Friday, 13 August 2010

Chelsea - 2010/11 - Season Preview

So after waiting literally weeks the new football season is now upon us.  After last season's incredible domestic success and freewheeling, goal scoring style (plus reviewing my post that argued for evolution not revolution) Chelsea appear to have decided that huge changes to the side are not yet needed. 

Yes a few cracks were seen against the incredible organisation of Inter Milan and the occasional lapse against "lesser" sides seemed to happen more often but having a 6 and 0 tally against your biggest rivals (Man Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool) means that the evidence of terminal decline is still not apparent. 

With the continued development of Man City into a credible side I think this season will be similar to last in that one team will certainly not run away with the title.  Many games will be lost and a points tally in the mid 80's should seal the deal.  In my mind Man City are the biggest danger to Chelsea's ambitions of retaining the title should the incredible talent on offer merge into a decent unit as opposed to a collection of individuals. 

Ancelotti's Options

What I think will be trully interesting this season is to see what side Carlo Ancelotti will select both with regards to tactics and personnel.  Last year we saw a number of different systems used from the the 4-4-2 diamond, orthodox 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-2-1.  All of those formations used different variations on players and had the same players playing a number of different roles. 

For example, at the start of the season, Lampard was deployed at the "tip" of the diamond with Deco playing at the "base".  This was an interesting deviation for Chelsea who have been striving for another "Makelele" for years.  This system, however, proved to be slightly wrong as Lampard was simply not creative enough and Deco did not have the presence to be effective in the creative holding role against "top top" sides.  As such the team moved to a more orthodox 4-3-3 with Lampard having a stunning second half of to the season.  So what options are available for this year? 

An Orthodox 4-3-3

I believe that Ancelotti will deploy a relatively orthodox 4-3-3 at the start of the season that can merge into 4-2-3-1 with Lampard joining Malouda and Anelka or, more likely, a 4-3-1-2 with Malouda playing just behind the two strikers. With this side you will once again see a flat back four with Terry and Alex or Ivanovic (as Carvalho has gone to Real Madrid) alongside Cole at left back and Bosingwa/Ivanovic at right back.  This defence has a lot to prove this season with Terry needing to have a real return to form or he could risk seeing his place up for grabs come the end of the season. 

Midfield is where we will see most tweaking from last season.  With the purchase of Ramires Chelsea have purchased a player with great mobility and strength allied with technical quality  He is an excellent addition to the side.  In this system I think we will see Ramires or Mikel being given the nominal holding role.  They will be expected to play unfussy football and perform a role similar to that performed by Busquets for Barcelona and Spain.  This will ensure that both Lampard and Essien (who has returned from his lengthy layoff) will have license to use their considerable talents in a more attacking sense.

The preferred front three in this system will feature Molouda on the left, Drogba down the middle and Anelka on the right.  This could quite easily change though as Drogba will be missing the start of the season and Anelka is likely to start up front supported by new signing Yossi Benayoun replacing him on the right.  It will be interesing to see what happens should Chelsea start well without Drogba.  As I have previously argued on this blog Chelsea often look like a better team, if not neccesarily more effective, when Drogba does not start and if Benayoun appears to offer guile and pace down the right it will be interesting to see if Anelka and Droba start many games together after that. 

So far so conventional but now I would like to see what other options Ancelotti might have should he decide to go down other routes. 

The Return of the 4-4-2 Diamond

Ancelotti showed at the start of last season his preference for a 4-4-2 diamond.  He initially saw good results and a change to a more possesion based system than seen under Mourinho.  However like the system tried by Scolari this system relies very heavily on the full-backs creating width.  If they are occupied by the oppostion wingers in a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then they cannot get forward and this leaves the side very narrow and one-dimensional.  Ancelotti noticed this problem and reverted to a system pretty identical to that used so successfully by Guus Hiddink the season before.  However will he return to it this year? 

In this formation I think we will have a midfield four of Ramires/Mikel, Lampard, Essien and Malouda.  With the performances of Malouda last season, his technique on the ball, and his ability to create chances there is no reason why he cannot play at the "tip" of the diamond.  This in turns frees Lampard up to drive forward from the left of centre midfield that he thrives on.  With Ramires or Mikel holding this also gives Essien the chance to get forward and drive from his slightly deeper position.  This will ensure that Chelsea keep the ball for extend periods as they will often go 4vs3 in the middle against a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1.   

One of the other benefits of the 4-4-2 diamond is that it allows the team to select both Drogba and Anelka in their preferred central positions.  However this also leads to its inevitable flaw: the two centrebacks can easily look after two the centre forwards yet the two full backs have noone to mark other than the two opposing full backs.  This means they can get forward and draw the two centre midfielders out of position leaving Chelsea exposed in the middle.  I think that whilst this system may look good on paper and actually produces very nice possesion football it fails to cause enough problems to opposing sides in an attacking sense.  As a result I do not think this will be the default formation although it might be used periodically throughout the season against weaker opposition.      

