Rafael Benítez début: Food for thought

About the Game

Chelsea hosted Manchester City after a turbulent week which saw the departure of Roberto Di Matteo, who was sitting on the unconfortable seat of being still the interim manager at the start of the season. Rafael Benitez’s quick appointment proved – if needed – that the deal was probably already concluded for quite some time.

If there’s room for improvement in every area of the pitch after Sunday’s performance, Benitez can still be pleased by the fact his new team has prevented City to score only for the second time this season while earning his first Premier League clean sheet since September, the 22th.

Manchester City, scarecrow

The start of the game let us think there was some entertainment to expect from that game, but how the events eventually went proved that the game lost intensity as it went on. Chelsea featured what is said to be Benitez-s trademark in terms of organisation – lines of players close to each others. But that didn’t prevent Manchester City to find space in the attacking third with some built 1 or 2-touches attacking sequences, thanks to David Silva’s accuracy.  Sergio Agüero’s wise movements at the start of the game let foreshadow that it was going to be a threat for most of the game, it eventually wasn’t. Roberto Mancini noticed Chelsea’s Achilles heel right from the Community Shield game when he asked Carlos Tevez and sometimes Sergio Agüero to ask the ball in the very zone situated between the center backs and the double pivot. While the argentinian dropped from his upfront position, another player made a run in the opposite direction, through space. In the Community Shield that was Samir Nasri, yesterday it was Pablo Zabaleta from behind for two of City’s best chances to score (basically, Sergio Agüero used as a ‘false 9’ against a packed defense). If City broadly lacked the final delivery, Roberto Mancini’s men still proved to cause issues to Chelsea by finding the right position or combinason at times.

The Benitez way

Rafael Benitez featured a team who openly conceded possession (42%), and we can wonder if allowing the ball to a team far from it’s best was also part of the plan in order to counter more easily some predictable or inaccurate attacks. But the main reason was arguably from the Chelsea point of view. The Spanish manager ordered an approach based on organisation, to prevent the opponent to find space as he already spoke about several times in the past or in his first interviews as Chelsea manager. As much Andre Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo’s teams featured what could be assimilated to a playground approach, as much attacking than defending. We noticed, as obvious illustrations, the irrelevance of the transition sequences often leaving defenders without passing options, or over-exposed. We’ll see with further charts how Rafael Benitez proved that it was a matter of instructions and not playing style as we know tracking back has much more to do with work ethic and mentality than anything else.

Without the required paperwork to sit on the bench, Rafael Benitez’s new assistant Boudewijn Zenden wasn’t able to enjoy the brand new Audi seats.

The obvious consequence for Chelsea was as the ball was regained deeper, there was more ground to reach back to come to dangerous positions. Chelsea then produced more counter attacking sequences on a systematized basis (similar to Swansea City’s transformation this season as fast breaks is henceforth a taken on approach right from the start) than with Roberto Di Matteo. As a matter of fact and as we’ll seen subsequently, the Blues featured one of Rafael Benitez’s trademark in terms of playing pattern, the triangles to carry the ball out from the back.

But Chelsea lacked the final delivery, like his opponent. Lucidity played a big part in that as the attacking trio wasn’t as passive when the ball was lost as with Villas Boas or Di Matteo ; they couldn’t appear that sharp attacking anymore (their defensive passiveness acted as the distorting prism of their attacking pieces of brilliance). Especially considering the amount of games they already started this season without resting.


After the game, Rafael Benitez spoke about improving possession (just 77% successful passes, the 2nd worse rate after mid-september’s 0-0 draw at QPR – 75%) but still thought Chelsea could do more in attack, probably being sharper.

Defensively speaking, there wasn’t that much elements to note as City having taken it’s chances could have changed the scoreline, and the conclusions from the game. Chelsea had a decent performance defensively, but much more in terms of positioning  than actual way to defend specific situations such as crosses or combinasons. Chelsea mainly escaped by clearing the ball away, as 66% of it’s clearances (34/51) were efficient – the Blues reaching their season’s highest tally (far more than the Spurs game’s 23/38 clearances).

But we can still note than the closer the players were in defensive sequences, the more it prevented to create space. Inevitably, this impacted the defenders’ individual defending as Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Luiz and Cole could make much better defensive interventions resulting from not being exposed anymore and losing lucidity by facing two players all game long.


Wing men track back

I had several interrogations before the game, especially about the defensive instructions that would be given to the wide players, especially Mata and Hazard. There’s always room between what a manager wants and what his players are actually able to do during games. My main reproach during Andre Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo’s tenure was the not sufficient defensive work out from the wide attacking players in 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Many pundits, broadly the opinion, did focus on Chelsea’s ‘defensive problems’ in recent weeks, aiming specifically the defenders. I think that was the wrong view in so far as if the defenders commited the odd individual mistake, the main issue was them left exposed when the ball was lost. And thus, leaving the attacking players to blame if there was to draw who’s guilty in the process of conceding that much goals for one and a half season.

