The Harding Perspective: West Bromwich Albion (H)
After a positive performance against Stoke City, André Villas-Boas takes charge of his first game at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea entertain West Bromwich Albion. Our guests fell foul to Manchester United’s unsung Norwegian hero, Øwn Gøal, late on at the Hawthorns during the opening weekend of the season. New signing Shane Long showed a glimpse of his potential as the shrewd signing netted against United’s rather nervous David De Gea. The most telling statistic that came out of the game was that for all United’s perceived dominance, they only mustered one shot on target. Roy Hodgson is very astute at organising a side and AVB will have noted the actual lack of scoring opportunities United carved out at the Hawthorns.
Foster is likely to don the goalkeeper shirt against us on Saturday, with very little competition since Carson’s departure for Turkey in the summer. A loan signing from close rivals Birmingham, Foster is well known to Chelsea fans from his time at both United and the Midlands club. Foster is a solid goalkeeper, but he has rarely shone on a consistent basis. Once touted as the future of English goalkeeping, Foster seems to be his own worst enemy at times. He will be hoping for a season of consistency that will allow him to place himself firmly back into the England frame.
Insofar as the West Brom defence is concerned I would expect one change at right back to be made for our game at the weekend. Reid, who started against United, showed a distinct lack of pace and was continually exposed by attacks down United’s left hand side. Yes, he was playing against a decent winger in Young, but his overall defensive play was suspect and if he starts we should target him. Jara is the more defensively capable, but a lot will be placed on those ahead of him to help out when Chelsea are in possession. Tamas is a player who appears to split opinion amongst West Brom’s fans, however Hodgson does rate him and I can see him starting. Tamas neither has the recovery pace nor the positional sense to really dominate an opposing striker, something we will look to exploit. Shorey, another familiar name, provides a solid if unspectacular presence to the left hand side.
I believe West Brom are likely to line up with a five man midfield, in some sort of variation. This could be with two definitive midfield anchors in Mulumbu and Scharner, or in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Mulumbu is a player I particularly like, someone who quietly goes about his business in midfield, similar to Tiote at Newcastle. He was named WBA’s Player of the Season and for good reason; he is an excellent shield in front of the back four, athletic, a decent passer and likes a tackle. Scharner provides a decent foil for Mulumbu, but most importantly they will allow other players to provide attacking impetus.
Brunt was particularly poor defensively against United, and given Hodgson’s emphasis on the team ethic he will need to perform better both ways on Saturday. Brunt is a technical player capable of some excellent things, but in a game where West Brom will likely be without the ball for large periods is he going to provide the defensive cover that was sorely lacking against United? Dorrans provides a more creative option, whereas Morrison adds a more grafting quality. Hodgson does pride himself on setting his teams up as “hard to beat” which means that some of the more creative sparks could come off the bench in the latter stages.
Odemwingie has recently just signed a new contract at West Brom, staving off interest from Wigan (why he would go there over West Brom is beyond me), but is touch and go for this fixture. Hodgson starting with two strikers would be very bold given his nature so I believe they will opt with Long up front with Tchoyi floating in behind. Long was extremely dangerous in the Championship last season: quick, an efficient finisher and hardworking, his movement will need to be monitored. Tchoyi is a bit of an enigma – sometimes pulling off the ridiculous while seconds later looking incapable of controlling a football.
West Brom are a team who traditionally looked to play football under past managers, and their side is lined up to make the most of their ability in the attacking third. Less direct than Stoke, we will need to contend with a different threat – less physical, more technical. They are at their best when quick transitions allow them to flood their opponents penalty area, as witnessed for their goal. Notice that while Long is on the ball, there are two players ahead of Tchoyi:
We seemed to be able to press Stoke into playing extremely direct (more so than normal) in the second half at the Britannia. There were long spells in the game where we had them under intense pressure, winning the ball back at will and creating our own opportunities. If we can exert a similar level of pressure on West Brom’s defence, we may well be able to reclaim possession quickly as evidenced by the incomplete passes below:
The number of direct misplaced passes from within West Brom’s half highlights a lack of ball retention in their midfield and forward line. If we can pressurise them, as we did against Stoke in the second half, I can see us reclaiming possession high up the park on a continued basis. While West Brom did manufacture several chances, more than perhaps United did, their profligacy in front of goal let them down.
United’s goal did highlight an area that AVB will likely exploit, particularly with his quick circulation theory. United play quickly out from the back and within a few touches of the ball Rooney has the freedom of the Hawthorns on the edge of the area:
While I am sure it is something that Hodgson has addressed in the transitional phase of play, ie when we have an opportunity to counter, there are acres of space in front of the West Brom back four to play into and exploit.
