Chelsea, Morata misfire in entertaining 0-0 draw vs. 10-man Leicester
LONDON -- Three points from Chelsea's 0-0 draw with Leicester at Stamford Bridge.
1. Chelsea draw again
It hasn't been a happy 2018 for Chelsea thus far: a draw with Arsenal, a draw with Norwich, another draw with Arsenal and now another draw, at home to a Leicester City side that played with 10 men for the final 20 minutes after left-back Ben Chilwell's dismissal. It's a poor run of results for the defending Premier League champions, who can still rely upon excellent defensive organisation but look desperately short of attacking inspiration.
That said, even Chelsea's defending wasn't particularly impressive here. Leicester were the better side and created more opportunities, excelling in the first half before dropping much deeper after the break. Jamie Vardy was brighter than Alvaro Morata, Riyad Mahrez more dangerous than Eden Hazard.
For that, Claude Puel must take a large slice of the credit in this battle of the two most recent Premier League champions. Leicester were tactically excellent, coping well with their numerical disadvantage in midfield by dropping Shinji Okazaki in to help and pressing Chelsea's build-up play with confidence, seemingly having wised up to the passing patterns of their centre-backs.
In truth, Chelsea should feel lucky to have taken a point rather than disappointment at having dropped two. The one consolation is that Chelsea's upcoming Premier League fixtures (Brighton, Bournemouth, Watford and West Brom) are hardly daunting, but the boos around Stamford Bridge at full-time underlined the home fans' current frustrations.
2. Chelsea's system still fails to yield a victory
Whereas Chelsea stormed to the title last season after Antonio Conte's switch to a three-man defence, his default formation this time around has been the 3-5-2. There were logical reasons for the change: get Hazard closer to goal and incorporate Cesc Fabregas into the side without losing midfield balance. In matches like this, however, one wonders whether the extra midfielder is serving much purpose.
Especially, it must be said, when that extra midfielder is Tiemoue Bakayoko. He wasn't necessarily Chelsea's worst performer on Saturday, but nevertheless, he's contributed relatively little since his switch from Monaco last summer. Bakayoko is certainly a box-to-box midfielder, but his ability when he reaches either box is highly questionable. Besides, with Leicester's Okazaki playing a typically energetic role and dropping back onto his old teammate N'Golo Kante to ensure Leicester weren't overrun, Chelsea didn't even have the numerical advantage in midfield that Conte may have expected.
With just two forwards, Chelsea often seem rather predictable in the final third. Morata and Hazard have a good relationship and attempted to combine with some slick one-twos here, but so rarely is there a third man contributing to attacking moves. Their first half performance was crying out for Pedro Rodriguez, who remains excellent at making those late, unseen bursts from the flank into scoring positions while also providing much needed width.
The 3-5-2 asks a lot from Chelsea's wing-backs, too. The beauty of the 3-4-3 was that the wide players would move inside, opening up both flank for Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses to flood. Here, with the opposition full-backs having no responsibility for Hazard, they could focus their attention on stopping Chelsea's wing-backs. We no longer see Chelsea overloading the opposition defence.
The new system is certainly a valuable alternative for Chelsea, and Conte's determination to keep opponents on their toes is understandable: the 3-4-3 was "worked out" to a certain extent towards the back end of last season. But with Morata struggling to find the net, Chelsea need an extra goal threat in their forward line. It took less than 15 minutes of the second half for Conte to introduce Pedro and Willian, but in taking off Hazard and Fabregas, Chelsea lost their two best attacking threats and the two players this system is designed to benefit.
Conte shifted back to the 3-4-3, with Alonso and Moses pushing forward. This caused Leicester's full-backs more problems and probably contributed to the game's key moment: Foxes' left-back Chilwell was sent off for two bookable challenges, first on right-winger Willian and then on right-wing-back Moses. Chelsea, however, couldn't make the most of that advantage.
3. Mahrez shines again
It was expected that Leicester would put on more of a counterattacking display at Stamford Bridge: sit back, soak up pressure and use the speed of Vardy. But the Foxes were more proactive and dominated possession in the opening stages very impressively. They had 12 first-half shots, the most for an away side at Chelsea in well more than a decade according to Opta, and Puel will have been disappointed that his side weren't leading at the break.
Their star performer was again Mahrez, who was largely given license to remain in attacking positions rather than tracking Alonso -- in part because Chelsea were playing 3-5-2 and not 3-4-3 as outlined above -- and used his freedom to produce some excellent moments, roaring past Antonio Rudiger on more than one occasion.
The Algeria international has rightly been criticised for being inconsistent since Leicester's title-winning campaign of two years ago, sometimes seemingly picking and choosing which matches he wants to dominate. This, however, was one of his good games. From the outset he found space and repeatedly drove towards goal, although he should have done better with a fine chance from a left-wing cross that he skied into the top tier.
Only Hazard could match his quick footwork, and while Mahrez is clearly a left-footed right-winger, he shows a willingness and ability to go down the line, too. This continually seems to surprise opposition defences, and shortly before half-time, he pushed forward to the outside of Rudiger and flashed in a low cross with his right foot, which was crying out for a finish from Vardy or Okazaki.
Mahrez was also involved in the second half's first major talking point, when he darted onto the ball in the box and went to ground having attempted to engineer contact with Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen. He was fortunate to escape without a booking for diving.
With Liverpool having lost Coutinho, Arsenal set to lose Alexis Sanchez, Manchester United looking at attacking reinforcements and Chelsea also needing more attacking inspiration, Mahrez still seems the best option for any of these title challengers. Few players in Europe can score, assist and dribble as impressively as Mahrez; perhaps no one else in that bracket would be eligible to play in the latter stages of European competition, either.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.