Fabregas creates and finishes for Chelsea as Costa connects the dots
The creativity of Cesc Fabregas propelled Chelsea to a 3-1 win against Swansea on Saturday. On his 300th Premier League appearance, the Spaniard produced a playmaking masterclass that cut open the Welsh visitors and earned the hosts a 10th straight league win at Stamford Bridge.
While Antonio Conte rarely changes his preferred line-up, an added touch of invention proved to be just what Chelsea needed in order to break down their stubborn opponents. Paul Clement's rejuvenated side turned up with a well-drilled 4-5-1 system in which wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses were diligently tracked, leaving Chelsea to try to attack down the middle.
That tricky task was facilitated by Diego Costa receiving passes to feet between the lines, before trying one-touch combinations with Eden Hazard and Pedro. He was often found by Fabregas, who ghosted into the box himself to open the scoring in the first half.
Swansea tried to counter via Fernando Llorente's hold-up play, but their wingers were worried by Alonso and Moses, and rarely in position to attack quickly. Instead the equaliser came out of nowhere, Llorente flicking in a Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick.
As Chelsea built pressure in the second half, Fabregas remained their heartbeat, and set up Pedro for 2-1. The visitors changed their shape towards the end, but Conte shut up shot before Hazard found Costa on the break to cement the win.
Costa connects Chelsea attacks
Costa has taken up more central positions since Conte took charge at Chelsea, and that proved handy here against an opponent that did well defending wide areas. Visiting teams often lose track of Moses and Alonso at Stamford Bridge, but Sigurdsson and Wayne Routledge tracked back well, enabling the Swansea full-backs to concentrate on Hazard and Pedro.
That meant Chelsea tried to find a way down the centre, which was complex against such a compact opponent. They stationed Costa in front of the centre-backs and Hazard and Pedro nearby, while Fabregas and N'Golo Kante stayed in front of the midfielders, trying to zip passes into the feet of Costa, who could then find his fellow forwards.
Swansea's central midfield trio duly tried to block the angles for these passes, but this was hard to do all the time: when Fabregas was stopped, Cesar Azpilicueta stepped up as an auxiliary distributor, and the duo ended up as the two top passers of the game.
This made Costa heavily involved. On 14 minutes, he took down a lofted pass and found Hazard, who set up Fabregas for a deflected effort. Just a minute later, Azpilicueta set up Costa, who played a one-two with Hazard but could not get a shot away. Then on 19 minutes, Costa received a new low pass, before Pedro teed up Fabregas for the opener. The latter could have made it two later on after another move in which Costa got the ball from Azpilicueta and linked up with Pedro.
The graphic shows how Costa received the ball outside the box, particularly near the right, before trying short passes to nearby teammates.
Swansea wingers forced to defend
For Swansea, their defensive structure affected their ability to counter-attack. The lonely Llorente had to battle three centre-backs and relied on quick support when trying to hold the ball up. Some was offered by the central midfielders, but the chief attacking outlets always had to be Sigurdsson and Routledge.
Yet both were often preoccupied with Moses and Alonso. Swansea pressed high only occasionally, and largely waited inside their own half, which drew the wide men into deep positions. On 11 minutes, Sigurdsson had retreated all the way into his own box to stop Costa, while on another occasion, Routledge could be seen slogging away near his own touchline to repel Alonso. This led Sigurdsson and Routledge to play the lowest number of passes among the 22 players that started the game.
That said, set-pieces were another matter. Sigurdsson swung in a corner that Federico Fernandez should have directed at goal, whipped in the free kick nodded home by Llorente, and tested Thibaut Courtois with an effort in the second half. He also triggered a penalty shout, but otherwise there was little threat from open play.
Fabregas creates and finishes
The opposite was true for Fabregas, who pulled the strings throughout. Helped by Azpilicueta, he kept feeding Costa (see the pass combination in the graphic), but also found Hazard and Pedro in spaces between the lines slightly out wide. Hazard drew a dangerous foul in this manner in the first half, while Pedro used the same pattern to turn inside and fire beyond Lukasz Fabianski for 2-1. On another occasion, just after the interval, Fabregas set up Hazard who drew a fine stop.
Fabregas would also look to finish attacks. Given that his passes near the box often started moves, he was usually at hand to finish them too. He did so for Hazard's early cutback as well as the first goal, plus another low ball from Hazard early in the second half, which he smacked into the crossbar. By the end, Fabregas had fired off five shots -- more than any other player.
Conte counters Clement changes
As the final whistle neared, Clement applied more direct tactics, and target man Llorente took on a more important role. With 14 minutes left Jordan Ayew replaced Tom Carroll to play on the left wing, pushing Sigurdsson infield, while Luciano Narsingh later came on for Routledge. Swansea were now using a direct 4-2-3-1.
But it paid no dividends. Conte had already replaced Pedro with Nemanja Matic to beef up the central midfield zone, and Chelsea now guarded their own box while countering through Hazard and Costa. The duo combined to make it 3-1, and while Sigurdsson did have a free kick effort, Swansea rarely threatened in the final third.
That hardly detracted from what was a decent away display, but on this occasion it did not prove quite enough.
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