In the wake of a positive string of performances under AVB’s stewardship, Chelsea visit Loftus Road this Sunday to take on Queens Park Rangers in the West London derby. Neil Warnock’s side have made a decent start on their return to the Premier League and currently sit in 11th place tucked in behind Arsenal (the pleasure of pointing out where Arsenal currently reside will be a comfort to both sets of fans). With the signing of Joey Barton, Neil Warnock’s intentions for the season are quite clear. He wishes to build an industrious side imbued with pace and ensure QPR remain in the Premier League for the following season. Despite only recording one victory in the League thus far, their mid-table position would be more than welcome come the end of the season. While on paper this would appear like a fixture Chelsea should win comfortably, the edge of a proper West London derby will make this a difficult encounter. For those unfamiliar with the rivalry this is the proper West London derby – no disrespect to our neighbours Fulham.
Looking at a QPR’s back four we start with Paddy Kenny. The Rangers goalkeeper has been fairly steady this season, but he does present an area which Chelsea should look to exploit. Games against Bolton and Fulham saw Kenny concede 10 goals, in which his general unease on crosses and shots from distance was apparent. Frequent watchers of Chelsea TV will notice the obsessive importance Christophe Lollichon places on the quickness of his goalkeeper’s feet, and given Kenny’s footwork you can see why. Kenny remains a smart shot stopper but his general lack of agility is apparent and an area we can target.
Moving to QPR’s back four we will likely see a pairing of Hall and Ferdinand. They are blessed with the athleticism you would expect from most Premier League central defenders, but are far too prone to lapses in concentration. Ferdinand is comfortable in possession, but has a tendency to be drawn out of position particularly when teams play in between the lines. Fitz Hall remains an average centre back with very little in his favour bar his obvious size and strength. Weak in the air considering his height and poor against players with guile in and around the final third, Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata will pose him real problems when they move in field to influence play. Either Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka starting centrally should cause the pairing problems with their movement and link-up play. I would particularly like Anelka to start because I think his movement down the sides of Hall will really open up the pitch for us going forward.
Traore finds himself in a long line of Ashley Cole pretenders to “come through” the Arsenal academy. Much like Messrs Clichy and Gibbs, he has not been able to attain anything approaching Cole’s level of play. A lack of concentration that Warnock has publicly criticised after his dismissal earlier this season, combined with a naivety in his play are not masked by his obvious natural physical gifts. Traore is a pacey and willing runner from the full-back position but his end product is lacking: a willing outlet is only a weapon if he has the ability to consistently deliver. He is adept at intercepting the ball, but has real issues with one-on-one tackling – Daniel Sturridge take note. On the other flank Luke Young is a tough tackling experienced full-back who will look to impose himself on Mata at every opportunity. He is probably the weaker of the two and was a real area of focus when Blackburn played against him recently (a later chalkboard will show how he was targeted).
QPR are likely to operate a 3/5 man midfield with Barton, Faurlin and Derry forming the middle trio. I anticipate Taarabt and Wright-Phillips to make things a hybrid between 433/451 with and without the ball respectively. Barton is arguably one of the form midfielders in the country over the past 12 months, but his temperament and penchant for a flashpoint have left him an afterthought in the pursuit of international honours. I personally rate Barton and think he would be a passionate addition to the national side, but much like Wayne Rooney is only half a second away from seeing the red mist descend at any given time. His set-piece delivery is superb and up there with anyone in the Premier League. Barton’s passing is excellent and only matched by his defensive shift, where he orchestrates things from the middle of the park adeptly. An aggressive tackler and ball winner, we know what to expect from Barton and more importantly how to bypass him. Faurlin adds a lot to the QPR midfield, being combative and possessing a keen instinct when it comes to intercepting the ball. He and Barton will make it difficult for Chelsea to move the ball through the QPR midfield easily. Like Barton, Faurlin is a decent passer of a football and likes to attempt through balls often. Perhaps a little underrated at this level. Derry is the player who is more likely to sit against us as his range of passing is weak in comparison to Barton and Faurlin. He enjoys the physical side of the game and consistently wins most of the challenges he enters. He does lack pace and has a tendency to lose players not directly in his field of vision, so Lampard’s ability to find space off his shoulder becomes vital.
The front three of Wright-Phillips, Taarabt and Helguson will pose familiar problems. You cannot fault Wright-Phillip’s work ethic defensively and he is one of the best in the League going the other way. His ball retention and passing remain a weakness from his time at Chelsea, as does his ability to consistently produce an end product of real quality. We know he is capable of producing stinging drives from distance; he will cut in and attempt to work openings for his powerful right foot. I feel Adel Taarabt will be largely disappointed with his contribution to QPR in the Premier League this season. Stripped of the Captain’s armband and barely a noteworthy highlight so far are testament to the gap between doing it in the Championship and doing it in the Premier League. He is naturally gifted on the ball, likes a trick, can pass off of either feet with aplomb and has an excellent long shot, but doubts remain over his temperament. He reminds me of that other maverick figure, Ricardo Quaresma, who did it for Porto regularly, but could not quite emulate that level in a better league. Taarabt is capable; we just need to hope he does not show what his talent can deliver on Sunday. Helguson is to my knowledge QPR’s only fit striker this Sunday and comes off of the back of a wonderful chipped goal in his last outing. Rarely has he caused Chelsea problems in the past, but he will work the front line diligently and he will need to be watched.
