UWCL Quarter-Final 1st Leg: Chelsea vs Wolfsburg

“I’m extremely curious to see how far we’ve progressed in the last three years,” said Emma Hayes before Chelsea’s quarter-final first leg with Wolfsburg. The German side have a strong record against Chelsea. They knocked them out for three consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2018. But plenty has changed in London since 2018. The Blues have won the title with an undefeated, albeit cut short, season. Players like Sam Kerr and ex-Wolfsburg star Pernille Harder have joined the club. The next step for Hayes and her team will be to become a regular challenger in Europe and build on their previous two semi-final appearances.

Chelsea have put themselves in a good position to progress to the semi-finals once more. Though they conceded a late away goal, they take a 2-1 lead into the second leg. From the chances the opposition had, it could have been much worse for Chelsea. Wolfsburg will likely look back on the game and wonder how they only scored once. Wasted chances and some good saves from Ann-Katrin Berger allowed Chelsea to stay in the game. 

Wolfsburg started the game quickly, while Chelsea grew into it. The Blues struggled to move the ball forward from the back. Wolfsburg defended in a narrow 4-2-3-1 mid-block. They cut off access to the centre of the pitch and forced Chelsea into building down the flanks. Ji So-yun and Melanie Leupolz often dropped to help progress the ball, but with little joy. Much of Chelsea’s build-up was in front of Wolfsburg and did little to disrupt their shape. 

When Chelsea did manage to move forward, it was often down the right flank. Niamh Charles offered a wide option and, on occasion, Pernille Harder found some space in the channel. The best example of this came in the tenth minute. Charles pushed forward onto left-back Felicitas Rauch. Melanie Leupolz dropped into the right-back position. Harder got a bit of space in the channel, away from Ingrid Engen, and was able to turn. Rauch didn’t want to press Harder, opting to try and track Charles. Rauch watched the ball more than Charles though, allowing the young full-back to make a darting run inside, blindsiding the left-back. Charles got into a great position and had Fran Kirby signalling for a cutback, but it was a poor ball. 

This move came early in the game, but it wasn’t a sign of things to come. The interplay between much of Chelsea’s attackers wasn’t what we’ve come to expect. On the right, the likes of Bright, Leupolz, Charles and Harder were often present, but couldn’t progress with regularity. They were either pressed against the touchline or challenged by one of Wolfsburg’s young midfield duo. 

When breaking, Chelsea had their front three narrow and close together, but their link-up play wasn’t great. Many moves came to an end with wayward or imprecise passes. Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby in particular showed great movement. Kerr ran the channels and showed for the pass into her feet often. Kirby made a good couple of runs in behind, with the best leading to Chelsea’s opener. In that instance, Sara Doorsoun left the defensive line. Kirby not only made the run into space but delivered a first-time pass to put Kerr in on goal.

Despite not creating much, Chelsea were ruthless with the chances they had. They were outshot 15-8 but capitalised on two lapses in the Wolfsburg backline to take a two-goal lead. But it isn’t Chelsea’s attack I want to focus on, it’s Wolfburg’s. 

The German club put in a strong performance, with much of their good play coming down the right. 

Before starting, I have to say I’m not familiar with Wolfsburg. I don’t know how they usually build-up or attack. I don’t know if how they approached Chelsea differed from their usual game. The only individuals I’ve seen are the ones who appeared in the 2019 World Cup. Though, with such a small sample size, that doesn’t mean much. 

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Wolfsburg tried to target Chelsea’s right flank. 21-year-old Niamh Charles is not only young but it’s only recently she’s played right-back. Instead, much of Wolfsburg’s play came down the right. It wasn’t common for Wolfsburg to build on the left or have Fridolina Rolfö test Charles. When Rolfö did have a chance to run at Charles, Charles often came out on top 

It may have been a happy by-product, but Wolfsburg could have targeted Charles’ inexperience differently. Rolfö was often able to peel away from Charles and find space in the box to get on the end of crosses. This may not have been Charles’ fault or even by-design from Wolfsburg, but it resulted in plenty of chances.

After noticing how much of Wolfsburg’s play came down the right, I wanted to focus on it when rewatching. I wanted to try and see why or how Wolfsburg were able to create so much from the right. I had two main questions in mind. Were Wolfsburg creating overloads on the right? Did Chelsea’s narrow shape leave them vulnerable out wide?

The conclusions aren’t all too satisfying. It’s a bit of a mixture depending on the situation. Wolfsburg did have a quartet of players on the right who interplayed well. Chelsea’s narrow shape gave Kathrin Hendrich space to carry the ball forward. But a few of the chances came from different situations. Some came from throw-ins, so Wolfsburg had players on the wing for that. Others came from counters, with Chelsea players caught ahead of the ball. Others came from good play from Wolfsburg’s quartet on the right, particularly Ewa Pajor’s movement off the ball. 

