Of late there has been a huge amount of criticism levelled at Chelsea’s defenders, much of it duly deserved. A once water-tight defence is now seemingly leaking goals on a far too regular basis, so much so that the club have only managed to keep three clean sheets in the Premier League this season. However the over emphasis on Chelsea’s defensive problems masks the realities of their deficiencies in front of goal.
Think Football alluded to the problems facing AVB in a defensive capacity last month and little has improved since. Luiz and Terry look a shaky partnership at best, Luiz error prone and Terry appears at least partly distracted by off-field problems. However Terry, surprisingly still ranks as one of Opta Index’s top defenders of the season, make of that what you will.
To blame the back four solely for Chelsea’s defensive deficiencies is harsh. The tactical shift that has taken place under AVB revolves around winning the ball high up the pitch and looking to constantly press, something that involves every individual player and can leave gaps if possession is not won or mistakes are made, which is a distinctly different tactic to the deep defending used under Mourinho and those who followed him. The result of this has been that Chelsea are conceding less shots on goal than last year as well as catching the opposition offside more which suggests structurally the tactic is working. But it has led to lapses in concentration and Chelsea’s slow defence being caught out at times.
In the 5-3 defeat against Arsenal the usually reliable Cech was arguably at fault for at least three of the Arsenal goals getting beaten easily at his near post by Van Persie, Santos and Walcott. With regards to the Santos goal it highlights a clear theme. The full-backs are encouraged to win ball high up the pitch and surge forward. What becomes clear with this goal was that Sturridge, for all his attacking qualities lacks the discipline to cover his full-back as he completely lost Santos for Arsenal’s third, as was the case for Leverkuson’s equalizer last week where Sturridge completely lost his man.
It seems odd to criticize a forward for defending but in this formation as stated the emphasis is on defending all over the pitch and thus discipline is required from the forward men.
You could go as far as to argue that Drogba and Torres have been the biggest beneficiaries from the defence’s poor form as it has taken attention away from their own dismal performances. In football it is obvious to state that you win games by outscoring the opposition. Were Chelsea firing successfully upfront nobody would care about how many they concede at the back. During the 5-1 romp against Bolton few bemoaned the careless goal Chelsea conceded for example.outscored Drogba, Anelka, Lukaku and Torres combined, all of whom have occupied the centre forward role at some time this season. Chelsea are attacking more fluidly than last year but without a centre-forward who is successfully running the line or scoring goals which is seriously worrying and a serious factor behind the clubs recent poor form that has been overlooked of late.
Arsenal’s defence for example is weak but they are continuing to pick up points due to their attacking potency which massively revolves around Van Persie’s goal scoring form. City have Aguerro, Dzecko and Balotteli who have been in good goal scoring form, Hernandez is doing well at United and Rooney’s failure to score in the last six is a factor behind their recent poor form. The fact John Terry is Chelsea’s third top scorer this season is a worrying indignation of how poor Chelsea’s forwards have been in front of goal.
Part of the reason for this is due to the transition going on at Chelsea at the moment. AVB has drastically changed the way Chelsea play both defensively and offensively. Offensively Chelsea traditionally would counter as well as look to utilize the power of Drogba through long balls and a more direct style. Viewing Chelsea lately has made it clear that the emphasis is on a more concise build up. Cech regularly plays the ball out to the back four or Mikel (as was the case for Maxi’s goal for Liverpool last week) rather than knocking it long.
The addition of Mata and Sturridge was aimed at supporting Torres as they provide the flair and creativity to play balls in behind (Sturridge did this to great effect to assist Drogba versus Leverkusen to be fair). Far fewer balls are coming into the box in the air now as Torres favours running onto passes and playing on the deck. This doesn’t suit Drogba as much as Chelsea’s more direct play and at 33 he is arguably too old to adapt and clearly looks less powerful and pacey as he once did.
Irrelevant of their long term future Drogba and Kalou will be away for Afcon 2012 in January which could give Lukaku a chance to get a few games, but in his case it looks like he was signed for seasons to come not as a short term solution for Chelsea’s current striking problems.
What could be a short term solution is to move Sturridge inside as he is the only goal scoring forward and as stated lacks defensive discipline to track fullbacks on the right. However short of options in the wide positions as Malouda and Kalou are out of favour it could leave Chelsea weak on the flanks and would also mean giving up on Torres who at £50 million represents a huge headache for AVB. Torres showed moments of his old self before his red card versus Swansea and started all four league games prior to that, however since returning he has only started one in four since, which could show AVB is losing patience. However Torres could be key to any successes Chelsea could experience this year and getting him firing has to be a priority with a lack of better alternatives. His moments of brilliance against United (despite the miss) and a few more dynamic performances hint that he could be getting better which could leave some cause for optimism for Chelsea fans and AVB.
Defensively perhaps AVB should slow down the transformation as Chelsea’s defenders at current lack the pace to defend high up the field and prevent balls in behind which was a huge problem against Arsenal, where Gervinho and Walcott regularly exploited gaps in behind. It will take time for the side to adapt to this style of play which represents the biggest tactical shift of any manager to proceed Mourinho and thus Abramovich needs also to give AVB the time to complete his overhaul. Chelsea will need to get either Torres or Drogba firing if they want to get back into the title race especially now as they face both Spurs and Man City in December, they can ill afford to continue carrying a passenger in the centre-forward position.