Saturday afternoon, Chelsea will get a chance to get back to their winning ways with a match against the vaunted Stoke City defence. Despite conceded 4 goals in 4 matches, the Potters are still a dangerous team, though a dangerous team in flux.
With the additions of Charlie Adam and Michael Owen, manager Tony Pulis has been tweaking his formations to try to play good football, while still maintaining their legendary organization in the midfield in the back.
Meanwhile, Chelsea are coming off of a draw against Juventus in the Champions League and looking to bounce back with a home win. Manager Roberto Di Matteo continues to look for his best 11, though the selections are getting much harder with players returning to health and players making barnstorming debuts.
Stoke will prove an interesting test, if only because the Blues have been able to break down good defensive sides, but not without giving the supporters heart palpitations in the process. The current system may play with much more flair and creativity, but at the same time has looked suspect at the back.
Stoke will provide a nice test with players who are capable of pulling the upset, especially given the positive signs we saw against Juventus.
Stoke do not “park the bus,” rather they play a very organized system that give certain types of teams problems.
I think I mention this in every preview, but Stoke’s main goal in playing is simple. Play two organized banks of four, restrict the space between the lines, and play with just enough physicality to disrupt the flow of play, but not in an egregious way.
The difference this year is simple. The addition of Adam has given them another player in the central midfield that can pick out a pass and win the ball in the midfield as well. Stoke’s main threat is always that they force you to commit an extra man to attack them, and then once you do, their skilled passers in the middle pick out the right ball and get behind you.
The trick to beating Stoke is two-fold. You either have to attack them before they can set up their defensive lines, or you must retain the ball, forcing them to chase it, and attack them once one player falls out of step with the lines.
Manchester City and Arsenal have tried to do the latter with players that play well between the lines, but generally make hard work of it because Stoke keep the distance between midfield and defence rather small. Manchester United have had greater success with the former with their ability to quickly counter behind the midfield and run at their back line alone. Either choice is a viable one.
Chelsea have greater concerns than I think we realise playing against Stoke.
The biggest concern I have from a Chelsea perspective is our inability to defend counters down the flank. Against both Juventus and Atletico Madrid, our midfield and defence showed a weakness against teams that try to initiate the counter with the diagonal ball from the center out to a wide player getting in behind the fullbacks. It’s a tactic that Stoke use quite well, especially when Jez Walters is deployed in a freer role behind a target striker.
In fact, if you watch the goals that Walters has scored against us over the last few seasons, many came via a counter attack with a ball played from the center midfielders to Walters running in behind the fullback. This season, the problem hasn’t had a solution yet.
The reason we’ve been susceptible to diagonal ball behind the fullbacks is a combination of things.
Jonathan Wilson in an article on ESPN.com had a great take on why we’ve looked defensively frail. After much thinking, I believe he was right. His belief is that Eden Hazard’s coming inside and roaming, coupled with Ramires sticking to the right flank and Frank Lampard’s relative inexperience at holding play has made us vulnerable.
In a sense, I’ve seen that problem all along, and it gets magnified against teams that deploy three center backs. Because that formation requires the fullbacks to overlap to generate width, it’s a perfect system to attack, and nay other team that plays with overlapping fullbacks will give us the same problem.
In effect, if Hazard comes inside or goes to the right, either Ramires must go to the left, which he hasn’t done yet, or Lampard must stay deeper to track the opposing fullback. When that doesn’t happen, Ashley Cole is left hopelessly exposed, as he’s attacked 2 v 1 regularly, making it easy to counter.
It’s a problem Di Matteo must solve.
On a good note, Di Matteo handed one Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior his first-team debut at just the right time.
There’s a misconception of South American players as being unable to cope initially with the physicality in Europe. In reality, I’ve seen more attempts at horror challenges against star Brazilian players in that league than I’ve ever seen in Europe. However, there is a difference in pace of the Premier League and speed of thought.
Therefore, I believe that Oscar’s debut against Juventus, the Serie A champions, to be the perfect chance, given that the men charged with marking him were Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal.
Though Graeme Souness may disagree, having watched Oscar at the last Under-20 World Cup, I fully agree that he meant the second goal, including the first touch he took that left Pirlo for dead.
At just 21, he has a long time in the game left to mature and grow as a player, but the early signs are very promising. For the club that attempted to sign Kaka prior to him going to Real Madrid, for £25M, we very well may have found the next one. Remember, he was handed the iconic number 10 shirt for Brazil at just age 19. As we all know, Brazil don’t hand that shirt out lightly.
I managed to go a week without mentioning Fernando Torres, but there are a few worrying signs in his play.
Frighteningly, the confidence of Torres isn’t his problem right now. He’s more confident that I’ve seen him in a very long time. His problem now is positioning. As a striker, he’s spent more time in the wider areas of the pitch in recent matches than a lone striker really should. You could argue that with him playing this way, the side really does resemble the 4-6-0 that Spain played in the Euro’s because Torres is not really occupying a focal point role.
I think that the attack is a work in progress, but it may suit him better if Oscar, Juan Mata, and Hazard were deployed behind him. I think the introduction of defensive wingers in Ryan Bertrand and Ramires disrupts his movement in the channels.