In just three training sessions (proving that’s not a matter of ‘philosophy’ or whatever but just relevance), Benitez managed to make Mata and Hazard applying specific positioning in defensive sequences. This chart shows their positioning close to the full back (yellow) ; they protect the channels. That allowed then the defenders to be more narrow centrally and reduce as much as they can the defensive intervals (seagreen). The ball will be eventually recovered and Chelsea will be able to break from that situation, you’ll see the chart further in the article.

Double pivot is closer to the center backs

Chelsea’s tiki taka ersatz wasn’t working, especially the recent weeks where the lack of pressing and link between the lines made a Chelsea side cut in two when the ball was lost. Benitez chosed an approach with the double pivot closer to the defenders, which can be illustrated with the chart of the defensive interventions.

I chosed to pick the datas from two other recent games:

Tottenham-Chelsea which is for me the best performance from Chelsea this season in terms of keeping control of the game in every area and aspect (still, not the full 90mns…).

Chelsea-Liverpool left Chelsea fans with mixed feelings as the organisation, pressing and chances were fluent for less than one hour before the tiredness made Chelsea dropping in intensity and eventually conceding an equalizer after having missed the chances to score the second goal.

The charts below shows the dynamic zones where Chelsea was able to regain the ball, look at the charts vertically to compare both. Chelsea made a dynamic pressing in midfield and was able to regain the ball in the center of the field. At the contrary, Chelsea stayed deeper against City (and managed the same amount of tackles) proving a more cautious approach.

Chelsea managed his best performance in terms of pressing against Liverpool and did recover the ball as much as during the whole Spurs and City games for 50mn. When the Blues dropped in intensity in terms of pressing, they regained the ball closer to their goal

We can draw the same conclusions on the interceptions charts as Chelsea’s pressing allowed them to cut transmissions in midfield. Against City, it was much more cutting the short sequences around the box thanks to both full backs’ intercepting abilities.


Get the ball out from the back with triangles

Known to be Rafael Benitez’ trademark, the triangles to get the ball out from the back, those sequences allowed Chelsea to break and enjoy the space their deep positioning meant.

To a systematization of creating triangles on the wings

That’s something we saw too rarely with Roberto di Matteo, especially with the ‘Macazar’ front three. Still, with those players, and more often with the likes of Ryan Bertrand or Victor Moses ; it proved to be a wise move to stretch the defences, root the defenders and allow Fernando Torres more space to run between the center backs.

That’s something we already could notice against Manchester United (see, Notes on Chelsea vs Manchester United) but it wasn’t coupled with the wise enough or sharp enough runs.

Macazar‘s availability

That’s the direct following of the first chart. Here, the narrowness of Chelsea’s defense prevents City to get past through (they had no options on the wings as well), making it easy for Ramires to regain the ball. With the front three positioned closer to the ball, that also makes it easier for Ramires to pick them and launch a fast break.

Ramires’ box-to-box ability is unanimously recognized but he couldn’t enjoy as much freedom in 4-2-3-1 than he did in 4-3-3 in the past. Mikel and Lampard were also subject to criticism about them losing the ball up the field and get caught out of position this season; but in my eyes it was rather due to them being forced to create the link between the double pivot and an unavailable enough front three. More availability from the attacking trio won’t force the double pivot to carry the ball up and risking to leave the defence even more exposed.

Fast-break situations: less players upper to the ball

As Chelsea did break, one of the most important things to notice was the amount of players upper than the ball. Fernando Torres enjoyed his game at Liverpool thanks to his use of the space that was allowed by him being the only player (with Steven Gerrard) upper than the ball. Kuyt and Riera could carry the ball up down the flanks; as long as they were helping their full backs, they also had a contribution to root the opponent’s full backs. Or if the opponent’s full backs werent closing them high up, this allowed Liverpool’s wide players more space when they did receive the ball.

On that situation, Only Torres is situated above the ball on the pitch. The other players come in support and can make false calls. The finishing zone is huge as it starts on level with Nastasic and the City’s line of defence.

Creating the best conditions to make Fernando Torres perform hasn’t much to do with taking off a needle in a voodoo doll on Nemanja Vidic’s bedside table. That’s mainly about creating space. Torres has adapted his game in the exact same fashion as Nicolas Anelka did in the past, by creating chances for others. But his goalscoring purposes have been prevented by either unsufficient service or, lack of space to run through : consequence of the Chelsea front three and the full backs in support  being up on the field, and upper than the ball as the midfielders were in possession.

Rafa Benitez’s tactical instructions seems to be a good option not to leave the defenders over-exposed anymore, while allowing Fernando Torres (or Radamel Falcao) square yards of space upfront. We’ll have to look now at how Benitez will cope with the state of freshness of his squad, until potential further numerical reinforcements in January.


2 thoughts on “Rafael Benítez début: Food for thought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s