A wonderful guest piece by Sébastien Chapuis analysing the differing roles of Gary Cahill and David Luiz when deployed at centre-half . Sébastien is a regular pundit on the Canal+ football show “The Specialists”, where he provides expert insight into the Barclays Premier League (similar to Revista de la Liga in the UK). Sébastien is also a qualified coach and currently works with U11 footballers.
The last week of the season represents the moment in which it’s time to sum up a given team’s year and focus on individual performances. In that regard and amongst others aspects, much has been said about Chelsea’s centre-backs. Gary Cahill has settled for club and country while his Brazilian counterpart David Luiz has started only a dozen League games.
The former has taken plaudits for being one of the main explanations for Chelsea’s defensive record of 27 goals conceded, while the latter was pointed to for an alleged lack of reliability. It would appear necessary, though, to take into consideration the whole defensive set-up and steps of its implementation in order to analyse the mechanics in use this season, and the path to be taken in the future.
Please make sure to keep the doors of the saloon closed
A few months after that now iconic Champions League triumph in Munich, Chelsea started the season with the man who brought the long coveted trophy to SW6 for the first time in the London’s club history. Despite an unenviable 6th place finish in the League, the prospect of playing the Champions League as holders was one of the reasons Chelsea did still manage to attract the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin; joining the club’s Player of the Season Juan Mata.
This was a bunch of gifted individuals who Roberto Di Matteo had to find the right balance in order to play them at the same time. Amidst latent concerns related to the actual trust the Chelsea board genuinely put into the Italian, the latter decided to display his team in a brand new 4231 formation, featuring the same players week and week out until his departure (a short-termist approach which can explain why Chelsea won 7 of the 8 first league games, unlike the other title contenders).
With Eden Hazard, Juan Mata’s propensity to drift into central zones to disorient opposing teams’ defensive set-ups, the provision of attacking width did rely more than ever on full backs Branislav Ivanović and Ashley Cole. Subsequently both centre-backs were put into much discomfort as distances did lengthen between the back four. The deployment of Chelsea’s XI meant that centre-backs had to split while the recurring lack of availability of the likes of Hazard and Mata meant that Gary Cahill and particularly David Luiz were forced into speculative passing to try to connect phases together to move the ball forward.
With Chelsea’s high pressing faltering week after week, the team became more and more vulnerable during the transition from attack-to-defence. The home defeat to Manchester United acted as the epitome of Chelsea’s failures with possession lost early and defenders torn into retreating back as much as they could (Ivanović and Gary Cahill) or rushing out in a last-gasp attempt (Cole and David Luiz), two attitudes that didn’t eventually prevent United scoring 3 goals and winning the game that day.
Reorganise to keep up the pace of a marathon season
Right from his appointment, Rafael Benitez’s first job was to set up a structure as quickly as he could in order to face to the task to play one game every three days. His answer took the shape of two banks of four behind Juan Mata and Fernando Torres. In order to maintain the compactness of his team at all times, Benitez made the choice to prefer two similar “penalty box centre-backs” in Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanović who’d fit the system (starting 9 of Benitez’s 26 League games in charge).
But for their similarities, both did display the same weaknesses especially tactically: with an emphasis on going for the ball at the same time without taking a necessary step to cover one another. However, this did stand in contrast with the requirement to cover their respective full back and monitor what would happen a few yards ahead of them; this did appear as a fear to be pulled out of their comfort zone surrounding the penalty box.
While the Cahill-Ivanović defensive partnership took shape, John Terry went overlooked for reasons listed as lack of fitness because of injuries, and supposedly, non-football related reasons as well. That meant that David Luiz was the third choice centre-back who still happened to provide more flexibility to his team in order to recover the ball back in midfield.
Juan Mata’s defensive contribution was nowhere near the required standard even for a player who had to share the same zone as players such as Michael Carrick/Mikel Arteta. Subsequently, Chelsea was unable to feature two layers of pressing in midfield (A), unless David Luiz swept in behind Lampard and Ramires* (B). Under the former Liverpool manager’s tenure, Chelsea was set up to invite opponents in order to recover the ball in the central channel of the pitch. For aforementioned reasons, that was done in areas close to the penalty box – with the aim to play on the counter-attack afterwards.