I wanted to condense as much as possible. I didn’t want it to be describing some video clips. But, it feels like an easier way to talk through the different examples and try to find commonalities.

Wolfsburg’s first venture down the right came in the third minute. The German side started with the ball in their half, looking to play from the back. They found it difficult to progress and played it back to the goalkeeper. The screenshot below shows Chelsea’s narrow defensive shape.

Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby marked or pressed the centre-backs as they split. Pernille Harder blocked the central passing option. If Wolfsburg went wide, as they did twice in this sequence, the ball-side midfielder could get out to press. After seeing nowhere to go, Katarzyna Kiedrzynek kicks long. Alexandra Popp won the aerial duel with Sophie Ingle and flicked the ball on to Svenja Huth. Huth had the chance to run at Jonna Andersson. The clip below shows the move.

A lot of what happened in the above move recurred throughout the match. Ewa Pajor made a run towards the right flank and dragged Magda Eriksson with her. Kathrin Hendrich made a good, untracked overlapping run. Wolfsburg had players find space in the box, with Alexandra Popp making a near-post run and Fridolina Rolfö peeling off at the back post. It also showed how the link-up play between Chelsea’s front three wasn’t great. There was a good chance for Chelsea to break. Wolfsburg committed all but three players. Had Kerr and Harder been on the same wavelength there was a good chance for a break. 

If this was an early warning sign for Chelsea, they didn’t pay attention to it. Five minutes later Wolfsburg were able to get a cross in from the right again.

In this instance, Ji played a poor pass into the middle. Sara Doorsoun intercepted the pass and sent Hendrich on her way. Hendrich was able to carry the ball a long way without any pressure. This is where you wonder about Chelsea’s narrow shape. Does it give Hendrich too much space to bring the ball forward? Leupolz shuttled across, but it was easy for Wolfsburg to move from the halfway line to Chelsea’s box. It does come after a turnover, so it’s not the best example, but it raises the question. In the end, it came to nothing. Wolfsburg had bodies in the box but the cross wasn’t great.

Five minutes later, Wolfsburg attacked down the right again. This time it resulted in a good chance.

It started with Chelsea losing the ball after looking to move forward. Hendrich was able to carry the ball forward with no pressure again, but both Ingle and Ji were over to defend. Pajor had made a run over to the wing and Engen was also over there, creating a diamond out wide. This was a good example of Wolfsburg’s quartet out wide. Huth committed Andersson high up and Pajor did the same with Eriksson. Pajor played a 1-2 and spun into the space behind her. 

Pajor dragged Eriksson out, leaving Rolfö and Popp in a 2v2 in the box with Bright and Charles. Popp hit the post with her shot before Charles took it off Rolfö’s toes for the rebound.

There’s a couple of things that made the move both interesting and odd. Again it comes following a turnover with Hendrich able to carry the ball a distance. But, Chelsea had bodies back. The midfield three weren’t exposed or vulnerable for the Blues. Ingle blocked the passing lane to Pajor when Hendrich was carrying the ball. But, when Huth gave the ball back to Hendrich, Ingle got caught out. She isn’t close enough to pressure Hendrich and doesn’t do a great job of closing the lane to Pajor. Hendrich played into Pajor with minimal fuss. Given Chelsea had bodies back, it’s odd this situation led to such a good chance. Chelsea were well placed to squeeze Wolfsburg against the touchline but instead had two of their back four dragged wide and exposed. It’s good from Wolfsburg and especially Pajor, but you’d expect more from a Chelsea point of view.

Wolfsburg’s disallowed goal came a couple of minutes later from a similar move. 

VLC’s record function started later than when I pressed it, but it started with a Chelsea goal kick. Berger went short, Wolfsburg pressed them into going back to the ‘keeper, so she sent it long. Wolfsburg regained possession and again had bodies on the right. This time Hendrich offered the wide option while Engen was in a similar position as before. Huth came back from pressing before wanting the ball in a pocket of space. Ji got back to stop Hendrich from making that pass. Hendrich turned back and Huth made the run in behind Andersson. Popp, like in a couple of the examples above, timed a great run into the box. She’s held back a bit before making a late run on a couple of occasions. Berger rushed out and missed the ball, but Popp used her arm to divert the ball into the net. 

Like the previous move, it’s odd because Chelsea had bodies around. Hendrich looked pressed against the touchline with little on, especially after not making the first pass to Huth. But she was able to turn and find Huth without much hassle. 

In the below clip, Wolfsburg had a throw from the left before working the ball over to Hendrich. Huth was being marked by Andersson and Pajor ran into the space out wide. She dragged Eriksson with her and looked to drive down the line, but Eriksson made the challenge.

