It’s been 3 full seasons Chelsea last won the domestic crown. Ever since, 3 managers have taken charge at Stamford Bridge with mixed success until José Mourinho decided to come back to the club he was the manager between 2004 and 2007. Chelsea ended the season 25 then 14 points from top in 2011-12 and 2012-13, a gap that must be taken into consideration in light of the recent criticism toward José Mourinho as he’s been asked to change the club’s playing way.
This article is a short chronology summarizing the work made by Andre Villas Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafael Benitez ; focusing on how the team was asked to recover the ball back, based on data from the Stats Zone app.
This, in order to contextualize the situation the club was at when José Mourinho took the job in July. The concluding chart aims to give food for thought in order to make clearer the question whether or not Chelsea is on the right track.
Please note that I got in depth on some points in previous articles during the last year
Des problèmes actuels de Chelsea (17/09/2012)
Notes on Chelsea vs Manchester United (02/11/2013)
Chelsea, et maintenant ? (23/11/2012)
Rafael Benitez’s début, foot for thought (26/11/2012)
What will José Mourinho’s Chelsea look like (15/09/2013)
Analysis: Chelsea vs Schalke 04 (7/11/2013)
Andre Villas Boas came with grand plans which, despite it’s relevance, were implemented too quickly without the team being properly adapted to every facet of that new gameplan.
One game pretty much summarizes Villas Boas’ tenure at Chelsea: the 3-5 defeat at Stamford Bridge in hands of Arsenal. As Villas Boas wanted to change the playing style of the London club through a possession-based game, Chelsea surprisingly featured a high defensive block even before the coupled and necessary pressing being fully functional (Chart 1)
Despite a fairly decent 63 ball recoveries in that game, Chelsea regularily failed to control the red zones under Andre Villas Boas. This was due to a lack of synchronization between the three midfielders (Mikel, Ramires and Lampard) which roles didn’t apper clearly when they had to press and cover one another. Arsenal managed to create an impressive 10 chances after succesfuly exploiting Chelsea’s inefficient pressing ahead of the defensive line and space to attack in behind. On the left and right side, Mata and Sturridge’s inability to coexist attacking prowess and work off the ball (being part of the first wave of pressure and duly tracking back afterwards) was the main explanation behind Ashley Cole and José Bosingwa’s form, having been left to defend 1v2 pretty much all season.
As Chelsea judged that AVB’s lack of experience wouldn’t allow the due reaction to put the London club back on track, the Portuguese’s assistant Roberto Di Matteo was handed the team. Relying on very defensive tactics and togetherness, the former WBA managed to lead Chelsea to an unlikely Champions League (and FA Cup) success despite giving away any possibility to qualify via the European top flight competition through the league finish starting from March (!). Despite adopting tactics mocked as “parking the bus” (Chart 2 – left), Chelsea somehow carried home European glory despite conceding more than 20 chances per leg in the knock-out phase, with the 43 chances conceded over two hours of football at Munich as the final stage of an irrational 2011-2012 Champions League campaign.
An – already – indicative two weeks after being crowned Champions in Munich, Di Matteo was eventually handed the Chelsea job for one year with another one in option. With fresh blood arriving to replace experienced players in an ever smaller squad set to play 8 competitions over the course of the season, Di Matteo probably knew he wouldn’t survive the first turbulences. One may argue it’s the reason he fielded virtually the same starting eleven until getting the sack at the wake of an early Champions League exit in November.
Di Matteo’s attacking triumvirate of Mata, Hazard and Oscar had freshness, pace, trickery and made the headlines for a team winning 10 of his 11 first games. But on the other hand, Chelsea often looked like that team cut in two parts in all phases of play. Di Matteo asked his 4 attackers to press teams high up the pitch via high intensity (pure loss ?) closing down. Lack of structure and a questionable shape made often easy for opponents to get past that first wave, resting in hands of the players left the task to sweep the entire width of the pitch ; mostly to prevent/block/deal with crosses. (Chart 2 – right)
What proved to be efficient as long as the players were fresh and scored goals wasn’t anymore starting from when Chelsea had to play twice a week.
Less than a week after Di Matteo’s departure, Chelsea made the controversial decision to hire Spanish manager Rafael Benitez, a decision that caused backlash amongst fans. For all that and given the urgency of the situation, Benitez’ immediate fixes proved to be relevant in a short term based approach. He asked his team to defend deep in two banks of four, relying on Oscar and Hazard to block the sides in order to release completely 19 goals and 35 assists Juan Mata of defensive duties.