Trust in Youth? 

Whilst we will almost certainly not see this team in the Premier League I would be very surprised if in the Carling Cup this team, or something very close to it, does not see the light of day.  It is an exciting prospect for the future and if one or two of these players play well then they may just force themselves into the first XI.  Due to the changes in rules it will now be important for Chelsea to keep hold of players like Sinclair and Mancienne, who may have otherwise been sold, as they help the club hit the eight homegrown player target.  Due to this rule they should get a few games this season.   

Football Fans Know Better

I have opted for the modern interpretation of 4-2-3-1 as I think this system could suit the players that Chelsea have coming through.  The defense will consist of Turnbull in goal supported by a flat back four of Hutchinson, an exciting defensive talent, at right back alongside Bruma (the new Carvalho?) Mancienne (who is back from two seasons away on loan in the Premier League) and pacy Dutch youngster van Aanholt at left back.  Both fullbacks will be given permission to attack deep into the opposition half. 

The midfield will be made up of two very experienced, but young, internationals in Ramires and Mikel.  Both will be tasked with performing as ball playing deep lying midfielders where they will be expected to both anchor the side and provide good balls for the more advanced four ahead of them.  These two will form the heart of the side and are critical to its good performance.  

Playing just ahead of these two will be Namanja Matic will be expected to perform a playmaker/goalscoring role from midfield.  There is also scope for Matic to play as one of the central two with Kakuta given a more free-roaming role similar to that performed by Oezil at the World Cup.  In the system outlined above Kakuta will be given a wide role where his passing and ability on the ball should see him cause major problems as he drives down the left or cuts in from the right. 

Out wide on the right I have gone for Scott Sinclair.  He has been out on loan for a number of seasons and never seemed to become a first team regular but he has devastating pace and if he is given a good run in the team he may well start to build on his much hyped promise.  Running the line will be Daniel Sturridge.  I am very excited by his talent and feel that even though he is still raw, he has the ability to force his way into the Chelsea team over the next couple of seasons.   


The season ahead should be very interesting for Chelsea fans with a number of young players being drafted into the first team squad and two (possibly three if Neymar joins) very interesting signings.  I, for one, am looking forward to a season of ups and downs which hopefully builds on Chelsea's development towards a side based on attractive, attacking possesion football.  I will hopefully keep you posted on my musings about Chelsea and other footballing issues throughout the season.  Adieu and goodnight.


Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Spanish Conundrum

This is my first post that I have been compelled to write during this World Cup.  After my predictions were so wrong I thought I should just sit back and enjoy the games.  However after watching the Spain Germany Semi-Final I have decided to write a blog on some of the very interesting tactical decisions that Del Bosque is going to have to make for the Final. 

What makes these tactical possibilities so interesting is the fact that they revolve around changing only one player in the whole team (Pedro or Alonso) and both of those players played brilliantly against Germany.  Most teams will change personnel and formations but with Spain  I believe that the one change could have a dramatic effect on the way that Spain approach a game.  I will now outline what I think are the main possibilities for Del Bosque and will try to explore their strengths and weaknesses.

Villa As Lone Front Man

Football Fans Know Better

The diagram above is the team that Spain selected in the Germany match.  They line up in a lose 4-1-2-3 but this changes at will and in all honesty formation names for Spain are pretty redundant.  In last night's match they often became 3-4-3 with Busquets dropping into the hole between Pique and Puyol with Pique operating as an auxiliary Sweeper and Ramos and Capdevilla joining Alonso and Xavi as a midfield four.  It was a joy to watch with Pique rapidly becoming my favourite footballer in the world. 

If you substitute Pedro with Silva this was also the team selected to play against Switzerland.  The difference between the first and last games played by Spain was undoubtedly Pedro, who last night (apart from his epic selfishness) was brilliant: dynamic, quick and very very sharp.  Something not as easily said about Silva in this competition.   

In this system you have Iniesta coming inside and making a 4 in the centre of the park.  This means that teams simply cannot get the ball.  Even Germany, a side who have loved keeping the ball in the middle, failed to cope with the superior passing and movement of those four.  This ensures that it many ways Spain's approach, whilst positive and wonderful on the eye, is actually the ultimate defensive system. 

I believe that Del Bosque has turned Spain's strengths, seen as attacking in Euro 2008, into a system that prevents other teams playing.  As a lover of defensive football I am overjoyed by this change of tact - when it works, like in the Semi, it is akin to watching something in a dream: fluid and sumptuous and it perfectly encapsulates Jonathan Wilson's contention that sometimes goals are not everything in a football match. 

