Jose Mourinho’s first season back in charge at Chelsea FC did not go according to plan. A key victory over Manchester City at the Etihad in early February had established them well and truly in the title race. They followed this key victory at the Etihad with victories over Everton, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool before the season ended. As everyone knows, their downfall were the likes of Sunderland, West Brom, Aston Villa, and West Ham United.
Many had put down these results to the lack of a clinical striker, one who could become a talisman: ready to change the game with one key chance and edge games in which the team does not perform at their best. The recent draw against Sunderland renewed those fears of last season, but any fears were calmed by the 3-0 victory over Tottenham at Stamford Bridge. While Chelsea may still be favorites for the Premier League title, they can further confirm their title credentials by putting teams setting up in a “park the bus”style of defensive football to the sword. Here are a few ways in which they can do this.
1. Drop one of Azpilicueta and Ivanovic and play Filipe Luis in these types of games
When Filipe Luis joined Chelsea FC, he would have seen it as an opportunity to establish himself in a title-winning side, whilst enjoying a new adventure. With the departure of Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand loaned out to Southampton, Luis stood as the only natural left-back in the squad. However, Cesar Azpilicueta has carried his form from last season and seems like an “untouchable”to Mourinho. One key problem of Chelsea’s play against Sunderland came down the left wing. Azpilicueta would receive the ball, but due to his reluctance to play the ball with his left (weaker) foot, he passed the ball backwards and slowed down Chelsea’s tempo. Azpilicueta, as acknowledged by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football, is one of the best defenders in the Premier League defensively, especially one-on-one with wingers. Despite this, Chelsea required an added dimension against Sunderland. With Oscar playing centrally, with Willian coming inside, with Hazard playing closer to Diego Costa than usual, they needed extra width. Instead, they kept possession of the ball just outside of the Sunderland penalty area, passing to each other and hoping to find a place to play the ball into. The lack of attacking width certainly did not help the cause.
A great example of full-backs providing attacking width is seen by the current Premier League Champions, Manchester City. A common attacking tactic from them, coming from the time of Roberto Mancini, is the attacking width fullbacks provide. Ever since Manuel Pellegrini has arrived, Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta have been the first-choice fullbacks at the club. Zabaleta is a superb defender, rather good defensively and still contributing offensively. Kolarov has become the preferred left-back under Pellegrini, performing better defensively than under Roberto Mancini and with a good crossing ability, he is better going forward than Gael Clichy. A great example of City’s fullbacks providing attacking width goes all the way back to the famous 6-1 victory at Old Trafford back in 2011. With the likes of David Silva playing out wide and cutting inside, Micah Richards provided support. For City’s third goal, Milner played a ball into an empty pocket of space and Richards flashed a ball across the goal, and Sergio Aguero provided the finishing touch. Often times, Silva cuts inside and gives a defender the eyes, and plays a ball with the outside of his foot to the fullback on his outside, who crosses in for a striker to score. Despite Ivanovic playing rather well, playing Azpilicueta on the right and Luis on the left for games like this would allow Chelsea to attack more fluidly with support from natural fullbacks. A great example of Chelsea breaking down a team parking the bus using fullbacks is their penultimate game of last season, against Cardiff. Ashley Cole started at left-back and Azpilicueta started at right-back in that game. For the “big”games, Ivanovic and Azpilicueta should continue to start as they are Chelsea’s best fullbacks defensively.
2. Start Andre Schurrle in these games
Andre Schurrle has had a frustrating season at Chelsea so far. Coming off of a World Cup winning summer, many expected him to stake his claim ahead of Willian in the Chelsea team. Instead, a great start which saw him score at Burnley has seen him behind Willian in the pecking order. Willian has shown to be a key player for Chelsea in recent weeks and the victory over Tottenham showed this in abundance. His work rate was outstanding and he truly put in a shift for the team. Unfortunately, his decision-making in the final third let him down, as is often the case. Schurrle is much more direct, often a shoot-on-sight player rather than Willian, who often chooses to slow the game down, attempt a few stepovers, analyze, and then choose whether to pass, shoot, or cross. Schurrle’s directness can come in handy in these games, with a good shooting ability from just outside the area key in these games. Chelsea took many shots from outside the box against Sunderland, but few truly tested the goalkeeper. Schurrle carries a threat whenever he plays. At the moment, he is finally recovering from a light illness he sustained around the international break and should start playing more as the month progresses.
3. Play with two strikers
You may consider this to be an obvious choice, but Chelsea simply do not start with two strikers. Even when they play two strikers, often one plays out wide, usually in a right wing role while another plays through the middle. The last Chelsea manager to start two strikers was Carlo Ancelotti, who unsuccessfully played Fernando Torres alongside Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. Rafael Benitez, when chasing games, played Ba up front alongside Torres at times, such as away to Brentford in the FA Cup and Chelsea’s semi-final FA Cup clash against Manchester City in the 2012-2013 season. Apart from this, Roberto Di Matteo played Torres as a right winger while Drogba played up top in the Champions League, against both Bayern Munich and Napoli. Last season, when Torres and Eto’o played at the same time, Eto’o would play in a right wing role. This season, Chelsea have a few different types of strikers, which is helpful in games like these. Rarely do Chelsea switch to a 4-4-2, but out of Costa, Drogba, and Remy, Costa is obviously first choice. Alongside him, Drogba can provide an extra aerial threat, whether attacking crosses or set pieces. Remy can act as a good support striker to Drogba or Costa, as he is a good finisher with more pace than Costa or Drogba, but lacks the threat Chelsea’s other two strikers provide in the air. Against Sunderland, Costa came off for Drogba and Schurrle came on as a winger late on. Chelsea could easily have switched to two strikers, but Mourinho chose not to.
Overall, Chelsea have made a fantastic start to the 2014-2015 season. As is the norm with Jose Mourinho’s teams, his teams perform better in his second season in charge than in his first. He does superbly in identifying weaknesses in positions and addressing them. The draw away to Sunderland was a rare slip-up and some games each season see teams simply struggle and not come away with three points. While it may be harsh to criticize Chelsea’s result, they can certainly improve in their approach to games like these, paving the way to solving one of the remaining puzzles in their quest for Premier League glory.
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