It didn’t take long. Less than fifteen minutes into the first half, Rafa Benitez strode towards the touchline and the crowd voiced their displeasure towards the Spaniard. Benitez remained focus on his immediate plan, a quick opportunity to tell his left back, Ashley Cole, that he should feed the ball in a quicker manner to Oscar’s feet when he comes forward.
Soon after Cole had his chance to listen to the supply teacher and duly delivered a ball with pace directly at the feet of Oscar, who held the ball up strongly before being fouled by Claudio Yacob. Free Kick to Chelsea. A third South American directly involved with this play, David Luiz, then sent a powerful free kick towards the top corner of Ben Foster’s goal and was only denied by the diving Englishman. Corner to Chelsea. A quick one, sent in long by Oscar towards Luiz whose header found a brave Demba Ba who poked the ball home close to the six yard area. 1-0 Chelsea. It would prove to be the only goal of the game and although Oscar and Luiz were crucial in its development, Cole’s decision making won’t be forgotten by his manager.
The need for his full backs to get forward more has been close to the top of his priority list since Benitez joined Chelsea in November.
Even after arguably his greatest day in his short term at Chelsea, an 8-0 demolition of Aston Villa, he talked about how to improve in this manner, when he said: “We are working hard as a team but we still need to improve in attack and possession and get the full backs high.”
Subsequently, right back Cesar Azpilicueta has seen many more chances under Benitez than he did under former manager Roberto Di Matteo who started him in just three of the first 12 matches he was in charge of.
The 23-year-old Spanish international was back in the starting XI for this game, his 13th start in 16 PL matches under Benitez as Branislav Ivanovic moved centrally to partner David Luiz, leaving England internationals John Terry and Gary Cahill on the bench.
Chelsea’s Starting XI
Despite the scoreline, it should be noted that West Brom were not very good. Their full backs stayed deep the entire game to watch the threat of Chelsea’s trio behind Ba, their wide players didn’t get the service to get in behind Chelsea’s full backs and the midfield three got deeper and deeper as the game wore on. Only, in the final few minutes, when Chelsea got nervous did they offer any real threat and they were specifically from set pieces.
West Brom Starting XI
Five Observations on Chelsea’s shape
- As WBA sit deep Hazard & Oscar come deep to dictate the game – This was the 10th time this season out of 28 that the Holy Trinity of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard starting together, yet just the fourth time Rafa Benitez has chosen them all from the start. All four of those matches, not surprisingly, have come at Stamford Bridge. Although the three have terrific understanding and intelligence there is a need for at least one, and sometimes two, to always track deep when not in possession. Against a poor team at home they can get away with it, specifically if they create enough chances to score, and on this particular day, thanks to Hazard and Oscar in particular, the trio had an excellent match together. Mata is, by far, the most consistent of the trio, and for them to work as a unit the other two need to play more like this on a regular basis. Both Hazard and Oscar, who were both born in 1991 (it has to be said), still need to find a way to be trusted in big games, and away games, to defend their flanks better but on this afternoon they were excellent at it. Of all the pass combinations it was no surprise to see the trio had the stranglehold of the top three positions at the end of the match – Hazard to Mata (16) third, Oscar to Mata (17) second and Mata to Oscar (18 times) on top:
- You could throw a blanket over all three of them – Aside from their outstanding qualities, another reason for the amount of passes between them was their close proximity on the pitch. Although they interchange very well, rarely do any of them look to stretch the field, with only Oscar seemingly comfortable staying close to the touchline. Once again this worked well against a team like West Brom and such a lackluster performance but, like many 4-2-3-1 shapes, there is a real problem of the team being too narrow. A look at the impact map shows just how close the trio played throughout the match.
- Ba better than Torres up top in a 4-2-3-1 – A sheep named Ba might actually do more than Fernando Torres up top at this rate so this may not surprise you at all but it is clear Demba Ba is more comfortable than his Spanish team-mate in this system. It is a system that requires great patience from a striker whose chances come few and far between (because many end with one of the three before Ba gets the ball) and therefore must be taken when they are carved out. Ba took his one chance against the Baggies and throughout the game showed he has better vertical movement than Torres. Oscar, more so than Mata in this game, often interchanged with the striker and, therefore, needed Ba to move vertically to keep the shape. Torres, in contrast, too often drops deeper and deeper centrally when phased out of a game in this system and cannot be used by the trio.
- Shape creates key partnerships on the pitch – As previously mentioned the Cole-Oscar duo was pivotal not only in the build-up to the goal but also in keeping the opponents pinned deep. Behind the three previously mentioned pass combinations, Cole to the Brazilian was fourth with 15 . Cole and Azpilicueta have a mandate to get forward but rarely go past their team-mates on the flanks, usually stopping at the two-third mark (Azpilicueta to Hazard was 5th on the pass combination mark). As well as working well with the Belgian international, the right back also helps Ivanovic at the back. The Serbian defender is poor when asked to bring the ball out from the back and often panics when he doesn’t have an outlet and with two below par central midfielders (more about that shortly) he needs his fellow defender to get close to the touchline and be in a position to receive the ball.
- The 2 remains the biggest weakness in the 4-2-3-1 – We leave the central midfield until last for a reason. It needs the most work. It is clear that the 3 is exciting and can function well in certain matches and struggle in others but the Ramires-Frank Lampard combination should, quite frankly, be abandoned immediately. It does not work. Of the two, Lampard plays to the left and slightly more forward than Ramires while both can often join the attack quickly, particularly when the team is in transition following a turnover. Yet, it is at this precise moment, with the ball, that Chelsea are the most vulnerable. Key goals against them lately, Moussa Sissoko for Newcastle and Yaya Toure for Manchester City, have both come when their teams have been able to run riot through midfield, pushing the two central midfielders deep into areas where they can do nothing well after they have committed forward. On the Sissoko goal both Ramires and Lampard were out of position in the buildup while at Manchester City, Lampard and John Obi Mikel found themselves pinned in and unable to stop Toure. Close to the end of this match against West Brom, both Ramires and Lampard struggled when West Brom finally had the bravery to run at them. Both have tremendous qualities with the ball but it is without the ball where they use their energy, not intelligence or physicality, to keep up. The two are ‘runners’ in positions that do not require them to be. If, as Benitez rightfully suggests, the full backs need to get further forward to provide width the central two simply need to shield the centre backs with only one of them occasionally being the key ‘fifth’ attacker advancing forward. Right now Chelsea’s centre backs are aching to spread wider and have a clever destroyer and an intelligent deep lying playmaker to sit in between. Their full backs want to go further than the two third mark and create overlaps but cannot because they are worried the midfield two won’t be there to cover their runs.
Much talk around Chelsea is the need for a Radamel Falcao type to score goals but first and foremost they need players in the mold of Shakhtar’s Fernandinho and Porto’s Joao Moutinho who are comfortable sitting deep and picking opportune, key moments to advance. With Oriel Romeu injured, John Obi Mikel (not in the same class as those two players but the closest the team has currently) needs to play more. He was used in the tight match at Man City last week but dropped for this match, perhaps seen as a pointless security guard against such opponents. By the time he was thrown on late in this game, West Brom, asleep for most of the match, had woken up by finding space in behind the midfield duo. Benitez got away with it and achieved three points but the prize comes with caution once again. It seems he has decided to not use his three playmakers together in key games and now is the time for him to not use this midfield combination again.