Thursday, May 3, 2012

Does having less of the ball mean more success against Chelsea?

Dan informed me yesterday of an interesting defensive strategy employed by Newcastle in their 2-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that I'd not noticed while watching. Newcastle forwards Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba would press Chelsea's back four high up the pitch when Newcastle lost possession while their defenders and midfielders dropped in to form two lines of four. Once the defense and midfield had gotten into position Cisse and Ba would stop applying pressure and also drop in behind the ball. I assume the initial pressure from Ba and Cisse was meant to prevent a quick forward transition pass, allowing the Newcastle defense to get in its proper shape and preventing Chelsea from countering. Their aim was not necessarily to win the ball back but rather to slow down Chelsea's transition into offense. As the game progressed into the second half with Newcastle enjoying a one goal advantage, the Magpies' began to defend deeper and deeper, restricting the amount of open space Chelsea had in the attacking third and forcing them to be creative enough to score on a crowded defense. Chelsea ultimately failed to do so.

The strategy seemed to make perfect sense. Aside from Juan Mata, who started the game resting for the FA Cup on the bench, Chelsea lack midfielders that are able to open up a crowded defense with incredible vision and passing ability. Their central midfielders in Raul Meireles, Jon Obi Mikel, and Frank Lampard (who was also rested at the start yesterday while Florent Malouda was given the start in his place) are not considered to have the same passing ability as central midfielders like Andrea Pirlo, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi. Meireles and Mikel are better known for their work rate and defensive positioning while Lampard is famous for his well timed runs into the box. Likewise, two of Chelsea's attacking wide players, Ramires and Daniel Sturridge, are not especially gifted passers. Both prefer to receive the ball in open space where they can use their exceptional pace to run at defenders and cut inside. Juan Mata is the only Chelsea attacking player likely to carve open a defense with a penetrating pass. What all of this seems to suggest is that Chelsea are a better suited to dropping deep and allowing teams to come at them and then exploiting open spaces left by the opposition defense on the counter. When the opposition chooses to drop deep themselves and force Chelsea to come at them, their lack of creative passing midfielders indicates they are likely to struggle to score goals.

To test whether Chelsea enjoyed more success when they were allowed to defend deep and counter rather than playing a team that defended deep themselves and forcing Chelsea to score on a patient buildup I looked at their possession percentages and results throughout the season in all competitions. I assumed that when Chelsea were outpossessed by the opposition they defended deeper and were able to counter. I guessed that because Chelsea are not set up to break down crowded defenses while enjoying long spells with the ball the data would show they actually achieved better results when their opponent outpossessed them. Importantly, the data only included what I defined as elite opponents. Elite opponents were defined as teams in the top 8 of the Premier League (with the inclusion of Fulham because they are level on points with 8th place Liverpool) plus all Champions League opponents (minus Genk who I thought were not on par with a top 8 Premier League side). Thus, the data consist of games played against Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle, Evertion, Liverpool, Fulham, Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia, Napoli, Benfica, and Barcelona. I elected to only look at elite opponents because I assumed against lesser sides Chelsea would inevitably enjoy more possession and they would score simply because they had superior players than their opponents. For example, Chelsea will almost always outpossess Wolves and Blackburn and will likely win those games because they are more talented. I wanted to look at results against teams that could come somewhat close to matching up with Chelsea talent-wise. Outside of matches against this group of elite opponents Chelsea were only outpossessed once in 29 matches (they had 49% of the ball in a 1-1 draw against Wigan). The data includes FA Cup and Carling Cup matches against teams that are currently in the top 8 of the Premier League.

The data show that in the 16 matches against elite opponents in which Chelsea enjoyed less than 50% of possession they averaged 1.69 points per game (7 wins, 3 defeats, 6 draws). In the 11 matches Chelsea had 50% or greater possession they averaged only 1.00 points per game (3 wins, 6 defeats, 2 draws). The three games Chelsea had their lowest possession percentage were all in the Champions League against Spanish opposition and they enjoyed arguably their season's most successful results in all of those games. They beat Valencia in the final group stage game 3-0 with just 31% (a game they had to win to advance to the knockout stage), beat Barcelona 1-0 at home with 21% and tied Barcelona away 2-2 with just 18% despite being a man down to advance to the Champions League final.

The data suggest that the means for teams to achieve success against Chelsea is to allow them to have more of the ball. Chelsea are not effective when they are forced to score from patient buildup play. When forced to score patient goals Chelsea often tend to bring their two fullbacks forward (Ashley Cole and either Jose Bosingwa or Branislav Ivanovic). This leaves Chelsea's two center backs vulnerable to counter attacks and, given John Terry lacks for pace, can often mean opposition forwards can get in behind the Chelsea defense for breakaways on goal. Perhaps had Barca been willing to compromise their philosophy and ceded some possession to Chelsea, like Newcastle yesterday, they may be playing for a Champions League final. Chelsea had 63% of the ball against Newcastle.

(I think Chelsea have a decent chance of winning the Champions League final. I'm guessing Bayern Munich will try to take the game at Chelsea, allowing Chelsea to defend deep and counter. Bayern Munich's defense looked leaky early on against Real Madrid and Chelsea may be able to exploit them early then park the bus).

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