Another match, another Azpilicueta Morata connection. Chelsea ran out 2-0 winners against Brighton on Boxing Day. A lack luster first half saw few chances from the Blues, with the iconic duo of Hazard and Morata struggling for space in front of a tightly packed back four. Antonio Conte gave the hairdryer treatment at half time, and within 60 seconds of the break the Blues were in front. Cesar Azpilicueta receives the ball in an advanced, right-central channel. He delivers a whipped cross between the center backs. Alvaro Morata heads home. 1-0 Chelsea.
This is something we have seen over and over this season. He did it against Manchester United, Everton, and Leicester as well. Carbon copies of the same goal. But how? It is clearly a rehearsed set up. When asked about defending it better, Jose Mourinho explicitly spoke about working on defending that scenario. Crosses from central positions. The video makes it clearer.
The Azpilicueta Morata Connection
Part of Chelsea’s success in creating these types of chances is that it occurs during a switch in play. Set pieces are one way to gain an advantage, both offensively and defensively, but if a team is set up right it becomes difficult to execute. In open play, Chelsea do a terrific job of probing one side to create space on the other. Last season it often came in the form of big switches to Alonso or Moses. This season it has come through central penetration as much as anything else.
For example, take the Morata header against Manchester United. The play begins with Hazard receiving in a deeper position on the left flank. Being Chelsea’s most dangerous player, he draws SIX (6) United defenders within 10 yards of him, 45 yards from goal. The ball is switched to Azpilicueta, through Fabregas, with space to drive into. United are slow to recover, admittedly, leaving Jones on an island in terms of pressure, but the switch creates the space. What happens after that is what truly makes the goal possible.
Off The Ball Movement
Watch the run of Bakayoko off the ball. His movement, combined with Bailly’s occupation with Alonso, does two things. The first, it freezes Phil Jones. With no runner there, Young, Smalling, and a retreating Matic provide adequate cover for Jones to close down Azpilicueta. Instead he has plenty of time to pick out a terrific delivery.
The second consequence of Bakayoko’s run is where it pulls Chris Smalling. Smalling, as the middlemost center back, should be fronting Morata who has pulled between him and Bailly. Bailly is marking Alonso at the back post; Smalling is now caught between letting Bakayoko run and marking Morata, or following Bakayoko and hoping Bailly can come inside. If Valencia recovers quicker, each United defender can slide across. However they do not, Smalling is caught out, and Morata is free. Against Leicester, Pedro occupied the near center back. Against Brighton, Fabregas sits in front of the back four drawing him out slightly, while Bakayoko occupies the far center back. It is straight off the training ground.
The Cross and The Finish
Chelsea do a lot of terrific things to set up these kinds of chances, but ultimately they need to convert them. Morata has gotten on the end of that ball and not finished almost as often as he has. This is where the Azpilicueta Morata connection comes into play. On his right foot, Azpilicueta has developed an uncanny knack for both the elevation and pace on the delivery. Too much pace and Morata is arriving late, and glances wide at the far post if he makes contact at all. Too slow and Morata is early, and the defenders adjust. Too low and it is cut out, too high and the keeper claims. Even with runners creating pockets for Morata to arrive into, the delivery still needs to be extremely precise.
The other half of the Azpilicueta Morata connection is obviously the header extraordinaire, Alvaro Morata. He says he takes after Cristiano Ronaldo from his time in Madrid, and Fernando Llorente from his time in Turin.
At Real Madrid, I did heading drills with Cristiano Ronaldo. You see him go up for headers, that spring and power, he is a real beast.
At Juventus, I saw Fernando Llorente, how he finds space and directs his headers
His timing and form when jumping are identifiably Ronaldo-esque. He generates power, directs the ball into good areas, it is a joy to watch. He is less Andy Carroll, bashing his forehead through ball and defender skull alike, and more a squash racket. Deft, timed appropriately, but pacey when needed. It is hard not to see Drogba comparisons, but Peter Osgood is one that comes up more often. In fact, his first goal for the club at Burnley is eerily reminiscent of Osgood’s winner in the 1970 FA Cup Final.
Will It Last?
Chelsea are doing their best to catch league leaders Manchester City. When the Azpilicueta Morata connection is in full flow, they look like it might be possible. But as he scores and scores, you will see more opposition managers set up to stop it. One potential counter method is to instruct your wide right midfielder (winger, or right central midfielder) to press Azpilicueta aggressively. It could open you up to interplay between Chelsea’s wingback and whoever has drifted into that space, but it would stop the delivery at the source. In general, an aggressive press has been successful against Chelsea in the past. With six assists between the two so far this season, it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops.
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