However, like with all systems, there is a flaw and that is David Villa.  Against both Switzerland and Germany Villa had his quietest games in that he failed to score in both and looked less dangerous than previously.  This is because he has to do donkey work and is often marked by two large centre-backs.  Villa has looked best when he is able to get on the ball from the left and cut in.  This means he is usually looked after by one of the full-backs, which is normally a lot less labour intensive. 

I believe that Del Bosque will use this same team for the final because overall it was easily their most impressive perfomance of the tournament so far.  However it does not get the best out of Villa, who has been their star attacking threat in all the other games, and that must be a worry that any manager would look to try to sort out. 

Villa Left, Torres Up Top 

Football Fans Know Better

This formation see Torres replacing Pedro and playing down the middle, which allows Villa to drift wide left.  The benefits of this system is that Villa has looked unstoppable cutting in from the left.  Some of his goals and performances have been brilliant and he has looked, alongside Forlan, as the best attacking player in the 2010 World Cup. 

The midfield defensive system is not really affected as Iniesta is still there to make that impenetrable midfield four.  The major change is now the lack of real width and pace down the flanks.  Iniesta is a wonderful player, a personal favourite, but he loves to cut inside and dribble thorough the middle.  He is also not electrically paced. 

In this system Spain look as good on the ball but lack a real outlet for pace.  However with Torres taking up the flak from the centre-backs this means that Villa is poised to float about and pick the ball up in dangerous, often unmarked, positions. 

The main problem is that Torres has been woeful this tournament and looks tired and out of form.  He does not bring much to the party other than allowing Villa to play - and in every game he has started so far Spain have looked far better when he has been taken off.  I think after seeing the performance of Pedro against Germany Torres will be lucky to get picked as a starter in the Final.  The question for Del Bosque is should he sacrifice Villa's performance for that of the team or should he bring a player in who can help his star striker score the goals to win it?

Another Option: Dropping Alonso

Football Fans Know Better

The only other option, in my opinion, is to drop one of the four four centre midfielders.  Many people would call for that person to be Busquets but I believe he has been impeccable so far and offers the simple, easy option.  He is no nonsense and often performs a brilliant shackling role on a playmaker like he did against Oezil last night. 

Iniesta and Xavi are undroppable and as such in this suggestion Xabi Alonso is the fall guy.  I am a huge fan of Alonso and think he is one of the World's best midfielders but I do think it is arguable that he is suplus to requirements in this Spanish side due to their quality in the middle. 

In this system Spain would play with a system and team very similar to that which played in Euro 2008.  The main changes would be Busquets for Senna and Pedro for Silva.  As we saw in the Euro's this is a brilliant attacking team with goals all over the pitch.  There is pace available, a buffer to keep the centre-backs busy, and Villa is able to drift in from his left-hand side position. 

There is of course a draw back to this system, which I think Del Bosque identified in the Confederations Cup loss against the USA.  If you have a team who are direct and quick there is a possibility that the midfield three will not have the same control over a game as the midfield four seen in the other formations.  Del Bosque obviously decided that playing just one holding midfielder left him isloated and meant that teams could cause damage.  He in effect left this formation and set up behind in South Africa in 2009.  There is also the fact that none of the midfield four deserve to be dropped.     


Del Bosque has clearly decided to select a team which is nominally protected by two defensive players in Alonso and Busquets.  This means that the first two options will almost certainly be at the forefront of his mind leading up to the final.  The wild card, whilst very effective in Euro 2008, might be seen as too attacking and perhaps open to domination, or at least parity, with the 5 in the middle in Holland's 4-2-3-1.

In some ways I am drawn to the last of these formations as I feel at times against Germany Spain looked like they could do with a man less in midfield and a more physical outlet upfront who allows Villa to play at his best.  However seeing how the game developed and Spain's constant belief that they can score regardless of the minute on the clock I am pretty sure that the first two options are best for the current team.  Keeping the ball has never been so much fun. 


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

World Cup Predictions

With the World Cup 2010 in South Africa starting on June 11 I thought it was about time to offer some predictions for what will happen in the tournament. Overall I do not think that there will be many surprises in this tournament such as South Korea in 2002 or Greece at Euro 2004.

I believe that the only real surprise in this tournament will be France under the much maligned Raymond Domenech. I feel they will win their group and actually make it all the way to the Semi-Final. In the spirit of speculation I have gone through my tournament planner and have predicted the run all the way from the Round of 16 to the winners.

Round of 16

Match 1 (1A vs. 2B): France vs. Nigeria – I think that France will have enough to overcome Nigeria, who I believe will struggle with the pace and technique of the French side.