QPR are a team that have a high tempo approach to ball recovery and this is salient in their ability to press and win possession back. Despite Barton and Faurlin’s ability on the ball, QPR struggle to keep possession for large spells during a game and rarely win the battle for possession. Their centre-backs are poor aerially and as a side they struggle to win many of their duels, so if Drogba starts the focus on getting players in and around him for the second ball is obvious. They have a tendency to concede set-pieces in dangerous areas: given our recent scoring exploits from wide deliveries, we should look at this favourably.
As we can see from the below chalkboard, QPR attempt a lot of direct passes over 15-20 yards per game. Rarely will they look to pop the ball around in midfield; the emphasis here is to work the ball to the flanks and try and move the ball as quickly as possible to the final third. Terry has made a career of dealing with long balls expertly, but Bosingwa and Cole will need to be wary of attempts to get in behind them aerially.
Teams regularly target Cole with long balls, but this is where our high line should help out. We have seen recently at Bolton and Everton how effective the high line is at stopping the long diagonal ball from causing us issues. In seasons gone by where we have played deeper, the opportunities for players like Tim Cahill and Kevin Davies to peel onto Cole with their back to goal have been numerous. Where we have no condensed the space, players now have to look to get in behind Cole as opposed to standing on him. Very few players in this League have the movement, pace or ability to consistently beat Cole in a foot race, let alone manoeuvre around his expert defensive instincts. The fact we so comfortably dealt with Davies and Cahill in recent games is probably testament to the fact both players are superb with their back to goal, but have difficulty moving in behind.
While I am largely not a fan of the high line, against direct teams it does have its uses.
1. Ball Circulation – QPR’s midfield are extremely adept at pinching the ball back from the opposition. In Barton and Faurlin they have two players who work hard defensively in terms of their positioning and like to put in tackles as soon as the opportunity arises. Chelsea’s ball circulation of late has been excellent and there is a tangible AVB imprint on the tempo we are looking to impose on opponents. We should look to frustrate Barton by popping the ball around him in the neat triangles that Lampard and Meireles in particular have been playing regularly of late.
Raul Meireles has particularly shone in this respect, his clinical and adventurous passing being a real highlight of the transition from a side known for its robust power, to one that can operate with guile and craft. Meireles should start against QPR and his ability to both thread passes and ensure he is always available will be a key to unlocking the QPR engine room. I have been impressed every time he has put on a Chelsea shirt and his capture from Liverpool has been a real coup at present. He has effortlessly fit into the AVB model despite having arguably the worst hair at the club.
Further afield the width, pace and intelligence that Mata and Sturridge are currently showing provides us with a real impetus in the final third. If you compare our past few matches to the static nature of the likes of Kalou and Malouda during the first few games of the season the difference is stark. Whereas Kalou drifts infield with very little impact, Mata ghosts into space facilely with the artistry to destroy teams. Carefree Chronic’s wonderful assessment of that pass to Ashley Cole against Everton is what Juan Mata brings to Chelsea in the flick of a left boot (I will link when I can find the article!). When was the last time we had someone of that ilk?
Ultimately to hurt QPR we need to move the ball at a tempo that allows Sturridge and Mata to float and drift as they please. Despite publicly stating what we all knew about his preference to play centrally, Sturridge is doing a fine job deputising as an inverted winger. His pace, drive, trickery and finishing ability from everywhere in the opponents half will cause Traore all sorts of problems. QPR are weak in the central defence area and Derry can be caught by sides with that intricacy of passing that we have displayed in recent weeks. Meireles, Mata and Sturridge will be vital while we establish our tempo and pick up the three points.
2. Turn Traore and Young – if I were pinpointing real mismatches in the potential line-ups then I immediately look at both of QPR’s full-backs. Given the turgid time many have had against Messrs Mata and Sturridge we really must look to drive home our superiority in these wide areas. Wright-Phillips will offer a lot of defensive cover on the right hand side, but the same cannot be said of Taarabt and that lop-sidedness could be QPR’s downfall. Over the season 39% of our attacks have come down the left, but Bosingwa has surprised many of late with his performances and can expect to pose Taarabt more problems than the surly winger causes him.
