Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recap: Chelsea 4-2 Reading

Despite another impressive performance from new signing Eden Hazard, Chelsea struggled mightily to break down Reading's crowded defense and were extremely fortunate to emerge 4-2 winners. Just as they often did last year, Chelsea found it difficult to create meaningful goalscoring opportunities when the opposition allowed them to have the bulk of possession and forced them to patiently pick apart seams against two defensive banks of four. The Blues finished the game with just under 72% of possession but only had 7 shots on goal. Four of those shots were goals but the first was a penalty, the second came off a serious goalkeeping blunder, the third was clearly offsides, and the fourth came late when Reading's keeper had gone forward to attack a corner kick.

Chelsea's problem in breaking down compact defenses last season was largely due to the fact Juan Mata was the only creative passer in the Chelsea attack. As I mentioned in my preview to this game in the previous post, the strength's of their other advanced midfielders/wide forwards in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems last season- Kalou, Sturridge and Ramires- were mainly pace and the ability to advance the ball forward with the dribble. None of the three are exceptional passers. Chelsea's deeper lying midfielders last season, Meireles, Mikel and Lampard, were not of the deep lying creator mold of a Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, or Andrea Pirlo. Meireles is a hardworking ball winner, Mikel is a very defensive holding player, and Lampard keeps the ball moving and makes well timed runs into the box but none are known for springing attacks with their clever passing. Thus, Chelsea were left with Mata as the sole player with the creativity to cut apart a defense with a vertical pass. As a result, against compact defenses Chelsea would play horizontal balls in midfield all afternoon without ever posing much of a penetrative threat. It was methodical, predictable and easy to defend.

Hazard is a player capable of penetrating the center of compact defenses both with the dribble and with creative forward passes. He brings to the side a directness they lacked in the center of the park last season. He's not content simply keeping the ball moving from side to side but instead likes to go to goal and attack vertically. He proved incredibly effective yesterday, getting into dangerous pockets of space between the seams of the Reading defense and completing 38 of 41 attempted passes in the attacking third (two of which were assists, see the figure below).  Just as they had at Wigan Sunday, Hazard and Mata interchanged between central and wide positions, with Mata given the freedom to come infield to collect the ball. The pair combined for the two highest pass combinations of the match with 18 Hazard to Mata combinations and 18 Mata to Hazard combinations.

With Hazard and Mata orchestrating moves forward Chelsea's struggles yesterday, unlike last season, had less to do with an absence of creativity and more to do with a lack of pace in their ball movement. At 72%, Chelsea had Barcelona-like possession stats but unlike Barcelona, who rapidly move the ball from player to player, they seemed too often to take an extra unnecessary touch, allowing Reading to comfortably rotate their defensive shape. They were also uncharacteristically loose in possession, Ramires particularly guilty of some untidy first touches and passes. Hazard was exceptional in possession but once he got rid of the ball the pace of Chelsea's movement stalled. As the second half progressed with Chelsea trailing 2-1, everything went through Hazard and Mata, with the Spaniard continuing to get in central positions in an effort to get on the ball more. As a result their shape became a bit narrow with the Blues trying to force the ball through the crowded center of Reading's defense. The figure below shows Juan Mata's second half passes in the attacking third. Notice how many of these passes came from central areas, specifically ones just outside the 18 yard box. The two were dangerous on the ball in these crowded pockets of space but Chelsea were struggling to stretch the Reading defense laterally by making threatening runs from wide areas.

The introduction of Sturridge gave the Blues needed width on the right and a new point from which to attack. Prior to his introduction Chelsea's only point of attack was through the middle and thus the center of Reading's defense was able to stay compact and simply check the runs and close the passing lanes of Torres, Mata and Hazard. With Chelsea offering little threat from the right, left back Ian Harte was able to pinch inside and provide additional cover through the middle. Sturridge's introduction forced Harte to defend wider on the right, leaving one less defender to provide cover in the box. Immediately Sturridge was able to use his pace to get around the much slower left back and cut in towards the front post. The threat of him cutting inside from the right left Reading's center backs with an additional concern- not only did they have to check runs coming from the center, an area Chelsea were trying to overload with Mata, Hazard, Lampard and Oscar, they also had to worry about shifting to provide cover for Harte if he were beaten by Sturridge on the outside. Although Sturridge was not involved directly in the third goal, it started when Chelsea had shifted Reading's defense to the right and quickly switched the point of attack to the left allowing Ashley Cole the space to make an unchecked run from left back into Reading's weak side defense.

If yesterday proved anything for Chelsea, it was that their new look attacking outfit will almost certainly experience some hiccups as the players take time to get used to one another. Their key playmaker in Hazard has been involved in only three competitive matches with the squad and Fernando Torres, the only true center forward at the club with whom they'll rely on heavily for goals, was very much a peripheral figure at the club last season. However, there have been hints of what could prove to be a bright future at Stamford Bridge as well, particularly from Hazard and Mata. The two have shown a good understanding of one another in the first two league fixtures and their ability to interchange positions and overload different areas of the field should cause serious matchup issues for opposition defenses. Against teams that pack the defense as Reading did yesterday, Chelsea will need to offer a point of attack from wide areas as Mata and Hazard both move centrally to try to use their combination passing. Wide threats will stretch the opposition defense and allow the two creative players the space to play clever through balls as they did for Chelsea's game-winning third goal yesterday.

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