The Harding Perspective: Wolverhampton Wanderers (H)
What a difference a few weeks makes for the outlook of both a Manager and his Squad. Since the debacle at Loftus Road, where the ineptitude of refereeing was equalled only by our poor first-half display, things have not been right in SW6. A catalogue of individual errors (some often repeated) married with some very below par performances have seen us fall into something resembling a malaise. With January fast approaching I would hazard (no pun, but he’s a start) a guess at several names leaving with more youthful exuberance replacing them. Messrs Alex, Anelka and Kalou are all in my mind destined to leave the club. While the old guard all seem to an extent expendable. We are looking at a string of fixtures in December that will ultimately shape our season.
The arrival of Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday would normally be a welcome sight, a side that with all due respect we have handled well in the recent past. However, given our current plight Wolves may just come to Stamford Bridge with a burgeoning sense that they can get something from this game. The mere fact that Wolves supporters themselves think this to be true is worrying, even more so when seasoned Chelsea fans are also expecting the worse.
Wayne Hennessey is currently a part of Wales’ next generation coming through under the stewardship of Gary Speed. A goalkeeper who is certainly Premier League calibre, Hennessey is noted for his excellent distribution from the back. A smart shot stopper, who is perhaps called on too frequently, he will prove a tough test for all those in blue come Saturday. Another member of the Phil Jones Academy for the Highlighted Barnet, Hennessey rarely makes high profile mistakes and in truth has no salient weaknesses in his game. Much like many goalkeepers of this level, he would benefit from playing with a more robust back four in front of him.
Gary Cahill was recently quoted as saying that he absolutely hates defending against anyone with pace. I think this is the one universal truth across the Centre-Back Union. Note how even Pique struggled to deal with Welbeck’s pace in the recent England game. With Roger Johnson and Christophe Berra (very Scottish name) being about as close to the traditional centre-half mould as humanly possible, we would be foolish not to play all our pace and movement we possess up front. Playing directly plays straight into Johnson’s hands; if there is a better “head it, kick it” centre back in the Premier League I have not seen him. Berra, likewise, is adept at playing direct teams and copes with physical threats well. We need to focus play, where possible, on the shoulder of each centre-back. Johnson and Berra combined to the tune of 10 effective clearances against Everton, blocking 5 shots and making 4 tackles with 3 interceptions. They also won 8 aerial duels, which ultimately suggests the longer direct route is pretty fruitless.
Zubar is likely to replace the injured Stearman at right-back after a lengthy back injury has seen him miss plenty of playing time over the recent months. A player once noted for being a capable holding midfielder, Zubar was converted to a right-back at Marseille before a series of errors led to him falling foul of the crowd and he was subsequently sold to Wolves. It is hard to judge him on his form as his last competitive action was in March 2011, but Zubar was an athletic full-back who was reliable, if unspectacular. Ward, who has been deployed at full-back in recent games, is more of a known quantity. He is strong in possession and rarely loses the ball under pressure. However, his distribution is weak (completed 2 of 5 long balls against Everton) and his crosses are rarely accurate (he completed 1 of 4 against Everton). Ward is not the best defensively and if isolated is likely to get beaten or concede free-kicks.
The conductor in Wolves’ midfield is undoubtedly Nenad Milijas, who invariable averages more touches per game than any Wolves player and attempts more passes. He likes to thread through balls through and given our indiscretions of late Kevin Doyle will no doubt be more alert and receptive than normal. Milijas also possesses a decent long shot and will try his luck from 30-35 yards out. He also takes a very dangerous set-piece, particularly important when you consider some of the lumps Wolves possess. A tidy yet technical player, Milijas is not known for his defensive contribution where his tackling is weak. This is not really an issue when you use Milijas with O’Hara and Karl Henry. While O’Hara is not the greatest tackler, his work ethic more than makes up for this and complements both Milijas and Henry well. O’Hara tends to pass the ball directly (he attempted 6 long balls against Everton, 3 of which were successful) and like Milijas is a focal point of Wolves’ attack. Henry is much maligned for being an overly physical player, but he has excellent focus and positions himself well. He is often booked and concedes fouls quite readily, but overall he adds a lot to the structure of Wolves’ organisation.
