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Women's Champions League tactical analysis: Ajax 0-3 Chelsea

UEFA technical observer Britta Carlson cast her eye over Chelsea's convincing quarter-final first leg win at Ajax.

Sjoeke Nüsken (right) celebrates scoring Chelsea's third goal against Ajax with team-mate Catarina Macario (left)
Sjoeke Nüsken (right) celebrates scoring Chelsea's third goal against Ajax with team-mate Catarina Macario (left) UEFA via Getty Images

Chelsea took a big step towards the semi-finals of the UEFA Women's Champions League with Tuesday night's 3-0 first-leg triumph at Ajax.

In this in-depth analysis, UEFA technical observer and Germany women's national team assistant coach Britta Carlson picks out three talking points from a match that showcased Chelsea's pressing game and their threat from the wings.

As it happened: Ajax 0-3 Chelsea

Ajax's attacking variety

Ajax’s attacking variety

Ajax had won four straight home games en route to reaching the quarter-finals for the first time. Tuesday night was different, though they did ask questions of Chelsea in the opening stages and this first video shows several variations in their attacking play.

As we see illustrated in clip one, the home midfielders would look for different spaces, sometimes dropping into false full-back positions. Here winger Tiny Hoekstra steps back on the right flank, drawing Chelsea full-back Niamh Charles with her to create a 3v3 which Milicia Keijzer tries to exploit with the long pass down the right.

The second clip shows Ajax playing through Chelsea centrally after Rosa van Gool is able to get on the ball behind the Londoners' front pressing line, working it further forward in a move that ends with Romée Leuchter striking the post. It is worth noting the movement of the two other Ajax midfielders which leads to Erin Cuthbert falling back and thereby allowing Van Gool room to play her pass.

Yet this was not always the case. As Lily Yohannes, the home midfielder, said afterwards: "All around we were unable to find solutions in the build-up. Chelsea pressed us great and we could not really find solutions and when we played long balls, we weren't winning the first balls and second balls and then it becomes difficult."

Carlson, the UEFA observer, felt Ajax were at their most dangerous when counterattacking as we see in the third clip when their front three race forward following a regain. Hoekstra has the option of playing in either Leuchter or Chasity Grant but takes the shot instead.

"They always left two players higher up, Leuchter and Grant," said Carlson, "and the wingers could join them in counterattacks. There were situations when they got the ball and played it deep and raced up with three or four players. A few times in the first half, they could have got a shot in on goal if they'd had a little bit more quality in their passing."

Chelsea's pressing game

Chelsea's pressing game

In the words of coach Emma Hayes, Chelsea "defended as solidly as we have been doing" and their pressing game was a key factor. "That was part of our game plan and the players executed it really well," she said.

The first clip of the second video above shows their man-marking approach when pressing in a high block. With a strategy of one-v-one situations right across the pitch, centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan steps into midfield to cover her player, Johannes, following the Ajax teenager into the final third, and eventually Chelsea force a throw-in high in the opposition half.

Carlson offered the following interpretation of Chelsea's approach: "If the ball went outside to the wing, they tried to isolate the player on the wing and then went in a higher press as Ajax were pushed back."

In the second clip we see Chelsea's compact shape and, again, the way they look to get tight to each player – Van Gool, in particular, has no room this time, with a blue shirt close behind her, and so goalkeeper Regina van Eijk plays it long and Chelsea win the ball back. This leads us back to Yohannes's comment in the previous section about the visitors winning the second balls, with Carlson suggesting that Hayes's team seemed quite happy for Ajax to play these longer passes from deep.

She explained: "Ajax had one signature move, where if the central defender had no pressure on the ball, they played a long ball to Leuchter or Grant. From a Chelsea perspective, maybe they were saying, 'We're so strong in the defence and can win the first header and with Cuthbert and [Melanie] Leupolz can win the second balls'."

To back up that argument, Chelsea were successful with 67.9% of the aerial duels last night. For duels, meanwhile, they posted a 57% success rate.

The third clip highlights the role of Buchanan again and, moreover, shows Chelsea winning another header from an Ajax ball from the back in a sequence that ends with James getting in an attempt on goal. This is from the second half when, according to Carlson, Buchanan was even more aggressive and Ajax struggled to match the English champions physically. "Ajax had problems to keep up with the speed – they have young players and you see that impact," she said.

Chelsea progressing out wide

Chelsea's progress out wide

Crosses led to 35% of all the goals scored in the group stage, and that theme continued in Amsterdam.

Chelsea had 19 crosses, 13 of them completed – and of that total, 16 were from open play. Moreover, two of their goals came from crosses – as did the one by Guro Reiten which was disallowed. "Once we started to attack the spaces down the side, [we] got good opportunities for crosses," said Hayes, and this final video shows examples of Chelsea's work out wide.

Clip one highlights the positioning of several of their principal attackers and it is worth underlining the movement of James as she drops deep on the left side with full-back Charles stationed higher up the flank and Reiten also looking to drop wide.

Carlson said: "In the first half they did it well when Lauren James dropped and they made an overload on the left wing. James had a big impact when she dropped down and Guro Reiten went in."

This first sequence ends with Chelsea attempting to penetrate down the right but it was from the left that they produced five of their seven crosses from open play in the first period, and clip two offers an example with the move for Reiten's disallowed goal.

From a tactical viewpoint it is worth pointing out how Reiten keeps the right full-back, Keijzer, inside and, with Hoekstra drawn initially upfield to the centre-back, this means there is plenty of space to exploit with the diagonal pass to Charles who sets up James to centre.

The final clip shows another aspect identified by UEFA's analysis unit as Chelsea attract Ajax players to the ball and then exploit the space over on the right in a passage of play concluded by another cross and shooting opportunity.

Incidentally, the player who plays the ball out to the wing, the two-goal Sjoeke Nüsken, warranted a special mention according to Carlson. Winner of the Player of the Match award, the German played in a more advanced role yet would drop deep, looking for space.

"She has good movement in the space between the lines when she drops off," said Carlson. "Normally she’s a box-to-box midfield player and she knows how the first or second pass has to go. She also won balls in the defence and made the right decisions to pass back or turn around and go directly into counterattack."

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