Here, Joe takes a look at the current makeup of Mourinho’s team and suggests a balanced approach over individual quality is what will serve us best.
Balance is an incredible thing to witness in sport. While it is not always the most tangible or quantifiable metric in football, it is something that just intrinsically works. Balance may well be found within one player as it was with Claude Makélélé at Real Madrid. His selfless work ethic enabled a top heavy side to win a European Cup; he alone provided balance. When he left, Madrid were never the same.
While an extreme example Makélélé’s role at Real Madrid illustrated the need for balance more saliently than any other team in recent memory. The nuances at Chelsea are a little more complex than merely deploying one player. Nevertheless, over the course of the early part of the season we are seeing familiar trends in our shape/personnel that allude to potentially who is featured in our best eleven.
Last season people frequently mention the sparkling football played by Hazard, Mata and Oscar. Aesthetically pleasing gung-ho football may have been great to watch at times, but without some semblance of structure we would never realistically challenge for the title. I personally believe that our failings in Europe were solely down to the lack of tactical nous and structure within the team. The need for balance was obvious and largely explains why Mourinho has been reticent to deploy the trio with any sort of regularity.
The Schalke game was a perfect example of how a balanced side can be more effective than one merely comprising of the most talented players available. After an initial period of Schalke pressure Chelsea grew into the game and asserted themselves. The better side by the end of the first half and in control for the second it was a good response to the defeat at Newcastle.
Petr Čech largely remains out of the debate concerning balance. Though rather poignant to note that in Mark Schwarzer we have a very capable backup goalkeeper for what feels like an age. Thibaut Courtois waits in the wings to eventually challenge for the number 1 shirt, but it is a fantastic problem to have.
Looking initially at the full back area is where I would like to begin. While we possess two very defensively sound options, even if Cole needs to be managed more than previous seasons, neither full back contributes in the final third. This is where César Azpilicueta must be looked at more often and should occupy one of the full back spots.
The amount of teams who allow Branislav Ivanović the freedom of the right hand side, willing to take the chance he is unlikely to cause an issue is ever increasing. I take the point he is a huge plus in the air and is a frequent target for Čech’s goal kicks: great defensively and an absolute warrior in the commitment stakes. Nevertheless, when paired with Cole at left back both are not causes of concern for the opposition. Teams can therefore press aggressively onto the first touch of Hazard, in particular, knowing that even if they are overloaded the resulting quality is unlikely to harm them from Cole or Ivanović.
While Azpilicueta’s end product is certainly not consistently world class he provides the energy and ability to intricately link play further up the pitch. He is willing to go beyond his winger and capable of causing problems, more so than either of our current starting options. Similarly, Ryan Bertrand on the left hand side provides an athletic and willing runner from the full back position. Using two largely defensive full backs immediately hands the opposition the tools to stop our better attack minded players as it gives them two less issues in wide areas to deal with.
Moving into midfield is it a coincidence that we have looked far more capable defensively when our central triangle (CB – DM – CB) features a specialist defensive midfielder? John Obi Mikel will forever split opinion amongst fans, but for his detractors he must be viewed as a necessary evil. For those, who like myself, would never consider starting a game without him his recent performances suggest he is rediscovering his best form.
Instrumental in regaining the midfield battle against Manchester City, nullifying Arsenal in the League Cup, benefitting in absence by the shambles that was our midfield against Newcastle and then growing into the game against Schalke giving a commanding performance. Mikel is the small cog in a rather expensive watch that makes everything else tick. Invariably his incisive passes allow others the opportunity to do something and play quickly. It is as if because he does not try expansive passes or the aggressive pass every time he is in possession, this is somehow deemed negative. Often it is the pass before the key pass that is crucial – just watch Sergio Busquets – and this is what Mikel brings better than anyone else in the squad.
John Terry, who looks as good as he has done in years, has always stated that he is “Mikel’s biggest fan”. Mikel is the only player trusted to receive the ball under intense pressure and distribute it on a regular basis. Yes, he is not perfect, but the way some people judge him is as if no defensive midfielder ever loses the ball, misplaces a pass or is tackled. Would they rather we have a midfield resembling a sieve as we had at Newcastle? All for the sake of this mythical speed that we are meant to play at without Mikel?
Gary Cahill, bar one early misjudgement, played very well. Although I am a huge David Luiz fan, until the Brazilian accepts that he is allowed to play a simpler game and be considered world class there will always be question marks about him. Luiz is without question our most talented defender (while Terry is our best pure centre back). On his day he is utterly magnificent, but you get the impression when the team are not playing well he tries far too hard to get things going. Newcastle was a great example of a game where he was hell bent on forcing matters. Currently Cahill and Terry should start the next match and this is something I am surprised to admit. They work well as a triangle with Obi Mikel at the tip and this was evidenced as they grew into the game, particularly in the second half. Though as a point of reference the last time Luiz played with Mikel ahead of him, at Arsenal, he was excellent.