Chelsea fans will be glad (or sad?) that Stephen Hunt is suspended for Saturday’s game, which means we cannot cling to the hope that someone (Ivanovic) finally sorts him out. In his place, last season’s flavour of the year Matt Jarvis is likely to figure. Jarvis is quite poor aerially and does not really add much to Wolves’ defensive shape, arguably the reason he has not featured as much this season as last. An excellent crosser of the ball, he possesses that rare ability to consistently gain himself the space needed to produce an end product. Considering the direct nature of much of Wolves’ play, Jarvis himself likes to pop short passes about the pitch and move into space. If he starts, he could pose us issues given our relatively weak full-back play we have showcased since the QPR game. Edwards will probably line up on the right hand side and provide an honest Dirk Kuyt-esque presence for Wolves to work through. A willing runner and always available, Edwards can operate more centrally. His passing is slightly lapse at times and he is more effective out wide. I would not foresee Edwards being the cause of too many sleepless nights.
Up front Wolves are likely to operate with Kevin Doyle as the lone centre forward. Doyle links play very well, playing short passes to his oncoming midfielders and allows Wolves to play the direct ball both into him and behind. He is the type of player who can cause us problems as he rarely needs more than one opportunity to make opposition teams pay. A potent finisher who works tremendously hard for the team across the front line, we need to be wary of his movement. He draws plenty of fouls during a game which allows Wolves to build momentum through set-pieces. What we do not need is a needless foul to give Wolves the opportunity to score first.
Wolves, stylistically, like to play with width and place a lot of focus in attacking the channels. This is not particularly great viewing considering this has been a source of weakness in the past 3-4 games. They focus play down their left hand side, which means there is an emphasis on Sturridge (if he plays and more on him later) to help out whoever is playing at right-back. They work the ball into positions where they throw plenty of crosses into their opponent’s box and are definitely a side that play direct. They are obstinate when taking the lead and we cannot allow them to take an early advantage. They do create plenty of scoring opportunities but are wasteful in front of goal, a criticism that can rightly be aimed at us presently. An area we must look to expose is their inability to deal with through-ball situations, particularly when they are also weak marshalling the wide channels.
The Everton game (above) shows the extent to which Wolves try and play directly to their left hand side, hitting long and frequent passes to that channel. The Wigan game serves to highlight the non-existence of the Wolves midfield in their build up play. The highlighted areas are quite telling as to where this game will be won and lost. We need to try and manipulate them to play in central areas. If we can do this successfully, then we immediately push them on the back foot as their intricate short passing should be at a standard we can break up easily. This is probably a game where the high line may indeed work. Compressing the space and not allowing so many direct passes will really inhibit Wolves attacking threat.
1. Effective Possession – Philippe Auclair (@PhilippeAuclair) recently opined that “[…] possession’s becoming an excuse for teams which don’t know what to do with the ball.” If ever a quotation summed up Chelsea’s present style of tiki-taka, then this surely has to be the one. Have we ever dominated possession so much in games, without scoring or punishing teams? There are other factors to the conversion of chances question, but I will leave them alone for now.
My biggest ire stems from the endless passing between centre-backs and holding midfielder. This, for me, denotes two things:
- A lack of confidence or intention from any midfielder to come deep, turn and play the ball forwards (Oriol Romeu, step forward).
- A real lack of ability in the current squad to play with the movement and pace that such a system demands.