In the below clip, Dominique Janssen switched the play to Hendrich. The right-back again had plenty of space and time to bring the ball down. Ji shuffled across but there’s little real pressure. Huth came short and dragged Andersson with her, while Pajor made her usual run wide. It’s the same 2v2 in the box as before but Pajor, even with two attempts, was unable to put a good ball into the box.

Pajor made another good run, albeit from a different situation. Wolfsburg had won the ball high up and Rolfö had two shots saved before Andersson cleared Pajor’s bicycle kick off the line. Wolfsburg regained possession on the right and looked to work something. Hendrich offered the overlap option for Huth who brought the ball inside. Little was on, but Pajor made a great run wide and dragged Eriksson away from Bright. Lena Oberdorf spotted the space and made a run into it. Huth slid Oberdorf through on goal. The midfielder tried to chip the oncoming Berger but didn’t get it right.

The forays down the right continued in the second half. Rolfö’s volley, following a throw-in and cross from the right, forced a great save from Berger. In the move Wolfsburg had several bodies on the right flank, but only because they had a throw-in on that side. It also featured another good run from Pajor. Bright was well placed to press Popp and stop her crossing the ball, but the Polish forward’s run looked to pull the defender away and gave Popp a bit of space.

What’s disappointing for Chelsea is Wolfsburg had a similar situation from a throw-in at the start of the second half. About fifteen minutes before the above clip. It wasn’t as dangerous as Bright wasn’t dragged wide. But, again it felt too easy for Wolfsburg to not only progress into a dangerous area but also deliver a ball into the box. Like the above clip, Pajor’s positioning also did enough to create space for her teammate. Pajor’s presence looked like it put Andersson (and even Eriksson) into two minds about pressuring Huth.

Only a couple of minutes after the above clip, Wolfsburg hit the post from a move down the right. Chelsea had the ball in the final third and played a cross towards Kerr. Wolfsburg regained possession and Hendrich carried it upfield. Ji came across but looked more intent on blocking a pass inside than hassling Hendrich. After Hendrich went wide, Wolfsburg had a 3v3 with Hendrich, Huth and Pajor against Andersson, Ingle and Ji. It was another wide run from Pajor and more good hold-up play. She held off Andersson and set Huth on her way. Rolfö was able to move untracked towards the centre of the six-yard box for a free header.

As the last example of the interplay on Woflsburg’s right, they had an opportunity to cross after conceding Chelsea’s second goal. They switched play from left to right. Pajor, almost automatically, made the same run towards the right flank. Nothing happened at first, but the usual quartet were all gathered on the right flank. Obderdorf’s ball wide found Huth in a bit of space. Pajor’s presence likely stopped Andersson pressing and Huth was able to cross the ball. It wasn’t a great ball and nothing came of it.

What’s quite funny is how Wolfsburg played and threatened so often down the right, yet their only goal of the game came via a penalty won thanks to a similar move on the left. Rauch had the ball at left-back. Rebecka Blomqvist, on for her compatriot Rolfö, offered a short option and dragged Charles up the pitch with her. This created space for a long pass to Pajor, who had drifted to the left. Pajor held the ball up against Bright and played it through to Blomqvist. While Rolfö looked to offer an aerial option in the box, Huth ran across the box for a cutback. Blomqvist played the cutback and Eriksson wiped Huth out.

Wolfsburg looked to focus play down the right and created lots through it. They did a good job of pulling Chelsea’s back four, particularly Andersson and Eriksson, out of shape. If they did that they created great opportunities to cross. Key to the play down the right were Pajor’s runs. The Polish forward unsettled the Chelsea defenders most times her side attacked. She either offered a good passing option or pinned a defender to help her teammates have a bit more space. Hendrich’s ball-carrying from deep and her runs forward also played a big part. Though Ji often came across, Hendrich had a lot of space to progress into. Huth often came short or inside, either looking to commit Andersson high or cross from the corner of the box as opposed to the byline. Engen offered an option and created a diamond on the right, but wasn’t too involved going forward.

From a Chelsea point of view, a lot of it was disappointing. They could have done better in the box, not allowing the Wolfsburg attackers so much space. But the problem starts before that. If half the back four gets dragged out of position, leaving a 2v2 in the box, it’s not surprising attackers can find space. Wolfsburg’s right side interplayed well, but you’d expect more from Chelsea. It felt too easy for Wolfsburg not only to manipulate Andersson and Eriksson but to gain ground on the right. 

It’ll be interesting to see how both teams approach the second leg. Will Chelsea look to shore up their left flank and stop Wolfsburg from having the same joy? Or will they think having the front three close will give them a bigger attacking advantage? If Wolfsburg come out and attack to get the goal they need, there’s the possibility of space on the counter. The tie’s finely balanced and, given the chances Wolfsburg were able to create in the first leg, still feels as though there’s opportunity for drama in the second leg.