Tactics Talk: Defensive responsibility returns to Chelsea under Rafael Benitez
A controversial week at Stamford Bridge, where the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo was sandwiched in between a hiding in Turin and the appointment of Rafa Benitez as interim first team manager, ended with Chelsea welcoming Manchester City in a tie many expected to be the most entertaining of a scintillating Super Sunday. It promised so much, but could it deliver?
The appointment of Rafa Benitez, apparently one of football’s finest tactical minds, was anticipated to spark change in a Chelsea side which has entertained under Di Matteo this season, but has struggled to match that with a defensive solidity good enough to keep them at the top domestically and on the continent. Surprisingly, though, Benitez stuck with the same shape and nine of the 11 who were humbled against Juventus in midweek. Petr Cech, Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz and Ashley Cole made up the back five. John Obi Mikel and Ramires remained as the two sitting midfielders with the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard supporting the off-form Fernando Torres, who came in from the cold after being dropped midweek.
Where the home side – who led the Premier League in October but haven’t won any of their last four games – have faltered lately, Man City have continued their unbeaten domestic run this season with five wins in the last six. Roberto Mancini pioneered a 3-5-2 formation against Real Madrid in midweek, but quickly changed to a 4-4-1-1 in that game with good effect and took that in to Sunday. The ever-present Joe Hart began in goals behind Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Matija Nastasic and Aleksandar Kolarov. James Milner started on the right with David Silva on the left and Gareth Barry joined Yaya Toure in midfield. Sergio Aguero lined up in the hole behind Eden Dzeko – the Bosnian striker who has only one goal in his last six for City.
First Half – Benitez’ reservation kills City flow
Mancini’s change in system was designed to give City more balance and, more importantly, greater options in attack. And for the first 15 minutes it worked as the away side dominated possession against a Chelsea team who looked conservative in their defensive approach.
Benitez’ may not have altered the Chelsea formation or personnel, but the biggest effect he had on the team appeared to be on the system. Mata, Oscar and Hazard may have blazed a trail this season scoring 14 goals and 18 assists between them, but it’s been to the detriment of an injury-stricken defence which has shipped 22 goals in its last 12 games. Attacking will always be the first thought in the mind of the ‘Holy Trinity’, but there has to be an element of defensive responsibility and the first 15 minutes of Sunday’s game showed that was not lost on their new manager.
Chelsea operated with 10, sometimes 11, men behind the ball as Toure and Barry played from one side of the park to another. City didn’t, however, create in the final third with a Silva header being the only chance of a tentative opening stage.
A congested final third appeared to be a major problem for each team as Silva managed just eight successful passes along with Hazard with Mata completing only three. The more surprising statistic though was Oscar’s inability to make one attacking third pass in the whole first half as City dominated play and Chelsea seemed happy to focus on quick counter-attacks.
Second Half – You can’t lose goals when there’s nothing to defend
Both managers decided against making changes during the break despite an uninspiring first half from both attacks.
City had managed just one shot on goal, Chelsea had none, but an alteration in Benitez’ system began to see the game open up. Both full-backs pushed on to support the wide midfielders who were now rotating between the flanks and the attacking midfield role behind Torres who had found it difficult to get any change from the imposing Kompany.
Torres has one goal in nine, was dropped midweek and is beginning to come under increased pressure from a frustrated Chelsea support so his lack of confidence is understandable. The Chelsea psychiatrist may have to be called though as Kompany made it a depressing afternoon for the Spaniard. He linked up successfully just once in City’s defensive third, beat his marker just twice and had one shot at goal, but it all made for a largely disappointing afternoon for Chelsea’s number 9.
Surprisingly, Chelsea’s defence held strong despite increased pressure from City. Luiz come under regular criticism, but his marshalling of Aguero and Dzeko took the potency out of an attack which has 25 goals to its name in the league.
A rare foray forward from Cole needed the fingertips of Hart to keep the scores level and, quite disappointingly, that was the best chance of a closing period which petered out with a raft of ineffectual substitutions and poor play in the final third.
Conclusion – Goalless draw fair as neither find finishing touch
The story of the game was one of lazy touches, misplaced passes and indecision in the final third. City enjoyed the lion share of possession – ending with 58% of the ball – but managed only five shots on target, completed 65% of their passes in the attacking third and, most importantly, scored zero goals.
Things were worse for Chelsea who looked tentative and lacking imagination in a conservative performance. They were strong in defence, but unusually uninspired in attack considering the talent they had going forward – the Benitez way it seems.
Benitez praised his team’s spirit, but made excuses when it came to the performance: “Obviously you want to win, you play at home, and you want to create more chances but we were playing against a team who were at the top of the table and is a very good team.”
And although a fair comment, it points to Chelsea, the Champions of Europe and title-rivals to City, being scared at home against their rivals. That must be worrying.Tagged in: chelsea, football, Manchester City, Premier League
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