The player next to Mikel, as I see it, should be either Ramires or Michael Essien. While the technical quality of either player is not entirely what I would prefer they offer a physical edge that compliments Obi Mikel perfectly. I am not a huge fan of seeing Lampard trudge around midfield in an area that is completely at odds with everything that has made him so successful. His assist to Demba Ba on Wednesday night was a prime example of Lampard’s eternal quality – his ability in the final third. Wasting Lampard’s final few years in a position that he looks increasingly uncomfortable playing is a sin. He is still the best finisher in the squad and should be utilised further forward.
If we play a 433 shape then Lampard works well as the most attacking player. Similarly, I think he brings a slightly different set of qualities to the number ten role if deployed there as he was for a brief moment last night. However, the power and athletic quality coupled with the defensive instincts that I would like to see from someone playing in the pivot is something that at 35 years of age was brutally exposed as lacking at Newcastle.
It is in the band of three that Mourinho frequently deploys that I have found the issue of balance most cause for concern. I see the three separated into three individual strands. We need an element of directness, for want of a better word someone with magic and finally some absolute creativity. Where we have fallen down is when far too similar players start regularly.
Starting in the centre is the element of pure creativity that we require. While people will point that the established trio of starts (Hazard, Mata and Oscar) worked well last year, an early exit from the Champions League and a distant third in the league in reality would suggest otherwise. Playing Mata or Oscar wide robs the team of much needed width, directness and pace. Our inability to hurt Newcastle with the trio playing was evidence enough that teams are comfortable defending narrow against them this season.
Do you start with Oscar or Mata centrally? Very recent form would suggest that Oscar is in potential need of a rest. Although he has been our best player this year, the volume of football he has played since joining Chelsea is staggering. I do buy into the fact every Mourinho player must work hard, having Mata as your creative hub in a balanced side is more than achievable.
The players with that little bit of x-factor in wide areas are certainly Hazard and Willian. Eden has statistically been producing consistently, but I feel he is playing below expectations. Whether he has fully recovered from his slight injury problem earlier in the season is debatable. What is not in question is that he needs to start influencing proceedings for longer periods during games. Yes, he is fouled almost every time he touches the ball, but other teams plan to play against him. We need to use that to our advantage as does he – causing as much damage without the ball with clever movement as he does when in possession.
Willian, on the other hand, may not quite be at Hazard’s level of mercurial talent, yet he makes up for this in endeavour and application. His swashbuckling and pacey style of play is slowly garnering him the plaudits he deserves. He works exceptionally hard for the team when we lose the ball and is looking increasingly more threatening in possession as he adapts to the rigours of Mourinho’s system. Both Hazard and Willian will regularly beat defenders with their trickery and a more lucid midfield would be able to find them earlier with the ball (another question for another time).
The direct part of the team comes through the use of André Schürrle and Kevin De Bruyne. They are perhaps the key part in this entire front three equation. Providing genuine width and directness means that teams cannot simply defend the width of their penalty area against us. They stretch the play considerably when deployed and Schürrle’s pace, willingness to work and overall contribution to the team has been superb. If De Bruyne knuckles down and gets back to the level of performance he showed against Hull he has every chance of starting regularly. While not as pacey as Schürrle his superb technique, link play and distribution make him such a danger in wide areas.
One of the main problems we have is how compact we tend to become during a game. We deploy far too many players who have a tendency to drift centrally. It has been an obvious countermeasure for other teams to simply pack the central midfield and defend as narrow as possible. They are happy to let Ivanović receive the ball on the right hand side knowing he is unlikely to cause damage. Similarly, Cole’s reticence to support Hazard in attack means they can crowd the Belgian out far too easily. All this achieves is a funnelling effect pushing the ball and Chelsea’s play centrally into their most guarded area (the match against Everton was a good example of this).
This is why you must look to stretch the play on at least one side of the field consistently. Even a lopsided attacking bias can cause more issues than no bias at all. Our players operate at their best when the opponent is stretched so the gaps between the lines are big enough for them to hurt opposition back fours. If Schürrle/De Bruyne/Willian and Azpilicueta are openly stretching the opposition down the right then the gaps between the central defenders naturally increase. This in turn means that their defensive midfielders must marshal a bigger area in front of the back four. You increase the defensive responsibility of each opposition individual purely by making the pitch as wide as possible on one side. When we achieve this we look dangerous. When we play narrow we are only relying upon an individual piece of brilliance or a set piece to win us the game.
Finally, let us look at the centre forward spot. It might be a surprise but this is no longer our biggest area of concern: (I genuinely believe that having a central midfielder capable of playing box-to-box with technical, tactical and physical skill is our most pressing need). The reinvention of Fernando Torres, while by no means complete, has been startling. Even as someone who has heavily criticised his play I can openly admit to seeing a huge change.
While we are never going to see Torres consistently slashing in behind defences to score goals, he is turning in to is exactly the type of striker this system needs. Bullying defenders, adopting a more physical style of play has helped. We now see him pulling defenders short, testing them down the channels, harassing them and linking play better than he has ever done in his time here. It is by no means perfect but Torres’s recent form does bring balance to the entire side. We are no longer completely toothless. We have someone up front who opposition centre backs now need to actively manage. In theory if we do opt to go for balance over star quality this immeasurably improves the entire outlook of the team.