*The two started 9 of 26 League games altogether as the most used midfield partnership under the guidance of Benitez.
The shell-shaped structure
As well as feeding the “comeback of the hero” narrative, José Mourinho’s return as Chelsea manager also meant that the London club was finally able to resume its long-term progression. Mourinho was the first managerial appointment who’d fit into an apparent long-term vision since Carlo Ancelotti’s departure. Mourinho did seek to implement a gameplan who would commit every player to the task.
Mourinho departed from a plan which heavily relied upon sacrificing players to gamble on an unique player’s ability to make the difference by himself (Juan Mata), who was completely free from defensive duties. That brand new approach did rely on an aggressive press from the whole team directly after the turnover of possession; what would supposedly allow Chelsea to keep trying to transform advantageous positions into goalscoring chances through short crosses.
The commitment of the whole team but the main striker to get behind the ball and play in the opposition’s half would provide the ideal platform to force opponents to play the ball outwards and through wide areas. Chelsea would eventually recover possession there if not in the final third, having blocked every option inside for opponents closed down.
Chelsea’s exit from the League Cup and José Mourinho’s adjustment toward a deeper block did merely reinforce the shell-shaped structure to protect Peter Cech’s goal. Its two marshals, John Terry and Gary Cahill, would then be assigned a smaller area to control given César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović’s efficiency in the adjacent areas coupled with their new instructions (team must maintain 5 players behind the ball at all times is one of Mourinho’s leading principles, which proves to be pivotal to face the prospect of quick counter attacks in the Premier League). That narrow back four has been successfully headed up by Nemanja Matić and Ramires whose ability to recover the ball has been one of the positives of the campaign.
David Luiz couldn’t establish himself in the centre-back berth at the start of the season because of injuries, and the fact that he happened to be in losing sides (Everton, Basel, Newcastle) when he was introduced in the starting XI. Moreover, his misunderstanding with Petr Cech over a textbook back pass against Cardiff did reinforce his reputation as not concentrating in routine matches. The explanation behind his use by José Mourinho afterwards lies in the Portuguese manager fielding David Luiz in midfield in big games (Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, PSG and Atletico; being on the winning side at four occasions in the league.).
Settle into the plan
José Mourinho got in depth on his plan in front of the Sky cameras after a 2-0 win against Fulham in September. The Chelsea manager explained that the project was to play in a high block – something reminiscient of Andre Villas Boas’ ill-fated tenure, with the sole difference that Mourinho got the players on his side, contrary to his former opposition scout. The team made noticeable progress on the first months of the season in terms of efficiency of pressing to recover the ball as high as possible.
Only for the lack of conversion through a decisive run and finish from the main striker to force Mourinho to revert to a deep block and pressing in limited sequences in time in December. Regardless of that switch, the collective discipline stayed intact through every players’ commitment. Everything suggests that José Mourinho will set-up his team in the similar fashion than it was on the first months of the campaign, if Chelsea sign a long coveted striker (Diego Costa) who is able to translate good positions into goals.
Occupying a higher portion of the field and applying a dynamic pressing will then raise again the question of the defensive line’s positioning and the players who compose it. David Luiz’s ability to step up into midfield to intercept, with his reading skills, makes him a proactive defender who seems to suit better a role further from his goal than Gary Cahill. The Brazilian’s sheer impact with a limited amount of fouls committed does not only allow Chelsea to recover possession, it’s also a genuine asset to shake off strikers’ confidence and eventually reduce their threat.
While the former Bolton centre-back arguably improved through a noticeable gain of confidence for the past two years, it certainly has to be taken into consideration that the current set-up restricts the back line’s exposition to attacks. It is rare, indeed, to see either Terry or Cahill being dragged out of their zone to challenge for the ball, therefore fouling opponents. On top of that and on occasions against teams featuring a strong and mobile physical presence upfront (the likes of Džeko, Adebayor); José Mourinho’s instructions did actually commit Nemanja Matić rather than any of the two centre-backs to track the striker’s movements.