The above chalkboard shows how Danny Murphy ran the show against Fulham by picking lateral passes to quickly manoeuvre the ball into the channels. There is a real sense of exploiting QPR’s weakness out wide, which is backed up by the intensity of which Blackburn looked to shift possession and target Young in their recent 1-1 draw at Loftus Road. Cole and Mata will be pivotal in ensuring the QPR back four have a very uncomfortable day. This may be the day where the odd horizontal pass really is the key to victory.
3. Nicolas Anelka Reborn? – I might be going out on a limb here, but I genuinely think Anelka should start as the spearhead of the front three. He has more often than not been a source of irritation to me personally, his dallying in possession the bane of my tactical life, but of late he has almost reinvented himself. Full of purposeful running, incisive passing and an excellent outlet down our right hand side, Anelka has been very impressive lately. He just seems to get this AVB direction and sometimes in football that is all the analysis that needs to be made.
It is almost as if AVB has freed him of the “playmaker” tag that he seems to have carried for 18 months. Whatever role he is deployed in, Anelka seems to open up the pitch at the moment. Given the cumbersome and generous defending of QPR I feel a front three of Mata, Anelka and Sturridge would really give them a serious headache. Anelka can drift wide, Sturridge can play centrally, Mata just does what he likes and it works.
A recent interview from Frank Lampard on Chelsea TV summed up the feeling the camp. To paraphrase he said that as a midfielder when you have this level of movement ahead of the ball, it makes life so much easier. He pointed out that Everton generally causes us problems when we played against them, but when we turned it on against them they could not live with us. That is entirely the sort of confidence and assessment you want to hear from your central midfielder. Options, options and more options are what make Barcelona the team they are today. While we are not on that level presently, you can see a tangible difference between our style this season and last season already. AVB has still only been here a short time, imagine what he could do if he is backed for the long haul?
That tangent aside, if we tie in the fact that we will heavily attack down our left hand side and Anelka’s current ability to free up the right, you can see the potential problems QPR face when they look around and realise that despite picking up Mata and Anelka, Daniel Sturridge has been played in on goal.
I generally think we will line-up Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Meireles, Lampard; Sturridge, Drogba & Mata. My team is a little bit more experimental.
After Romeu excelled in mid-week against albeit weak opposition, I would give him the nod against QPR to reward him for his performance. However, I am more than happy to predict that AVB will start with Mikel ahead of him and many of you know that I am a fan. We will need someone to win possession and distribute the ball sensibly, something Mikel does very well.
I am also of the opinion that despite David Luiz’s penchant for diving in, bookings and general lunacy, he really does improve our play. His range of passing for a centre-back is brilliant (his ball in the opening minutes against Bolton was utterly world class), but it is his buccaneering swagger when swashbuckling from the back that really adds a dimension to our attacking play. I never thought I would see the day a Chelsea centre-back was emulating Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing, but casting my mind back to Genk I distinctly remember David Luiz doing the same drag/stepover combo that makes Ronaldo so dangerous. I think he is at that stage now where his deficiencies are really only going to be improved by playing regularly with JT. If he develops even a modicum of Terry’s positioning and timing, he will be the best centre-back in the world. Again, I fully expect Ivanovic to get the nod ahead of him at the weekend.
Funny how the Lampard doubters have gone silent recently? 7 games, 4 goals and 3 assists, contributing a goal a game… yep he is finished, fat and overrated. What a ball for Torres’ first against Genk as well. No more needs to be said, but the rotation seems to be treating him well. He did say recently that he would obviously want to play every game, but presently I think AVB is really getting the best out of Lampard. A joy to watch and will definitely go down for me as our greatest ever midfielder. A bit of eulogising of Lampard, but given his ten years at the club he is more than worth the time.
Ramires is a big loss as for me personally as he is slowly becoming one of our more influential players. Does he actually stop running in a game? I think I can recall him walking once, but it was probably at half-time. Runs that you would normally describe as lung busting barely seem to register on the Ramires scale; he seems like he could play back-to-back 90 minutes, and would run through a wall for this Club. His impact late in games is quite phenomenal; he is frightening against tired opponents. Meireles, however, is an artisan replacement – his passing has been exquisite so far and his willingness to always try an attacking pass is something I love about his play. They do not always come off, but it keeps the opposition in check knowing that when he is on the ball they must be on their toes.
I have waxed lyrical about the impact of our number 23 and 10 throughout this preview, so really there is very little to add. Sturridge looks to be fulfilling his massive potential and his natural athletic gifts are marrying well with an ever improving technical understanding of the game. Mata is just a joy to watch. Nothing more needs to be said about him other than that he has improved our style of play (and effectiveness) immeasurably.
Sunday will be a tough game, but I have no doubts that if we score first and early we have enough about us to win comfortably by 2 or 3.
In memory of Matthew Harding, who passed away on this day 15 years ago and in my mind is the Father of the modern day Chelsea.