After a 0-0 draw against Manchester City at home, Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea once again face another firing squad in front of the home fans in the person of local rivals Fulham. A West London derby is always a rather nervy affair, but it will be the latest attempt for Benitez to attempt to win over supporters after the protests from the crowd on Sunday.
Whereas a draw to Manchester City was always on the cards given both teams relative form, a defeat to Fulham would be catastrophic for Benitez’s campaign to acquit himself as the right man for the job.
However, this fixture shouldn’t be taken lightly. After all, this is the Fulham side that very nearly turned over Arsenal just a few weeks ago in a 3-3 draw.
First thing to look at is how Benitez has changed Chelsea.
At first glance, it would appear that very little had been changed in the transition to Benitez ideas from Roberto Di Matteo’s. However, the most notable was a bit more solidity in defence that wasn’t always there under Di Matteo. The most interesting thing to me is still the correlation between the problems Di Matteo had at West Brom and the defensive issues that Chelsea had before their sacking. The argument could easily be made that at times, Chelsea played too open when they didn’t need to and weren’t able to coax defensive solidarity out when it was needed. You could say that Di Matteo’s side defended well in the lead up to the Champions League win, but you could also say that he didn’t have the ability to play three playmakers behind a striker either. While providing excitement, it also leaves you open, particularly if your deeper midfielders both like to get forward.
And there is our first major difference. In previous matches, John Mikel Obi was more than happy to supplement the attack by making forward runs of his own, regardless of whether space and shape dictated it or not. The first thing I noticed was that Mikel, and to an extent Ramires, played deeper to shield the center backs from 1 v 1 situations. It was a change that made the Blues less fluid in attack, but much more solid at the back.
The second thing was getting Eden Hazard and Juan Mata to stay wider and track the runs of the fullbacks. Against City, only Pablo Zabaleta really provided a threat from fullback, largely because City were often times playing three players on the right. Otherwise, both did a much better job defending, although at the expense of the attack.
Now on to Fulham. Martin Jol’s done a fantastic job of resurrecting the career of Dimitar Berbatov.
I would venture to say a large part of Fulham’s success this season has come down to the play of Berbatov. It’s interesting because I think to get the best out of him, you have to take the big fish, small pond approach. He almost has to have the side constructed around him as the focal point of every attack. At Manchester United, I think the biggest problem was that he wasn’t the focal point, thus his lack of work rate in winning the ball back and making repeated runs in channels was exposed.
What Jol seemingly has done is taken a similar approach to what Roma had done with Francesco Totti. You know that he’s a luxury player who has great skills and finishing ability. You know that he can pick out passes. But you also know that his movement is very efficient and he’s not going to track back 30 yards and win the ball if he loses it. However, if you construct the entire side so that his strike partner does a lot of off the ball work and his midfield works hard, he’ll create you bags of chances that he’ll either initiate, finish, or both.
That support system was lacking at United, where much of the play centered around the work rate of Wayne Rooney, but at Fulham, Jol has seemingly centered it around Berbatov.
To create the system for Berbatov, Jol has almost re-created a similar side to the 2006-2007 Tottenham side that tormented Chelsea.
When I looked at the Fulham setup, I started to realize the many parallels between the side that Jol had at Tottenham and the side he’s constructed around Berbatov at Fulham. He has a striker who plays off Berbatov with skill. He has two hard-working central midfielders. He has one attacking fullback that balances a more defensive option on the other side. And he has a number of flair players that he can play on the flanks to create chances.
It was the combination of Robbie Keane and Berbatov that caused issues that season, along with the pace of Aaron Lennon on the right. While Fulham don’t quite have anyone as pacey as Lennon, Alexander Kacaniklic and Kerim Frei have been viable options in wide areas, and Hugo Rodellega is also capable of playing out wide.
Beware of Bryan Ruiz.
With Fulham, Berbatov is obviously the main danger man, but Ruiz might be just as dangerous. If everything is played through Berbatov, Ruiz is the striker that plays as his shadow, providing the movement off the ball to create space for Berbatov, while also creating space for himself.
The other underrated part of Ruiz’s game is that he will take on defenders. He’s shown a willingness this season to drift into wider areas and run at a back line if needed. He also has that touch of flair that can open up a defence by himself. What would worry me from a Chelsea perspective is if David Luiz doesn’t get the balance between staying tight and backing off right. He does have the ability to turn his man and can finish. The back line will have to keep him in front because if he gets behind them, he could be a big threat.