Match 2 (1B vs. 2A): Argentina vs. Uruguay – This could well be the match of the round with teo fluid attacking teams facing off against each other. I just feel that Argentina will have too much for Uruguay whose defense leaves a lot to be desired.

Match 3 (1C vs. 2D): England vs. Serbia – A very tough one to call and the second round could not be much more difficult for England. I am not sure whether it is nationalist pride overrunning reality but I think that England have enough experience to come through this game by the odd goal.

Match 4 (1D vs. 2C): Germany vs. USA – Germany are certainly not great and the USA are a rising force with some excellent match winners. However Germany almost always perform on the big stage and I fancy their chances of going through in this match.

Match 5 (1E vs. 2F): Netherlands vs. Paraguay – I would imagine that the Dutch have enough to win this game. Paraguay are always a difficult team to beat but the Netherlands have enough quality running through their side to progress.

Match 6 (1F vs. 2E): Italy vs. Cameroon – Dirty, old Italy should have too much experience and nous to come out on top against Cameroon, but they will certainly cause problems.

Match 7 (1G vs. 2H): Brazil vs. Chile – Another contender for game of the round with the solidity and skill of Brazil coming up against Chile’s lovely fluid and attacking 3-3-3-1 system. I cannot see past the Brazilians for this one though.

Match 8 (1H vs. 2G): Spain vs. Portugal – And now perhaps the most mouthwatering tie…CR9 vs. Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, and Torres. Should be a cracker and if Spain’s players are all fit they should have enough to overcome this most testing of matches. If Xavi, Iniesta, Torres, and Fabregas are all carrying injuries this could be the biggest upset of the tournament. Due to the troubles in qualification Portugal are not rated particularly highly but they will certain push Spain all the way. If they were not playing the Spanish I could easily see them in the Semi’s.


Match A (1 vs. 3): France vs. England – A real test for both teams but I just think man for man France have the edge and will knock England out in their customary Quarter Final place. Even if this goes to penalties this would be a decent victory for the French who by this stage will have achieved far more than expected.

Match B (2 vs. 4): Argentina vs. Germany – Another very difficult match to predict but I think Argentina will get their revenge for 2006 by knocking out the Germans. A game for Leo Messi to shine one thinks.

Match C (5 vs. 7): Netherlands vs. Brazil – What a game this will be. The Dutch will be very tough opponents for Brazil but I think their firepower, midfield solidity and excellent manager will be enough for Brazil to edge this.

Match D (6 vs. 8): Italy vs. Spain – A repeat of the Euro 2008 Semi-Final and I think that the outcome will be the same: Spain to win, although I do not think it will take penalties to go through.


Match I (A vs. C): France vs. Brazil – The end of the road for the French with Raymond Domenech going out after a creditable performance against the Brazilians. A game for the purists with some brilliant players on show and contrasting styles.

Match II (B vs. D): Argentina vs. Spain – What a potential match. Could easily be the best game of the whole tournament although that rarely happens when there is so much to lose. Messi, Aguero, and Higuan up against their Spanish buddies should be a brilliant spectacle. I fancy a Spanish victory here as they have overcome every challenge put in front of them over the last few years.

3rd/4th Playoff

France vs. Argentina – Who cares? But if I had guess I would say France will end up coming 3rd, which would leave Domenech with a record of 2nd and 3rd in his two World Cup finals. Not bad for a terrible manager huh?


Brazil vs. Spain – Brazil World Champions for a sixth time. What a final this could be and what a potential tournament. South Africa 2010 could well be remembered as one of the best tournaments of all time if the games I have predicted live up to their billing. I feel that as good as the Spanish are (and they have some significant tests to overcome to get here) they will not be able to live with the organization of the Brazilians.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Chelsea 2009/10 – End of Season Awards

Best Game - Chelsea 7 – Sunderland 2

There have been many excellent performances this season including both games against Arsenal, away to Sunderland, and the other two seven goal thrillers against Villa and Stoke.  However this game sticks in the mind as being the best of the lot (probably because I was at the match). The game was absolutely brilliant from start to finish with Ancelotti selecting a 4-5-1 system with the following players:

Belletti and Joe Cole had their best games of the season.  Malouda was hitting his stride, Anelka was smooth and very classy on the ball.  The team just clicked in all the right ways.   The system was very fluid and it continually evolved throughout the match depending on whether Chelsea had the ball or not.

When Sunderland came forward Chelsea played in the stated 4-5-1 but this was not an Allardyce-esque version of 4-5-1.  When Chelsea came forward their system became 4-3-3 and sometimes 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-2-1 with an excellent ability to switch shapes as they changed from defence to attack.  In addition to the excellent movement and constant pressure Chelsea looked deadly every time they attacked with four or five goals being of exceptional quality.  