Personally I feel both points are as equally valid as one another. In a system that relies heavily on intricate passing, movement and interchanges, your defensive midfielder is the absolute key. The Quarterback needs to be both athletic enough to cover for any quick counter-attacks and good enough on the ball to circulate it to the correct player in as few touches as possible. Personally, I advocate playing with two holding players and ultimately Liverpool deployed the perfect duo in the Mascherano/Alonso days. You need one player to be able to pass the ball superbly well from deep, to be athletic enough to almost play box-to-box and the other needs to be the destroyer who sits, can pass, but ultimately is more of a shield.
When we lose possession in the final third we are so open to a counter-attack it is frightening. Consistently our full-backs are so far up the pitch that we may have two or three players in positions to defend the oncoming attack. You only need to cast your mind back to the Arsenal game to witness what a team with ability can do to us on the break.
We seemed to have completely lost Mata within our current system; a stark inability to even get him the ball has rendered him something of a spectator. For those lucky enough to go to games watch us in possession around the halfway line and look for Mata. I bet he is a) in space, b) in a position to use the ball and c) that no one has the ability to pass the ball to him. This is mainly due to a stagnant midfield that does not possess the fluid passers AVB would like. It is no secret that AVB saw Modric and Moutinho as key signings to make our midfield tick.
We are no longer effective with our possession; it appears to be keep ball for keep balls sake. No penetration, no one moving intelligently and very little ability on show. Perhaps that is a slightly damning verdict, but you only need to watch the laborious circulation of the ball to know it is true. While it may be unpopular to drop Lampard, we would become far more fluid with Mata deployed behind the striker centrally. This would mean Lampard either playing deeper, which unless he is paired with someone very athletic (Ramires) would not work, or accepting he is no longer our first choice attacking-midfielder. AVB wants us to press the ball in midfield and Frank, particularly in Leverkusen and against Liverpool looked very leggy. The thing to note is that we did not press the ball in either game as we had done in the early part of the season. Frank needs to accept that he is not in his 20s any longer. While I am not writing him off in the slightest, he does need to be managed more thoroughly. Giggs is the perfect example of a player kept ticking over to perform on the big occasions. Frank should be used in the same manner.
What we clearly lack is the kind of player that AVB wanted in the summer: Modric. Sadly, and this stood for Ancelotti, we may need to panic buy again in January to bring the required quality into the squad that allows us to continue to build for the future. At present we cannot play the Mourinho way as the stalwarts of that style are no longer what they were, nor can we play the AVB way.
Interesting to note that we were linked with 4/5 players who AVB more than likely saw in his first 15; of those 4/5 we only bought Mata.
2. Individual Mistakes – over his career you can count the number of high profile (or any profile) rickets that JT has made each season on one hand. That is the reason why he is such a top centre-back and was consistently voted into the FIFPRO XI (as unofficial skipper as well). However, the amount of mistakes JT is making of late is alarming and symptomatic of the changing of the guard that is happening at the club. People can bemoan the high line and tempo of pressing, but the fact is this has become a media myth – we have not done either for the past few games and still mistakes are being made. Terry has probably shown more frailties in the beginning of this season than he does in an entire campaign. I believe Terry still has all the ability in the world, but a move to a 4231 will offer him greater protection than he currently has. At his very best Terry had better players around him: Gallas or Carvalho as his partner, Makelélé in the holding role, Essien rampaging around midfield and Frank in imperious World Player of the Year form. Our only real improvement has been at left-back, whereas the other areas of the pitch we certainly are no longer as strong due to a lack of replacement or players naturally declining with age. I am not singling JT out, but given his usual immaculate performances he is most notable.
