Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: Chelsea run right past West Ham

Juan Mata turned and cut, forcing the West Ham defense to give him just a hair of space. He hooked the ball with the wide side of his foot, using every ounce of the space he'd just carved out to strike a curler at goal. It sails on him, falling harmlessly wide. Instead of burying his face in his hands, groaning, and trotting back, he turns to the crowd with a huge grin on his face.

The boys are finally having some fun.

The lightning-quick feet of Eden Hazard and the clinical-enough Lampard struck to down West Ham 2-0, producing one of the more dominant games of the season for Chelsea. They controlled the tempo of the game, to the tune of 66% possession and 24 shots (11 on target). A brighter week ended on a great note for Chelsea, moving them into 3rd place after Tottenham faltered, and seeing Lampard move within two of Bobby Tambling's all-time Chelsea goals record.

How It Happened

From the first minute to the last, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard controlled this game. Even more than that, they made that dominance count. These two tricksters alone matched West Ham's shots on goal, with 5 (4 from Hazard). Hazard practically made a game of Joey O'Brien, turning him, nutmegging him, and running by him like he was just a cone. Mata set the tempo, stretching West Ham's defense every which way and rendering West Ham's defensive press useless.

West Ham approached this game defensively, but with a different approach that usual. They focused a press on Chelsea's attacking midfielders with numbers, and lobbed balls forward to Andy Carroll and Matt Jarvis to counterattack. Chelsea have struggled with press tactics before, but that usually came when they focused on pressing the defensive mid pivots. Today, Hazard and Mata just dribbled around and through the press, breaking through it and finding space underneath. Lampard's early goal meant the Hammers couldn't settle into any kind of defensive shell, so they had to attack at least a little, and Hazard made them pay. It could've been much worse, too, had Demba Ba not somehow tied his boots together, to the point he missed three 1-on-1s with Jussi Jaaskelainen (who played a fantastic game). His hold-up play and movement were fantastic, and he separates West Ham's defense well by pushing the center halves deep, he just couldn't finish today.

What It Means

It means Chelsea finally have some momentum. It means they relieve at least a little pressure. It means Frank Lampard's that much closer to cementing his status as the great goal-scoring number 8 of all time. And, most of all, it means the spirit's starting to return to the club, out of the shadow of Roman and Rafa. Is this the beginning of the end of the controversy? Hard to say. But it's a nice start.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tactics: Parking the bus, pros and cons

I'm writing in the wake of Barcelona taking a sledgehammer to AC Milan's metaphorical bus. Milan tried to defend deep, counter, and wait the game out, but ended up on the wrong end of a 4-0 thrashing. Messi and Iniesta ran the show, finding pockets of space and slicing open Milan's defense time and time again. Parking the bus isn't a new strategy, and it's one that Inter and Chelsea both successfully employed in defeating Barcelona and eventually claiming the Champions League title.

First of all, allow me to define what it actually means to "park the bus". It's an ultra-defensive strategy, involving defending with nearly your entire team (or, in Chelsea's case, the entire team). You allow the other team possession, in exchange for occupying almost all available space in your defensive third, keeping the other team from creating any real chances at goal. Then, once they force something and turn the ball over, you counter as fast as you possibly can. Generally, you counter using a fast winger or wingers and a target forward, like Ramires and Drogba, without committing too many men forward.

Parking the bus isn't generally a recipe for a winning team, since you create very few chances for yourself, while allowing your opponent to continue trying to score. Even if all they get is five or six half-chances, that's better than your one or two. It usually forces teams to take outside shots or simply lob crosses into the box, chances that don't carry a good conversion rate, but even one goal and the strategy's ineffective. So, why is this strategy employed against Barcelona?

Barcelona have dominated, and continue to dominate, European football like no other club. They enjoy unprecedented success, brought on by a unique possession style of football, and employed by one of the greatest goal scorers and some of the most creative midfielders football's ever seen. This possession style restricts the opportunities opponents create, while Barcelona simply feels for a seam in the opponents defense and quickly slicing it open. That style creates the most deadly attack in the world, but also the most susceptible one to bus parking.

Before Barcelona's Champions League date with Celtic, Celtic manager Neil Lennon said, simply "they are the best in the world at keeping possession. They dominate to the point it's 70-30." As you'd expect, it's hard to create chances when you only have the ball for 30% of the match. Barcelona maintain possession by passing up half-chances, only taking risks where the payoff is the greatest. When they don't have possession, they press high up the pitch, forcing the opponent into quick turnovers. They dominate teams that try to play them straight-up because the other team can't advance the ball against their press, and higher players leave more gaps open in the back for Barcelona to exploit. So, they sit back, allow Barcelona a little more possession than they normally have anyway, and hit them on the break, the hardest situation to press and defend.