This game is for me the game of the season because I believe that it represented the first time that Chelsea played exactly how Ancelotti wanted them to.  The style of play was not a million miles away from his that he used which he used at Milan and was achieved all without the aid of 26 goal man Didier Drogba.  In effect this was the real starting point of the (hopefully) long reign of Chelsea's charmingly insouciant Italian.   

Worst Game - Chelsea 1 – Bolton 0


It might seem a bit strange to select a game that Chelsea actually won as the worst game of the season bearing in mind the number of loses chalked up this year.  However this really was one of the most disappointing performances of the season. Coming off the back of beating Man Utd 2-1 at Old Trafford this was the chance to really ram home the advantage, yet there was no invention, no passion, and the crowd was exceptionally tense.   

In a way this game summed up the fact that this season nothing could be taken for granted.  Just when I expected Chelsea to kick on and claim the title they appeared to either froze (against Spurs) or lost their composure (against Man City).  Whilst this game has proven to be crucial in gaining Chelsea three vital points the performance will live long in my memory for being so abject.    

(Dis) Honourable Mentions: Wigan 3 – Chelsea 1, Chelsea 2 - Man City 4.  

Goal of the Season - Ashley Cole vs. Sunderland

An "accomplished finish from the left-back after he finds himself furthest forward chasing a high John Terry through ball. Bringing it down in one touch, Cole turns inside his man and lifts the ball over the goalkeeper from close range".

A simply brilliant strike from Cole that was the icing on the cake to my game of the season: 

Honourable Mentions: Didier Drogba vs Liverpool (Anfield), Deco vs. Sunderland (SoL).

Season to Forget - Joe Cole

It pains me to say it but I think that this may be the last season that Joe Cole plays for Chelsea.  Prior to his injury he was a key player for Chelsea adding finesse and technique to a team built on power and organisation.  Recovering from an injury can be a long road but his five months out of the team seem to have diminished Joe Cole as a player and with the impending end of his contract I do not expect to see him playing for Chelsea next season.   

Immediately on his return he looked rusty but hungry and showed enough class for Ancelotti to dub him a "genius" after one particularly brilliant performance against Blackburn in late October.  However since that point he has predominately failed to live up to that billing.

It seemed that Ancelotti's preferred 4-4-2 diamond was ideally suited for Joe Cole and he excelled on his come back playing at the "tip" of that formation.  As soon as Ancelotti changed his system to a variant of 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 that role disappeared and Joe's poor form began soon after.  After being left out of key games his head seemed to drop quickly and he did not seem to be able to change games as a substitute.

The nadir for Joe was when he was subbed on for Ballack against Inter after 62 minutes at Stamford Bridge in the last 16 of the Champions League.  What was a tightly poised game suddenly became very flabby.  Chelsea lost their shape and Cole did not really know where to go.  That tactical decision by Ancelotti appeared desperate and highlighted Cole's failing form and inability to change a match.

Whilst he has played on occasion in big games since I think that Joe will be deemed surplus to requirements in the summer as Ancelotti aims to freshen up the squad.  I wish him good luck for the future wherever he goes.

Most Improved Player - Branislav Ivanovic

This is quite a tough selection because there have been a number of players who have improved markedly this season.  Mikel is developing into an excellent midfielder and Malouda has become a key first team starter but for me the most improved player this year has been Branislav Ivanovic.

His strength, stability and excellence in the air have all added an extra dimension and when he has been injured this season Chelsea's increasing defensive fragility has been exposed (most horribly against Spurs at White Hart Lane).

I believe that as time goes on Ivanovic will develop into a formidable centre-back and will become the natural heir to John Terry.  It would hope that within the next 2-3 years he will form a solid partnership with young Jeffery Bruma.  Whilst the Terry/Alex partnership is still serviceable I expect Ivanovic to continue his solid displays at right-back for the foreseeable future with interesting competition played by Bosingwa when he returns to fitness.    

Honourable Mentions: Florent Malouda, John Obi Mikel.

Player of the Season - Florent Malouda

There have been three real standout performers this season at Chelsea: Flourent Malouda, Didier Drogba, and Frank Lampard. Picking just one of them is difficult because they have each been excellent for different reasons: Lampard for his continued excellence and goal scoring from midfield; Drogba for his leadership of the line and goals; and Malouda for his all round contribution to the way that Chelsea have played this season.

However only one player can be selected and for me the award has to go to Malouda – without him the team would not have functioned at anywhere near the level that they have. As seen against Inter at Stamford Bridge when he is marked out of the game Chelsea are invariably lost for ideas and inspiration. What has impressed me most about Malouda is that he can just as easily fit into on the left of a 4-3-3 as in more central position when Ancelotti uses his 4-2-3-1 system.