It is possible to retrace the evolution of the deployment of Chelsea’s most used centre-back partnership over the course of the last four seasons. Chelsea was horribly exposed at the back during Carlo Ancelotti’s second season and Andre Villas-Boas’ short reign. Then, Chelsea was made essentially a compact and reactive team playing on the counter as a result of a mid-season change two seasons running.
But if Chelsea want to get back to the standards of the last successful domestic campaign (2009-2010) and genuinely dominate opponents, it will require to commit more players forward to instigate more unpredictable attacks. Obviously, there is absolutely no question to pretend here that Chelsea’s centre-backs should commit more fouls. But considering to get into a new dimension emphasises on fielding a back line able to deal with wider areas to cover, this a configuration that seems to suit better David Luiz (or, ultimately; Kurt Zouma) than Gary Cahill.
Weave the ball
But the 2013/2014 version of Chelsea also reached it’s limits in terms of efficiency against teams renowned for “parking the bus”; being unable to get results against the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace despite being entitled to possession for more than two thirds of the time.
It has to be said that centre-backs hold a responsibility in such scenarios given the fact that every player represents a relay point to make the ball circulate before finding a gap where he may rush into. The return leg against PSG doesn’t represent a blueprint which could be used in the league as a basic “Chelsea bombing on strategy” as PSG were obviously unprepared to deal with that many long balls in the box, which proved to be enough to nick a second goal through Demba Ba.
It’s fair to say Chelsea failed to undermine Tony Pulis’ resilience, having failed to convert the half-chances created through individuals and having not taken advantage either from overloading the final third (0-1 defeat). As John Terry and Gary Cahill were released from any pressure on the ball and with two of Chelsea’s three midfielders replaced by attackers before the hour mark (Oscar and Salah for Luiz and Lampard); Chelsea’s centre-backs didn’t capitalize from being in possession in the midway circle. Gary Cahill’s pass map at that day epitomizes Chelsea’s little penetration and forward thinking as one pass out of five was played sideways.
Chelsea, as often this season, was running out of ideas. One of the reasons of that lies in the strictly defined task sharing to play the ball out, with very little risks taken. Both Gary Cahill and John Terry boast a 88.3% and 90.2% passing accuracy (league top 10 in their position) as most of their job consists of feeding the deepest midfielder (Ramires, then Matic after January).
Oscar and Willian drop deep to get on level with midfielders; both being very thrifty in terms of risk-taking and will try to keep the ball if they can’t feed Hazard in the best situation possible (it’s not ‘Willian hasn’t seen the pass’ but ‘he doesn’t think this move will develop’ – Willian being Chelsea’s leading pre-assist provider this season. Thanks to David Pasztor here for some excellent statistical analysis of Chelsea’s goals).
But whereas hitting a long pass on the deck into Hazard or Mata’s feet fifteen months ago let little doubt regarding the outcome – an unavoidable turnover; Willian and Oscar’s ability to shield the ball makes them a genuine option to add variation. David Luiz has that ability to accurately pick his team mates, and tends to take initiative when he gets on the ball. More generally Luiz can change the pace of the game through his large range of passes to connect with attackers or straight onto the centre-forward from a variety of situations: either facing a tight block, or acting as a launchpad for a counter attack.
His performance against West Ham last spring illustrates the benefits to play forward quickly into pockets of space to enhance attacking moves in the attacking half. Opposing teams generally took into consideration David Luiz’s threat from deep as he was regularly man marked by an attacking player when Chelsea played the ball out, unlike the “usual” configuration in which one or two attackers simply jog from the one who has the ball to the other who is to receive it.
David Luiz’s interest from the likes of PSG, Barcelona or Bayern Munich certainly puts into perspective the reputation he’s made of in England. Unless his departure after the summer is motivated by financial reasons, the path José Mourinho wants to take seems to match David Luiz’s abilities. The Brazilian centre-back usually elevates his usual self with his national team. That means that the decision being taken in the summer regarding the 27 year old’s future will necessarily have to take into consideration those World Cup performances. Chelsea certainly couldn’t afford to let such a quality player leave the club, particularly as Luiz’s contribution will be key in determining how far Brazil advance this summer.