideal circumstances present themselves. Havertz was guilty of this, too. Mount does incredibly well when he is given license to roam centrally and play almost as a no. 10 role. He picks up a pocket of space and receives a pass from Saúl on the turn. He then is able to slide a weighted pass into the path of Havertz, who is in on goal. Had he taken on the shot with his first touch, there is a likely chance he’d have scored. He takes touches and is closed down by two defenders, so when he eventually does try to shoot, he fluffs it.
And once again, our wasted chances nearly came back to haunt us. The game essentially played out in two halves. We were dominant in possession all game, but our chances dried up rather remarkably in the second half. In addition, both players who had decent first halves in Kenedy and Saúl, fell off a cliff as far as form is concerned in the second half. In fact, almost right after the break, Saúl gifted them their highest probable goal threat due to a poor touch and taking far too long on the ball. A brilliant Mendy save prevents them from going level.
The Hornets began to win the midfield battles and they started to play more in the middle third rather than in their defensive third. They were dueling for the ball much higher up the pitch and were putting more pressure on our no. 6s. We were also getting caught on the ball far too often and Watford’s breaks thereafter, especially those coming down their right side, were giving them the impetus they needed to eventually get their goal.
Kenedy would need to make way around the hour mark due to muscle fatigue, likely because he hasn’t played competitive football for months. Malang Sarr would come on but offered significantly less dynamism than Kenedy had done before him. As a result, Mount was essentially isolated on that side in terms of creating chances.
The next change would be made in order to give Antonio Rüdiger a proper send off, as well as to shift Sarr into a more defensive position and get another offensive presence on the pitch. It was surprising to see that Tuchel decided to deploy Ross Barkley just behind Havertz, but it would eventually pay off.
Watford would make some changes as well, and two of those would prove to be immediately impactful. Dan Gosling would come on in the 82nd minute and have the ball in the back of the net 5 minutes later, assisted by one of Watford’s other subs. Our defensive structure broke down because it seemed like we weren’t sure whether we were playing with a back 3 or a back 4 after Sarr had shifted. Reece James would have technically been the right sided defender if it was a 4, but he was still making lung-busting runs the length of the pitch.
That structural collapse begins because Sarr presses all the way up the pitch on Cucho Hernández while leaving Gosling in acres of space behind him on that flank. Hernández finds João Pedro, who had dropped into the midfield and dragged Azpilicueta with him. Kanté and Saúl are both back to help defensively, but to highlight the shape of our back 4 (if that was the case), we are horribly mispositioned. With about an eternity to find his cross and especially with Thiago Silva now out of our box to close down Adam Masina (another of their subs), the marking becomes as dreadful as the positioning originally was. Sarr is negligent and Gosling bullets a header past Mendy. The frustration that we might finish the season on a draw and continue to drop points at home was palpable.
And yet, we wouldn’t finish the day with all doom and gloom. Immediately after their goal, Ben Chilwell was brought out to roaring applause for the final few minutes, showing that he has made outstanding progress since tearing his ligament. It was a feel good moment that would only be overshadowed by Ross Barkley, in his 100th Chelsea appearance, nodding us into the lead from a beautiful cross by Reece James. Curling with the outside of his boot, James notices both that Barkley and Chilwell himself were wide open at the back post. Chilwell’s presence on the field was immediately noticeable – our wingbacks showing just why they were so important to our success earlier this season. Chilwell spent nearly his entire substitute appearance camped in the opposition’s box and our offensive thrust was improved for the final minutes.
Reece James’ 2021/22 Premier League season by numbers:
117 duels won
99x possession won
71 touches in opp. box
48 chances created
10 shots on target
9 big chances created
No defender was directly involved in more goals. pic.twitter.com/698PHTaSf1
— Squawka (@Squawka) May 22, 2022
A season done and dusted, a large regime change both at the helm and in the squad are imminent, and while the on-field action has temporarily halted, the off-field action is about to ramp up significantly.