1. Width, Width & Width Again – the tangible difference in our level of performance in the first half and the second against Stoke can largely be attributed to one big tactical shift. Boas looks to create overlaps in the final third, which often presents two clear options for the man on the ball — give it to the overlapping runner, or cut inside and use the ball yourself. However, when the opportunity for a quick transition presents itself we must have more width. Many times someone, usually Mikel, wins the ball in a crowded area and shapes to pass the ball out wide yet no one is there. He then opts for a horizontal ball to a full-back and is blamed for slowing our game down: crazy.
Salomon Kalou was guilty on more than one occasion of occupying the two central channels on the pitch, when width was needed:
Neither Malouda nor Kalou moved from their starting positions in channels 2 & 3, to the wider channels quickly enough when we won possession. Notable examples of Mikel and Ramires winning the ball, looking up into the channels where someone should be moving, only to find Kalou/Malouda man marked by a narrow back four were particularly frustrating. Teams will park the bus against us; stretching play consistently at least alleviates part of that problem.
We must make use of the width we will no doubt generate against West Brom, particularly if Brunt is playing wide. The wider we are, the more angles we create, the quicker the ball circulates (AVB terminology 101!) and the more likely we are to consistently generate scoring opportunities.
2. Manipulate the Space – as we saw with Rooney’s goal, if we can manipulate West Brom’s midfield we can generate space that our danger men can exploit. West Brom should have an extra body in midfield against us, shifting from a four they played with against United to a more conservative five. Nevertheless, the same goal remains the same – shift West Brom out of their comfort zone by quick transitions and then take advantage of the ensuing gaps. They will appear and we must punish them.
If we have the fortune of Brunt and Reid playing on the same side, then we can really look to exploit them down our left flank. United showed the importance of working West Brom across the park with their late winner. While we do not possess United’s direct pace, our second half display against Stoke showed enough to warrant being positive in this aspect of the AVB way.
3. Torres Momentum – it looks like the real Fernando Torres is slowly emerging from his cocoon and looking like the player we bought for £50m after his encouraging display against Stoke. We all know that he desperately needs a goal to kick start his campaign and to build upon what was arguably his best all round performance at Chelsea. We still lack one/two players that will make him tick, but it was salient that he was doing more within himself to help the team dynamic.
“I watched the game at Rangers last week and I thought he looked like he was when he first went to Liverpool,” Pulis said. “He caused us all sorts of problems today. He was very, very good.”
A quick juxtaposition of Torres against Stoke and Torres against Newcastle (10/11) shows the stark difference in his level of involvement. A smattering of negative touches, versus a plethora of involvement against Stoke: a definite penalty from Shawcross, play that led to a penalty shout on Lampard and a cross that Kalou should have scored from, added to a few notable dribbles and touches of class.
With Cech’s unfortunate injury I think Hilario needs to fill in between the sticks ahead of Turnbull. While he may not be perfect, I expect our back four and holding player to be too good to really allow any sort of siege on goal that would trouble either.
Mikel has declared himself available to play on Saturday, which really must be commended. He was superb against Stoke and hopefully maintains that sort of level – he deserves recognition and I urge all going to the game on Saturday to vocally back him. I think he has really proven his “Chels” credentials by playing against Stoke and by suggesting he will play this weekend if selected. A definite quickening of his play, some excellent long range passing and exemplary breaking up of play will be the benchmarks he needs to reach and excel past weekly.
Ramires is showing signs that he will become an essential player in our midfield this season. Blessed with a natural engine, electric pace (and acceleration), toughness akin to Dennis Wise in terms of stature and a creative edge that seems to develop with every game. He was a close call for Man of the Match against Stoke based on his second half performance.
The front three does need some work, while Kalou must surely drop to the bench after a very disappointing performance. While Anelka without question slows the game down, especially during the transitional phase of play, his creative edge in the final third is not replicated by any other player we can slot in there at present. It goes against the principle of playing with width, but realistically playing with Kalou was more of a hindrance than a help. Anelka, at least, offers something. Sturridge walks back into that role on the right hand side when his suspension is served, or alternatively Lukaku has played there occasionally for Belgium.
The key to Saturday will be to maintain the same level of performance against Stoke throughout the entirety of the game. If we can ensure our pressing, ball circulation and decision making in the final third are on point, we have every opportunity to record our first win of the season. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu are in contention to feature, with Lukaku being an exciting prospect and Romeu potentially a superb acquisition.
Going forward I still feel we are potentially two players short of being a sensational team. Even at present, I think we have the quality to mount a realistic challenge for title and with some luck we can progress in Europe. Without totally indulging the gossip columns at the moment, a few of the names being bandied about are exactly what we need and would add instant ability to areas we currently lack. Unlike Arsenal who seem to have spent over £2om on two players they do not need, we seem to have finally realised the areas in the squad that need strengthening. I am excited at potentially seeing Romeu and Lukaku to make debuts; my tip, Lukaku to score if he comes on.