Barcelona struggle against defensive teams because their attack, generally, is one-dimensional. They short-pass teams to death, and finish chances with finesse shots at short range. This attack is precisely what parking the bus aims to stop. They force Barcelona to take long shots, something they're not especially good at. They force Barcelona to cross and win aerial battles, something they're even worse at. Barcelona responds by passing up these opportunities, passing the ball side-to-side until something opens up. Odds are, nothing does. So, they default to Messi and hope he'll create something. Chelsea kept him relatively quiet by playing with two central defensive midfielders, cutting off passing lanes unless he dropped deeper, so he ended up in less dangerous positions. That's a recipe for a blunted Barcelona attack.

Offensively, teams don't suffer simply because they don't lose anything. Barcelona can't press when Ramires is sprinting 80 yards down the right flank with the ball, and shooting the first chance he gets. If they build up patiently, they often end up with no chance at all due to relentless pressure. The thought process is a handful of half-chances is greater than one real chance.

What was unique about Milan's bus? Honestly, nothing. What changed was Barcelona's approach. They played David Villa as a classic number nine (striker) for the first time in two years, to my knowledge. Instead of Messi playing striker and being boxed in by two center-halves and two defensive midfielders, Villa stepped in and forced them to account for him. He plays off the back line, pushing it back and creating more space underneath. Furthermore, they started Pedro out wide, who sticks to the touchline and draws out the fullback more, creating more space. Iniesta and Messi ran the show because of the space this created. Villa's also more of an aerial threat, so if Milan would have backed the center more, Barcelona could cross with more success. They simply didn't need to today.

Parking the bus demands the other team's central striker to change the game, but Villa's more than capable of doing so. Rafa Benitez seems fond of this strategy, and Chelsea's seen more and more opponents utilize it, so it's important for Chelsea fans to understand the pros and cons that go along with it. Drogba's off on Galatasary, so Demba Ba and Fernando Torres need to step up against bus parking teams by keeping the center backs withdrawn, and Moses and Hazard need to force the fullbacks out wide. Then, maybe we can take a sledgehammer to Stoke's team bus.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tactics: Moses vs. The Three Musketeers

We've just finished watching one of the most lackadaisical Chelsea displays of the year, with Oscar saving a wholly apathetic Chelsea from a draw. There's really not much to analyze, beyond the fact that we pressed effectively for the first 30 minutes or so, then suddenly stopped and defended deep for who knows what reason. Instead, I'm going to point out one reason we struggled to break down Spartak Prague's defense: lack of width.

Key men: Ryan Bertrand, Ramires, Victor Moses, Marko Marin

Early in the year, Roberto Di Matteo fancied a starting three of Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata. All three like to play similar roles, drifting about behind a central striker, creating shot and assist opportunities, and taking defenders on when they can. Di Matteo actually encouraged them to drift and interchange constantly, making them hard to track while they ran circles around a slower defensive line. While this worked to good success at the beginning, then ran into a blockade: Defenses stopped trying to chase them, defended with more zonal marking, and compacted the middle of the field. Suddenly, there was no space for the intricate passing they were trying, and they began taking poor shots and passing into a brick wall. So, what has Rafa Benitez done? Tried to stretch out that brick wall.

Soon after becoming Chelsea manager, Benitez benched Oscar and started Victor Moses more often than not. Moses doesn't like to roam and create, he's more of an out-and-out winger who takes men on down the line and crosses effectively. He likes to cut in on occasion, but not to the point it becomes predictable. With defenses forced to account for him out there, Mata and Hazard gained more space to work with.

Chelsea ran into problems when Moses left for the African Cup of Nations. Since then, Benitez has tried Ryan Bertrand, Ramires, and Marko Marin to relative success. Bertrand helps Ashley Cole lock down that flank, but his technical abilities aren't up to par for a dangerous attacking winger. His crossing's poor, he doesn't have the speed or skill to take most fullbacks on, and his passing range is limited. Marin's quite the opposite, he's mediocre defensively (at best), but loves to run at fullbacks and passing semi-effectively. Problem is, he also loves to cut inside, and can't seem to pass the ball without having taken at least five or six touches. He stays wider than Hazard or Mata, however, so I'd label him more of a work in progress than anything. He played Mata's current position at Werder Bremen, so it's an adjustment. Ramires worked with the most success. He runs hard with great pace, tracks back defensively, and possesses enough skill and passing ability to give defenses problems. Yes, he blasts the occasional shot all the way out of Stamford Bridge, but he came up with a class goal against Wigan.  He seems the best option where Victor's not available.


Width opens up Chelsea's attack to a huge degree, so we need an out-and-out winger in most games, especially when encountering bus-parking. Our best options come from Ramires and Victor Moses, with Marin showing potential, or Bertrand when the opposition's right winger happens to be a huge threat*. Starting the three musketeers becomes more viable when the opposition's weaker down the middle, and once they gain the chemistry that teams like Barcelona and Shaktar demonstrate**. In the meantime, let's give them some space to work with, eh Rafa?

Keep The Blue Flag Flying High!

*Obviously, this tactic worked successfully against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, as Robben was kept relatively quiet, missed pk excluded.

**Barcelona's play gets narrow when they start any combination of Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, and Sanchez up front, but they're so passing focused in development and play that the intricate passing required to make this work comes more naturally. Shatkar's similar, but they'll run into some problems now that Willian's gone.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Frank Lampard Fiasco

As of this writing, Chelsea fans remain in the dark about what's to happen to a club legend and talisman of the past 10 years, Frank Lampard. Early on, reports surfaced claiming Frank was leaving, with the Los Angeles Galaxy pointed to as a probable destination. He was told, allegedly, that he wouldn't be offered a new contract, and he was free to seek work elsewhere. Evidently, that's changed.

According to a piece in the Daily Mail written by Niel Ashton, Chelsea management had a change of heart, and re-opened negotiation with the 34 year old midfielder. His agent promptly responded by saying Chelsea haven't offered to extend his contract, and that's where the issue stands now.

Honestly, I've no idea what to make of the situation. Conflicting reports abound about what's actually going on, so I'm going to focus instead whether or not Chelsea should retain him, rather than if they will, with specific emphasis on his tactical impact.

Frank's almost always deployed now as one of our holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation, charged with breaking up the opposition's passing and contributing to Chelsea's buildup by linking the attackers and defenders. Generally, these players read the game better than nearly anyone else, chase midfielders all over the pitch, and efficiently re-distribute the ball when needed. Lampard's been a work in progress in this regard, since he doesn't run particularly well (he's 34, for crying out loud) and doesn't bring a defensive mindset to the position. As a result, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo sometimes preferred to pair John Obi Mikel and Ramires as the pivots. Mikel brings a defensive mindset, his position is sound and he breaks up play well. Ramires foils him well, he basically sprints over every inch of the pitch chasing down players and carrying the ball forward. All in all, they worked fairly well together defensively.

The problem was, the Mikel-Ramires causes problems offensively. Mikel's ball control isn't great, and he lacks any speed whatsoever. Ramires has better ball control and great speed, but his passing range is sorely limited. Mikel's passing range isn't anything spectacular, either. A simple look at the September 15 draw against Queens Park Rangers illustrates the consequences of this pairing. QPR came out in a 4-4-2, and their four midfielders were instructed to focus pressure on Mikel and Ramires. They either lost the ball, or simply played it back to our defenders, hampering buildup dramatically. Frank Lampard offers a solution to some of those problems.

Lampard offers better passing range and ball control, plus the added bonus of clinical finishing*. That clinical finishing played a huge part in some recent games, like Chelsea's win over Everton. Despite not starting for most of the early campaign, he's leading Chelsea's scoring charts with 10 goals**. He plays long passes effectively, creating width and space for Juan Mata and Eden Hazard to work in. So, if his offensive benefits are so clear, why wasn't he getting a run in the team earlier?

That question has a couple answers. Roberto Di Matteo favored a defensive approach, AVB tried to phase him out in favor of younger players, but more than anything else, he didn't work particularly well with Ramires or Mikel. A double-pivot of Lampard and Mikel has a top speed of about 2 miles per hour. Quick midfielders made mincemeat of them. Lampard and Ramires work better, but both carry an attacking mindset, so the attacking third gets clogged and defensive positioning takes a hit. One thing that's helped Lampard, however, is the emergence of David Luiz as a holding midfielder.

Luiz's primary position, as I'm sure most of you know, is that of a ball-playing center back. He helps buildup from the back of the defense, but maintains little offensive responsibility. He loves to break forward, though, creating some chances but leaving the back line exposed. Recently, Benitez gave him a run in the team as a defensive midfielder, and he showed promise***. He actually foils Lampard much better than Mikel or Ramires, by bringing a defensive mindset, great passing range, good ball control, and an ability to burst forward with pace. He fouls incessantly, as does Ramires, but breaks up play effectively and physically controls the midfield, allowing Lampard to get forward when he wants to. This Luiz-Lampard partnership forces defenders to account for more offensive threats, creates width with passing range, and still breaks up play relatively effectively. From a purely tactical standpoint, they fit like a glove.

While the tactical element's absolutely important, it's probably not the biggest reason Chelsea should keep Lampard. He's been with the club the majority of his playing career and overseen their most successful period in history. He represents himself and the club with consummate professionalism and consistency, and continues to work hard every day. He's a club legend, arguably the best Chelsea player of all time, and still contributes however he can. Chelsea's now rebuilding with a new generation of attacking midfielders, now of which are over 25 years old. Could there be a better teacher than Super Frank Lampard?

Oh, and he's only 5 goals away from Bobby Tambling's all time goals record for Chelsea. Did I remind you he's a midfielder? Ridiculous.

*Ramires creates chances, but isn't great a putting them away. Mikel has literally never scored in the Premier League. Not even once. In over 150 appearances. Good Lord.

**Lampard has 15 goals in all competitions, including his fantastic controlled volley against Brazil.

***He's not been benched since then, he's been fighting some hamstring issues.