JT, Frank, Didier, Ashley Cole and Cech have all been well below their impeccable standards recently and if we are being honest have cost us points. I feel our back four are too exposed at times, with little defensive cover offered from the flanks: while I am not advocating a Mourinho-esque rigid defensive structure, certain players do need reminding that they have a duty without the ball as well (Daniel Sturridge!). We would most certainly benefit from having an established back five (I include the holding midfielder in this), the chopping and changing does not really inspire the confidence that consistency brings. When was our last clean sheet? Bar the first Arsenal goal (and probably the last due to us pressing too hard for an equaliser), all of them had a Chelsea mistake in them. We are talking about gifting a team like Arsenal crucial goals in the ebb and flow of a top tier Premier League game: this is criminal. The Liverpool result was the same, a horrendous pass from Cech to put Obi under pressure, Mikel then shrugged off the ball when he is usually very strong and we are a goal down while the game is still tight. In Leverkusen, the awareness shown for the equaliser was almost a carbon copy of the Santos equaliser for Arsenal.
People can talk about formations, the substitutions that a manger employs and team selection but ultimately you cannot presuppose the sort of decision making/errors we are showing of late. AVB wants to play a high pressing game that enables to win the ball back in more dangerous areas and play from there. The costly mistakes we are making are not solely down to this change in philosophy, they are uncharacteristic mistakes from players who really should not be making them.
Would a return to a less adventurous style of football work? No. We simply do not have the target man, the tenacity in midfield or the back five to play in such a fashion. Our major strength for years has been the robustness of our side, we could physically dominate teams from front to back. Our midfield was a machine that would strangle even Barcelona into pointless side-to-side passing. We had a striker who could bully any centre-back, two wingers who were actually wingers and in-form. We no longer have that sort of ability or composition within the squad. This year may be painful viewing, but the change will be for the better.
While some may question what has AVB done to deserve such undying support, I would say it is precisely that sort of attitude that has led us to where we are. The squad is too disjointed, money has been frittered away and there has been no direction at the club since Mourinho’s first two seasons. The spine of the team still has very little realistic competition and it is that lack of competition that is most alarming. Our key players are still Cech, Terry, Lampard and arguably Drogba. Cast your mind back to our title winning seasons, they are basically identical.
“AVB is not on the pitch, we’re on the pitch and we’re making mistakes. He can’t fix individual mistakes.” – Petr Cech
3. Fernando Torres – Perhaps his own stupidity against Swansea blighted what looked like a semblance of form returning, but we need to see the £50m man soon. He is tailor made for the Wolves game, his movement on the shoulder and the ability of Sturridge and Mata to find him will pose them all sorts of problems. While I have been a staunch Drogba supporter for many years, his play of late (and many will suggest for 12-18 months) has resembled more of Emile Heskey on a bad day than the guy who would terrorise all centre-backs regularly. The changing of the guard needs to happen now, and quickly. Torres should be instilled as the number one and play regularly, rested where possible.
Torres is the immediate future; we will only know whether that glimpse of form was a return to former glory or just a flash in pan if he begins to play regularly. If Torres’ form returns this slump we are in could prove to be short lived. Torres must start and he must score against Wolves.
If Bosingwa starts ahead of Ryan Bertrand at left-back, then you have to really question the wisdom as to why he is still here. He is not lining up against David Silva or Nani, so he really should be able to deputise for Ashley Cole in this situation. It may also show a glimpse of our potential future number three. The lad has well over 150 league appearances and has captained England U21s, what does he have to do to get a game?
I do like Mikel, but he has reverted to type lately and has disappointed. I think Romeu is far more in tune with the AVB model and as such his less touches approach combined with a more forward thinking nature should determine a start for the young Spaniard. I am approaching this game in a loose 4231 formation, with Romeu sitting and Ramires occupying the box-to-box role.
As of yet we do not have a decent enough option to play wide left, so Mata will continue there on Saturday. He is less of an issue with Sturridge in the side because we then have a balance between both flanks. Traditionally you either want two fliers, or one flier and someone who comes inside to make things happen. Recently we have paired Malouda with Mata and this frankly does not work. You need to stretch at least one full-back vertically before spaces open up horizontally. Where Malouda rarely goes past his man and Mata drifts infield, we are incredibly easy to contain. This containment leads to the endless side-to-side passing we have seen.
Torres has to start for me, for the reasons outlined above.
We. Need. Three. Points.