Sunday will mark the beginning of the André Villas-Boas reign in the Premier League with an extremely difficult tie at the Britannia Stadium against Stoke City. AVB should be under no illusion at the enormity of this task given our (and in all fairness other top clubs) trips here in recent seasons. There is no such thing as the right time to travel to the Britannia, yet facing Stoke early on in the season could be as good as any. A pre-season that has purely been focused on playing minutes, fitness and sharpness has left Chelsea in particularly good shape on the eve of the 2011/12 season. Stoke, on the other hand, have already played competitive football in the shape of their Europa Cup Campaign.
Begovic once had an absolute shocker at Stamford Bridge as Stoke were on the end of one of our 7-0 results in Ancelotti’s first season. However, since then he has established himself as an excellent shot stopper who we were once rumoured to be interested in. He is a safe pair of gloves in a league where top class goalkeeping talent seems to be diminishing every season. He removed Sorensen from the number one spot last season with some solid displays and looks to continue in that same vein of form this season.
On his day (and given his injury record there have been too few) Woodgate is as good as any centre back playing in the world. Had he not been built entirely out of glass, he could easily have been a consistent starter for any top four club in the Premier League. With no real fault to his game bar the horrible luck with injuries we will do well to exploit any mistakes Woodgate does make. He has 90 competitive minutes under his belt already this season and Stoke will be hoping he can form a formidable partnership with Ryan Shawcross. The Stoke captain has a reputation for being a tough tackling, no nonsense centre back. It probably does him a little injustice as he is also fairly decent on the ball and excellent in the air. He can be pulled around by clever forward play and does not have the recovery speed (or speed of those around him) to afford many mistakes. Chelsea old boy Robert Huth filled in at right back against Hajduk Split and will be a robust figure but should be someone we look to exploit regularly. Huth is very physical, but struggles to cope with “the little guys” in and around his feet. With Malouda past his sulking phase and looking lively again, expect him and Ashley Cole to test Huth all game. Our best chance of exposing Stoke will come down their right hand side if Huth does play there.
In midfield, Stoke are almost two completely different sides. In Etherington and Pennant they possess two hardworking wingers, with pace and an end product that not many teams can consistently call upon. Pennant in particular has proven a difficult customer in recent years; given Stoke’s obvious threat from set-pieces his delivery will be something to keep an eye on. Looking at the Whitehead/Wilson combination is an area we can expect some joy. While they remain a tough tackling duo, they lack any creative edge. Our new penchant to press high and early will test the lack of Stoke’s technical ability in the middle of the park and should provide us joy.
Up front Stoke are going through a similar “striking crisis”, with only Jones and Walters (although a Stoke source feels he may be injured and miss the game) available for Sunday. We know Walters from his excellent goal last season – a very decent turn of pace, two good feet and a composed finisher. He would appear to provide a more than adequate foil to Jones. Stoke are a direct side and Jones fits into their style of play superbly. He is tall, athletic, good in the air and strong – not quite a Didier Drogba, but still a handful. Terry has always marshalled Jones well whenever the two have played, however he is one of the more difficult forwards we will encounter due to his ability and the style of Stoke.
Stoke are imbued with an exceptional work ethic which epitomises their collective strength. A team founded on immense power, direct play and set-piece execution, they are one of the toughest sides to play against at home in the league. Their main threat will derive from the flanks, with most if not all of their best play coming from the boots of Etherington or Pennant. Their goal against Split came from a cross from the right hand side and the fact Etherington and Pennant also have a high work rate means they are strong out wide both going forward and backwards.
Stoke’s main strength is found in the collective:
Where two men immediately pressurise the ball Stoke mark zonally within the area: everyone bar Jones is within 20-yards of the ball. Given Stoke’s nature to drop deeper against the top four sides, this is something we will need to contend with and deal with regularly. Scoring first will be essential.
What I did notice is that Stoke’s pressing game often leaves chunks of space for teams to exploit against them:
Where Pennant and co. are pressing the ball there is acres of space in behind their full back and an entire channel to exploit on the other side. If we can work the ball quickly enough, and that is a big if, there are opportunities to attack in behind Stoke and release our danger men. Huth in particular must be targeted. If we can draw him out of place and subsequently one of Shawcross/Woodgate, we will definitely create chances to score.
1. Same Squad, Different Game – while on the face of it we largely have the same squad from last season, football is a game where small percentages make a big difference. The most tangible change to our style in pre-season has been the urgency to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. Sturridge showed exactly how you do it against Rangers and promptly scored off of his own work. However, it has been the expeditious nature of our ball retrieval in general that has impressed in pre-season. With Stoke’s rather cumbersome pairing in midfield, I suspect us to pressure them intensely when in possession. This will place a large emphasis on the fitness levels of the individual players, but it seems to have worked well during pre-season.