Chelsea’s zonal defending coupled with a deep block meant that the ball was recovered in the defensive third after having been funneled centrally. (Chart 3) Benitez’s re-focalisation on Fernando Torres in counter-attack coupled to the fact the wide players were behind the ball allowed the Spaniard to enjoy more space behind defences, eventually ending the season with 23 goals in all competitions.
Without the former Liverpool manager’s ground grid pattern being a sufficient plateform to deal with in-games situations such as dealing with crosses, the constant 2v3 in midfield (due to Mata’s lack of impact on the opposition’s deep midfielder) or keeping two-goal leads against promoted teams ; Chelsea still managed to end the season in third place, winning a – fairly dull – Europa League campaign.
What is the plan ?
Answering to Sky’s pundits after the 2-0 win over Fulham, José Mourinho gave indications on what his plan is:
The idea is to play always in a high block, recover the ball very very fast, have the ball the ball and build well, have the control of the game, be pro-active, not reactive.
José Mourinho for Saturday Night Football (SkySports – 21/10/2013)
Mourinho’s first and biggest task for a more long-term based approach to what has been done by the two previous managers is to rebalance the defensive and attacking duties.
“This is not a criticism but the last manager Benitez knew he would not be the manager for the next year and he was chasing results. He was not worried about the building of a team with a certain style.
“I didn’t have a real base to start. For many reasons we knew the situation needs time and patience.
José Mourinho (quoted from London Evening Standard – 13/12/2013)
I won’t get in depth on Mourinho’s gameplan as I already did back in September but here are the two main guidelines.
- A better sharing of duties without the ball: In order to recover the ball quickly and high up the pitch, Mourinho has removed all the licenses and wants every player to contribute to recover the ball. Chelsea’s system wasn’t viable as it did rely on Ramires or David Luiz’s propensity to cover and sweep immense zones.
Juan has to learn the way I want to play. Has to be more consistent, has to be more participative when the team loses the ball. I think it’s not his fault, it’s just a consequence of the way he was played the last years, since his arrival at Chelsea, Chelsea was playing very defensive football, Chelsea was playing with a low block all the time, was playing with Oscar open on the line – and when he’s open on the line, he covers completely. In the other side, was playing Ramires, because Ramires plays most of the time wide on the side and Frank with David [Luiz] or Frank with Mikel in the center of the midfield. And Juan was playing as the number ten. The team was playing with two lines of four, playing with two lines of four.
I’m not ready to change Oscar’s position. Oscar is a number 10, he’s a player that gives us creativity but at the same time when we want to press up , Oscar is a runner, Oscar is a player capable of press (sic). [Oscar is able to play] even [when]the double pivot plays like Parker and Sidwell with a distance of 15-20m between them
José Mourinho for Saturday Night Football (SkySports – 21/10/2013)
- A better sharing of duties with the ball: supposed to end the irrelevance of players supposed to hide to the team’s attacking inefficiency by creating chances/goals out of nowhere with isolated pieces of brilliance.
And Juan has fantastic quality, very intelligent in the way he uses the ball. Now the situation is completely different, I was enjoying in my office your comparisons, but you cannot compare a number ten with a player that plays wide on the right and chases the full back up and down all the time.
José Mourinho for Saturday Night Football (SkySports – 21/10/2013)
Why is Chelsea heading onto the right direction
Mourinho’s plan relies on a high pressing game in order to recover the ball as high as possible. As the article wanted to show, Mourinho hasn’t had a base to work on, so pretty much had to start from stage one. Pressing is the first stage to keep the ball, as you press to have the ball. This requires synchronicity from a collective point of view and actual defending abilities (athletically, tactically and technically).
The second point explains some choices of personel, including Oscar and Willian instead of Mata or Kevin de Bruyne since the start of the season.
- Players should get to a level of fitness in order to be able to “track back” without for all that being knackered. In that case and transversely (In case of Mata), it also includes hitting the gym to be able to make a better use of one’s body in between the ball and a direct opponent. The Spaniard’s apparitions (Arsenal in League Cup, Southampton H) showed his drastic improvement in terms of propensity to press and hold the ball under pressure.
