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.