Malouda has excelled this season and built on the excellent platform that he set under Hiddink towards the end of the 2008/09 season. He brings fluidity of movement, excellent mobility, defensive nous, and the ability to run at players with the ball at his feet. In addition to that he has managed to develop his goal scoring and the timing of runs into the box where his now a real danger when balls are played into the box.

If he does not start for France at the World Cup instead of Henry or Govou then Domenech has clearly lost the plot more than we all thought.

Honourable Mentions: Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard.  

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Curious Case of Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba: destructive, direct, and at times "almost unplayable" as our pundits like to opine.

Drogba is Chelsea's top scorer this season by a wide margin, is a candidate for PFA Player of the Year, and with 25 Premier League goals he is still fighting it out with Wayne Rooney to be crowned Golden Boot winner for 2009/10.  All in all a guaranteed starter in every match?  I am not so sure.  Whilst his statistics this season, and performances in certain matches, make this statement seem to fly in the face of evidence I believe that there are questions to be asked about his continued presence in the Chelsea starting XI.

Drogba's enforced absence due to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations was thought by many to be the moment that the wheels would fall of Chelsea's title challenge.  However during his absence Chelsea had the following results: Chelsea 5 - Watford 0, Chelsea 7 - Sunderland 2, Preston 0 - Chelsea 2, Chelsea 3 - Birmingham 0, Burnley 1 - Chelsea 2.  As soon as Drogba returned Chelsea could only draw 1-1 away to Hull.  In the period without Drogba Chelsea managed to win all five matches and scored 19 goals.

Admittedly those matches were not against what you would call stellar opposition so perhaps that explains that run of results?  I am not so sure that the teams that were played necessarily explain those results.  If we move to more recent times and look at two of Chelsea's best performances: Chelsea 7 - Villa 1 and Man Utd 1 - Chelsea 2, both of these results have something in common: the absence of Drogba from the starting line-up.  Coincidentally two of Chelsea's worst recent performances (home against Bolton and away at Tottenham) have also coincided with the inclusion of the Ivorian from the start .

When Chelsea went to White Hart Lane, Drogba was included from the start and Anelka was relegated to the bench.  As a result Chelsea proceeded to have one of their worst games of the season with Drogba completly ineffective against the solid Spurs backline of Kaboul, Bassong, Dawson and Assou-Ekkoto.  In order to analyse the problems it is instructive to look at the Guardian chalkboards comparing Drogba's first half performance against Tottenham with Anelka's first half performance against Man Utd (thanks to Zonal Marking for this chalkboard).     

 by Guardian Chalkboards

As can be seen the movement of Anelka around the opposition half was very hard for Man Utd's defenders to track.  Anelka managed to make 15 successful passes in a number of different positions.  This movement helped Chelsea to play a very fluid system with Joe Cole having his best game since returning from injury and Malouda continuing his excellent form.  By contrast the Drogba board highlights how ineffective Drogba was against Spurs.  None of his passes were successful in the final third.  Indeed it looks almost like an invisible wall is preventing Drogba from attacking the goal.  I think that this is chart is symptomatic of Drogba's lack of mobility and fluidity of movement in comparison to Anelka and meant that Tottenham's two strong, tall centre-backs could deal with the aerial presence and feel comfortable that Chelsea's attack would be relatively static.       

When Drogba has been good this season (especially against Arsenal) he has been a fantastic player to have in the team.  However when he has been bad the whole Chelsea team has suffered as a result.  When he is on the pitch there is always a temptation for players to smash the ball forward and hope Drogba can use some of his destructive pace and power to score a goal. Time after time this means that the team ends up resorting to crude, long-ball football when things do not seem to be going well.  It is also hugely apparent that Anelka just does not work in the wide position that Ancelotti likes to use him in.

What has impressed me so much about Chelsea (without Drogba) has been the movement towards a fluid possesion style of football that seemed to be starting to separate Ancelotti's team from that created by Mourinho.  During that ACN it appeared that Ancelotti had started to develop the team in his own image but with Drogba back in the side they have appeared to regress to their old habits.

I find it hard to say this about Drogba because he has been a great servant to Chelsea over the last six years.  He is clearly an interesting man with a complex personality who can be both infuriating and exhilarating in the space of a few minutes but I think that if Chelsea are to really fulfill those glimpses of potential they have shown under Ancelotti this season Drogba, at 32 years old, will have to accept a place in the side as a game-changing substitute a la Inzaghi at Milan or he will have to be moved on to pastures new. 