- But players should also be able to take advantage of space in order to maximize every move to the benefit of the whole pressing shape. Far from any Neil Warnock-Tony Pulis-esque “just run straight at ‘em” conception of pressing, blocking passing lanes through a spatial awareness to get in between opponents and scan what happens around is crucial. That’s an aspect Juan Mata and Eden Hazard in instance had a massive room for improvement not so long ago. Progress on that aspect is quite obvious
- When the pressing shape is okay in terms of positioning, triggers etc… the last point is down to the actual defending, what is often related to recovering the ball in the opponent’s feet in the attacking half. Some players are naturally more eager to get stuck in than others.
A couple of other points:
- Mourinho’s selections were questioned as people wondered whether he knew what was his strongest starting lineup. In stark contrast, people should rather point at the fact it’s the first time for a long time a Chelsea manager has actual options and is able to rotate his squad week and week out.
- Focusing on how players reacts to squad selections is a good way to get to know better his players. Despite Chelsea producing one of his finest performance of the season against Schalke at Home, Mourinho decided to change his plans to face WBA on the week end (without success). On the following game, he picked a Chelsea team which ran over West Ham. The same team (bar Willian for Hazard) was unable to prevent a defeat at Basel.
Football isn’t a science and a part of the Chelsea fan base seems to have conceptual issues with the sole fact of experimenting week and week out (i.e: keeping or not the same XI or gameplan). Mourinho’s reactiveness during games might hold the key of the Premier League ambitions of the club, and it’s also a quite remarkable parry if things does not turn as expected during games (never settling for a draw, in instance).
- The three points listed above are what differences between some players lie on. Willian, Oscar, Schürrle suit the description whereas for players such as Hazard, Mata, De Bruyne, it requires work in order to get on level with the manager/gameplan’s expectations/requirements.
For all that, it’s not some Football Manager game in which man-management can be left aside. One example: Mata played 59mn against Cardiff on the 19 of october, did not participate against City one week later but had a solid performance at the Emirates the 29th in League Cup, bagging a goal in the process. This probably explains why he *had* to start at Newcastle three days later even if the choice of personel didn’t look right in isolation. A tad similar to the situation encountered at Stoke where Mata had to play Willian’s role and didn’t impact the game at all.
All of that due to the need to rotate players as a close to 100% fit player is likely to have more sharpness than a 80-ish player, even if the former appears as less suited tactically than the latter to what is wanted on paper.
The footballing interpretation in context of Chelsea’s will to implement a high pressing games lies on the comparative tallies. The higher the ball is recovered, the less likely it is to be recovered in the defensive third.
The amount times the possession won is obviously a good indicator on 90mn, and the trend depicts a rise on the big picture, especially in recent weeks.
Chelsea’s “november slump” appears as the plunge following the Manchester City game. If the City game’s low tally reflects the 15-20pts distance that separated the two teams on the table the previous seasons, the Newcastle performance was clearly sub-par. WBA happily conceded possession and Chelsea’s struggles were as they weren’t able to dictate a quick enough tempo to challenge their hosts.
But the West Ham, Southampton quite complete performances indicates a levelling off of Chelsea’s standards.
The Sunderland and Stoke games indicates what appears as the issue related to that high intensity pressing: the ultimate aim of it is to reduce the distance to cruise with the ball in order to reach the opponent’s goal, and is supposed to be the plateform to get regular half or clear scoring opportunities which must be taken. As it hasn’t been the case at Stoke, that raises the fact that the opposing team is likely to gain momentum and come back into the game with more mental and physical freshness than Chelsea if the Blues keep fluffing chances in quick succession.
The Sunderland game primarily highlighted the impact of individual mistakes on goals conceded to make a final scoreline not reflecting at all how the game turned.
This explains Mourinho pointing at the contrast between his side”s “production” and “lack of goals” as if his team was able to get back at half time with a two or three goals cushion, it would obviously be a better situation to cope with an average home team’s momentum in second half when trailed on the scoreboard.
A win at Arsenal next week and Chelsea would take off the Gunners of the top spot in the League, and surely tone critics down in the process. Especially given Chelsea is on the rise with players only set to get better and better as the season goes on such as Juan Mata, Willian, Eden Hazard, André Schürrle or even Samuel Eto’o and David Luiz.
Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion)