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.