Friday, 16 April 2010

Same Old Arsenal, Always Losing (against well organised teams)

Arsenal once again proved that as a team they do not function well against a well-organised, defensively minded, team.  Yes the goal from Danny Rose was a beauty but that was only the first sting in the tale.  The second goal from Bale was more indicative of the game as a whole.  Arsenal have once again been highlighted as a team with both a soft centre and an impossibly irritating tendency to over play in the attacking phase - regardless of whether this is a cliche or not.
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The game started at a typically fast pace with Arsenal once again dominating possession.  However as with Chelsea, Man Utd, and Man City, Tottenham were more than happy to let Arsenal keep the ball.  They knew that as long as they kept their shape and pressed Arsenal they would be able to deal with their overwrought possession.  Tottenham, to their credit, performed their allotted task admirably until they started to be stretched late in the game.

When the game was in full flow time and time again Tottenham took full advantage by attacking at pace after gaining the ball from Arsenal.  Bale looked very dangerous going forward and Arsenal looked toothless.  It goes without saying that Arsenal missed RvP (for most of the match), Fabregas, Arshavin, and Song but even with these players Arsenal have been found wanting at the highest level for the last couple of seasons.  Their tendency to fail to use width for crosses, the need to pass the ball in squares around the box, and the lack of directness means that Arsenal get swamped by decent defensive units and then when they lose the ball their attacking players are in no position to help out defensively.  This puts extra pressure on the Arsenal back four who unfortunately are nowhere near strong enough to cope with pace and power on the break.    

Arsenal are a team that loves to keep possession and yet good teams (apart from Barcelona) always let them keep the ball because they know that quick, direct counter attacking will penetrate their (defensively) fragile midfield and defence. Here is the reality from this season alone: Arsenal 0 - Chelsea 3, Chelsea 2 – Arsenal 0, Man Utd 2 – Arsenal 1, Arsenal 1 – Man Utd 3, Man City 3 – Arsenal 0, Tottenham 2 – Arsenal 1, Man City 4 – Arsenal 2.  All in all those results, along with their demolition at the hands of Barcelona, makes for a shocking reality for Arsenal fans:  have Arsenal actually beaten any decent team this season?   

In the excellent Zonal Marking article on the match ( the point was made that Arsenal are often compared to Barcelona in the English press for their love of possession but that there is a key difference: Barcelona's commitment to keeping possession across the park and utilizing their centre-backs if the attack breaks down.  Arsenal, however, seem to like keeping possession in the final third but rarely use all the players in the systematized approach of Barcelona.

I also think that the other key element separating Arsenal and Barcelona (as evidenced by their matches this season) is that Arsenal do not press when they lose the ball.  This is key because when Barca lose the ball they have players pushed high up the pitch who press in order for the ball to be reclaimed efficiently.  Arsenal do not press in the same way and when they lose the ball their attackers do not track back very often (as we see Pedro doing week in week out).

Effectively this means that Arsenal are half the side of Barcelona - they focus on cute possession but have none of the discipline and work rate that marks Barcelona out as one the greatest ever club sides.  I think that next season should be interesting for Arsenal and I, even as a Chelsea fan, hope that they keep all their players fit.  Wenger needs to show that he has the ability to adjust his tactics because time and time again when a decent team sets out to negate Arsenal they always seem to come up short which does not bode well for winning any important competitions no matter how much more "mature" his side becomes.


Thursday, 8 April 2010

Evolution not Revolution: Chelsea in 2010/11

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After having time to reevaluate my knee jerk reaction that Chelsea's current team were finished after the Inter defeat  I am now more optimistic.  I believe that a slight change in shape and a couple of key, technically gifted signings will see Chelsea able to create a more flexible system that will allow them to once again compete with the likes of Barcelona, Inter, and Real Madrid  in 2010/11.

As can be seen I believe that this summer only two major signings are required - world class players admittedly. I have plumped for both Aguero and Di Maria to fulfill these roles respectively. First I will elaborate on my formation.

I have gone for a slightly asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 which would convert into a 4-4-1-1 during the defensive phase. I believe that Chelsea perform at their best with a variant of 4-3-3 and any major changes would not be beneficial to the team as a whole: evolution not revolution.

Defence: Cech will retain his place in goal and I would stick with the same back four with Cole providing extra width down the left supporting Malouda and Ivanovic (or Bosingwa when fit) performing a similar role to support Di Maria.

Midfield: Essien would be the nominal "defensive" midfielder but would be given license to push forward and use his dynamism. Lampard would play slightly left, as he currently does, but would perform a role more similar to his job for England where he helps to keep shape of the team with occasional bursts into the box. As he is playing alongside Essien instead of Mikel he would need to drop deep on occasions to cover for the forward runs from deep that Essien thrives on.