While it is important to point out that Rome was not built in a day, we do go into this game with a certain level of expectation. With the players at our disposal, all looking happy and fit, we should be looking to win this game. Some may argue that little has changed from last season and perhaps rightfully so. Looking at the starting line-up there will likely be little, if any, major differences from Carlo’s tenure. I think pre-season has shown some development in terms of style: we are moving the ball quicker, fluidity is returning in patches and our play in the final third is improving. It is far from perfect, but given the pedestrian end to last season, we are making steps along the right path.
2. The Weakest Link – we must be looking to target Robert Huth at right-back. It is no secret that when our left hand side play well, we play well as a whole. Malouda looks happy (finally) and Cole seems to have shaken off any lingering ankle injury that inhibited him towards the tail end of last season. As we have seen as recently as the Split game, Stoke will work extremely hard pressing the ball but they will leave space to exploit.
We know Huth well and know that he is certainly no full-back. I would suspect that AVB will funnel our pattern of play towards the Stoke right flank. At times during pre-season our tempo and link play, at times intricate, has often found itself geared towards our left flank. Malouda looked particularly impressive, opposition granted, but the movement and understanding our left hand side possesses far outweighs our right.
3. Defending Set Plays – it will be no surprise to Chelsea fans that Stoke’s primary weapon of choice will come from set plays. They boast some of the most potent aerial weapons in the league. With or without Delap, there is an accurate belief that set-pieces will be their best chance of scoring against us. We seem to have generally defended set-pieces well in pre-season, but comparing a Hong Kong XI rocking up at 5’9” to Stoke’s gentle giants will be something of a culture shock.
The back four is entirely dependent on who is fit to play. From whispers emanating from various sources Luiz, Alex and Ivanovic are all struggling to make the game on Sunday (as I write Luiz has been ruled out for Sunday). However, I expect two of the three to play at the weekend, so we are hopefully not in the realms of playing Ferreira at centre-back just yet. I honestly believe when everyone is fit, our back four is going to be superb. We may lack a genuinely well rounded right back, but if we rectify the issues ahead of play this should not be an issue for much of the season. The biggest problem comes when Anelka plays ahead of Ivanovic. Anelka drops centrally and drops deep, leaving Ivanovic as the only outlet on the right hand side. For all Ivanovic’s qualities his end product is often left wanting. Sides realised this last season and crowded out our left hand side and made us move the ball towards Ivanovic, even letting him cross in most instances. It was sadly quite effective.
Barring injury Mikel should start in the holding role and although not everyone’s cup of tea, he will be vital against a very physical Stoke side. Ramires will also be in contention to start, with his exceptional pace and engine helping us close down the ball quickly. We will need to capitalise on Stoke’s lack of ability in the middle of the park. Benayoun has shown he is adept at leading midfield pressure, whilst Lampard looks to have rediscovered some sharpness that was glaringly short post-injury last season. We could yet see a competitive start for McEachran who impressed during pre-season.
With Sturridge suspended and Torres presumably starting on the bench after his recent knock, the front three almost picks itself. Whether you go with Anelka or Kalou is hardly worth discussing. Kalou gives a more distinct wide option, but lacks the consistent ability to play the role effectively. Whereas Anelka narrows the pitch to the point that our right hand side does little more than make up the numbers. If Anelka does start ahead of Kalou, there needs to be a way to ensure that he actually remains out wide. He, more than any other player, is the reason why our transitional play from front to back stagnates. Either he is not wide enough to pass to and make use of the natural space on a counter-attack, or he dawdles in possession allowing the opposition to completely reorganise. Drogba scored a fantastic goal against Stoke last season, but will be matched physically by the Stoke back four. We need to manipulate the ball into areas so that Drogba can get single match ups against Woodgate or Shawcross.
The various formations we have played during pre-season mean that we potentially have several ways of playing against Stoke. We will more than likely start 433, but can switch to a 4231 or 442 (diamond or otherwise) if required. Stoke will likely play with two rigid banks of four without the ball, so our movement between the lines will play a large part in shaping the outcome of this match.
If Stoke are allowed to set early, we could be in for a long day at the Britannia. AVB has consistently spoken of speed of play and at times during pre-season we have shown how effective we are when playing at a higher tempo. However, I am under no illusions that we are still very much a work in progress; a right footed forward option and a ball player in midfield are certainly needed. We may yet have that ballplayer in McEachran, but I cannot see that right footed wide forward option anywhere within the squad. There will be an onus on Benayoun in particular to orchestrate the tempo in midfield if he starts. Given his pre-season form, I think he will be disappointed if he does start on the substitute’s bench.
If we start well, we will win. The game will be very tight, but I do not see us losing if we show up. A draw would not be a bad result here.
I would like to thank Ross (www.scfcross.co.uk / @SCFCRoss) & Hannah (delilahsvoice.blogspot.com / @HBscfc) for their pre-game thoughts that helped with the above. Those travelling, do keep an eye out for Ross who has an article in the programme on Sunday.