Attack: Further forward in my attacking four I have Malouda on the left, who is able to go both wide and provide crosses and come inside to support Aguero. Ageuro will be the sides creative "No. 10" and will be given license to play directly off Drogba, to go wide left or right or pick up the ball deep. I envisage him playing a similar role that Ancelotti had Kaka playing for Milan. On the right I have Di Maria who can provide width and pace down the right and cut in to use his stronger left foot as well as interchange with Aguero at will. All of this will provide the ammunition and movement that will allow Drogba to do the damage that he often inflicts.

Substitutes: Turnbull (GK), J Cole (Att), Carvalho (Def), Anelka (Att), Mikel (Mid), Kakuta (Att), Bruma (Def), Ballack (Mid), Sturridge (Att), Bosingwa (Def), Zhirkov (Def). With these subs and others I see enough ability to change things around throughout the season and to keep things fresh.

I strongly believe that this team and squad will have enough to challenge for major honors next season.


Why Ferguson was right (and wrong)

I thought I would start my blog with an analysis of the second leg of the Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich Champions League Quarter-Final. To start with we should look at Man Utd's formation and team selection as this was the initial starting point for discussions.

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After the Chelsea match in the Premier League and the first leg of this contest there was much discussion and criticism of Ferguson's reliance on his old guard. During those two previous games he had selected Neville, Giggs, and Scholes in the same starting 11, which meant that whilst there was a lot of experience in the team there was a decided lack of dynamism on show - something that was especially apparent in the first half against Chelsea.

Going into this match it seemed Ferguson might again go with his previous plan of experience trumping youth. However knowing that Utd needed to win and there was no room for keeping it tight he appeared to realise that a positive approach was the best option. In order to implement this approach Ferguson selected a 4-3-3 brimming with youth with Gibson selected to start in the middle alongside Carrick and Fletcher, Nani and Valencia selected on the two wings, Rooney on his own upfront, and Rafael in place of Neville (who didn't even make the bench).

Once the game started it was apparent that this was quite clearly the right thing to do as Utd played a typical high-tempo pressing game that did not give Bayern the chance to settle as well as putting pressure on their incredibly fragile defence by attacking down the wings at pace. Man Utd's game plan appeared to be to overwhelm their opponents with speed and dynamism. The success of this ploy was seen by the number of raids that Rafael achieved against Ribery and Badstuber in the first half and the outright fear that seemed to strike Lahm when Nani had the ball at his feet.

When Utd went 3-0 up it appeared that Ferguson's tactics had been hugely successful. However as the game wore on it seemed that Ferguson's "gamble" was doomed to failure. I believe that in actual fact Ferguson got his tactics spot on until they went down to 10 men where his conservatism and decision to hold onto the lead meant that he effectively gave the ball to Bayern and enabled them to dictate the play. After Utd went down to 10 men he subbed off the ineffective Rooney and brought on O'Shea with the team lining up similar to that shown in the diagram below:

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Prior to the sending off and substitution Utd had put pressure on the full-backs and had effectively prevented the danger men of Robben and Ribery from causing too much damage. As soon as the switch was made those two players came to the fore. Every time Utd got the ball they seemed to lose composure and with that the balance of power.

Bayern's midfield of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger began to dominate possession and force Utd to make mistakes that ceded possession. Nani was isolated (yet still dangerous) and Valencia, Gibson, Fletcher and Carrick became totally ineffectual as an attacking force. It really was a case of "not it but when" Bayern would get the critical second.

Much of the press reaction has focused on what they call the failure of "Ferguson's gamble". Whilst there is something to suggest that selecting Rafael, Gibson and an injured Rooney in a big game like this was a gamble I think the first 35 minutes proved he was definitely correct. However I think Ferguson's biggest mistake was his failure to truly gamble and take the game beyond Bayern. If after Rafael's red card he had switched to the following formation the game could well have been won...

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I believe that Ferguson should have made two substitutions: O'Shea on for Gibson and Macheda for Rooney. This would have meant that Utd reverted to a 4-4-1 but would have kept the pace and danger of Valencia and Nani focused down the wings, which would have meant that Robben and Ribery would have had something to worry about defensively as they did in the first half.

This team selection would also have meant that Carrick and Fletcher were able to go man on with van Bommel and Schweinsteiger who would not have been able to dominate possession as they did. With Macheda in upfront Utd would also have posed a threat with both pace and power and goalscoring ability: the time was most certainly not suited to Berbatov's notable talents.

As the game wore on I would have also considered bringing on Giggs for Valencia and switching Nani to play behind Macheda and make Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick play tight as a central three...with the purpose of trying to keep possession and not allow Bayern to dictate the tempo of the match. Making the changes as he did Ferguson created, as David Pleat argues, "a backs-to-the-wall mentality", which invited Bayern onto them. It was not Ferguson's gamble that failed but his conservatism.