A trip to Villa Park in recent seasons has managed to produce many a heart palpitation for Chelsea supporters who take the time to travel up north. In the last five meetings, Chelsea have won just twice at the home of Aston Villa with 2 losses and a draw on the cards. That’s not counting the number of draws and losses that Villa have handed the Blues at Stamford Bridge in the same time period, including the memorable 4-4 game on Boxing Day in 2007.
Suffice it to say, Villa have been one of Chelsea’s bogey teams over recent years, and the recipe for victory is not that straightforward. However, victory is imperative for both teams in this matchup, the prelude to the FA Cup final later in the day. For Chelsea, drawing to Tottenham changed very little. It still means that one win is required to guarantee a Champions League place for next season. A draw isn’t the worst result, however, the Blues would prefer to not have to go through the unseeded qualifying round in August that fourth place would bring. For Villa, a win essentially guarantees their Premier League survival. Depending on what Wigan do against Arsenal mid-week, their 40 points may not be enough if they suffer a loss. 43 points, however, puts them 8 points ahead of the Latics and means that Paul Lambert will have pulled them out of the fire in spectacular fashion.
This is not the same Villa side that got thumped 8-0 back in December.
Back in December, Aston Villa under Paul Lambert were a young team missing their most experienced player, Ron Vlaar, and still searching for their identity as a unit. On that day, they came up against a Chelsea side with much more experience in big matches, regardless of age, and they were harried and pressured into letting their nerves get the best of them and were subsequently given a massive thumping.
That defeat was so devastating, especially coming off a 3-1 victory over Liverpool, that Villa would lose their way and wouldn’t secure another league win until February 10 against West Ham. Since that time, they’ve rattled off 5 wins in their last 10, and where once it looked like relegation was inevitable, it now appears that Lambert has found the right ingredients to keep them up.
What’s changed? For one, their self-belief has returned. As of late, Villa have started to regain a bit of the confidence and the swagger that they can go in and beat teams. Their key moment was almost a reverse of the 8-0 defeat when they turned over a surging Sunderland side 6-1 and made them look rather pedestrian in the process.
In December, the Blues encountered a side that was still trying to find itself as a unit under a new manager and had just come off their first real significant win together. This time, they’ll encounter a Villa side that have fought back from the brink of relegation and have a much better sense of what is required to play consistently at this level.
Christian Benteke – Drogba in disguise?
One of the interesting things about facing Villa this time is the emergence of Christian Benteke as a top striker. It’s always been clear that he’s had talent. After all, he has been keeping on-loan Romelu Lukaku out of the Belgium side for the majority of their World Cup qualifying campaign in this season. However, recently he’s beginning to show confidence in his abilities and his skill-set is very reminiscent of both Lukaku and a former Chelsea striker from the Ivory Coast.
I think the big change for Benteke was finding his feet with the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He’s always had the tools to be successful, but I think there were times where it seemed like the game passed him by as if he couldn’t think fast enough out there.
Recently, the game is slowing down, and he’s beginning to do the same things that Drogba used to do to strike fear in the heart of defenders. He can turn you with his pace. He can shrug you off for power. He’s good in the air. He’s good with that ball at his feet. He has a variety of ways to beat you, and it’s proven vital for Villa that he do these things.
However, against Chelsea, he’s up against a side that should be well equipped to handle that style of play. After all, these are the men that trained against Drogba for many a year. In addition, regardless of who starts from John Terry, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, or Branislav Ivanovic, he’ll find himself up against a defensive two that has the same qualities of size and pace that can match his own. While Benteke is a threat, I would expect Chelsea’s center backs to find it a bit easier to deal with him. Then again, I thought they would also deal with Emmanuel Adebayor better, too.
Gabriel Agbonlahor – the forgotten man.
Just a few short years ago, Agbonlahor was the next big thing in English football. In tandem with Ashley Young, Villa had found two wingers with pass and finishing ability that tore open defences on the quick counterattack. However, since Young’s departure to Manchester United, Agbonlahor has almost fallen off the face of the planet. What changed?
First of all, in the absence of Young, for a very long time, Agbonlahor was the sole source of creativity. Thus, he became a man without a real position. He’s always been a more natural striker than a winger, but with his pace in a counterattacking system, he was always going to find more space on the wings than through the middle. When you factor in managers moving him around and combine it with injury problems he’s had, you begin to get the picture of why he’s fallen off the radar.
He’s starting to come back to form now. With the emergence of Benteke and the creative partner in Andreas Weimann, Agbonlahor is beginning to find the same successes that he enjoyed earlier in his career, mainly because his pace is not the only way forward for Villa. Lessening to the load and finding the right combination of players to put around him has seemed to bring out the best, and credit has to go to Lambert for finding the right combination.
Lambert has found success in his attacking trident, which has masked his problems in the midfield.
Paul Lambert has been very clever lately in realising two main things: his midfielder are not the most clever bunch of players in terms of creativity and flair, and that Agbonlahor and Weimann are much better players when they’re allowed to come more inside than staying wide.
If you look at the way they’ve set up when they’ve had success, it’s been using the two deep midfielders to play the ball simply and break up play while relying on Benteke, Weimann, and Agbonlahor’s skill and movement to create chances amonghts themselves. It’s a very Italian-style model of football, but it seems to have quelled a lot of the goal scoring issues and has hidden the fact that their midfield is rather functional, as evidenced by how many fouls Yacouba Sylla gives away.
Against the smaller sides, he’s used a combination of a 4-3-1-2 and the Christmas tree formation to allow the front three to operate as they do, either wide or centrally. Against the bigger sides, he’s been forced to play Agbonlahor wide because of the threat of the overlapping of attacking fullbacks. Against us, that is a major concern, given the way that Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta tend to play. However, the possible absence of both Eden Hazard and Victor Moses may lessen that concern.
Whoever starts at striker should not be judged on goals in this match.
Fernando Torres was right in his latest interview where he said that he had to re-learn how to play football with Chelsea. What he and Demba Ba have both thrived on over their careers is the ability to find space behind the defence, run onto a pass, and finish the chance. The problem is that with us, they see a lot of defences sitting in deeper areas, which cuts down that amount of space that they’d like to run into considerably. You have two options when you have that problem. You either have to sit deeper yourself and hope to draw the opposition out so you can counter them and have space, or you have to ask your striker to come deeper and use his movement to open up the gaps in behind, knowing that the opportunities will fall to other men.
In that sense, Torres has been the better player since January for Chelsea. Forget about his personal goal totals or how sometimes he’s guilty of trying to do too much to get confidence back, the one thing he does well is use his movement to unsettle the center backs and open space for others. His 21 goals are not a poor return, but the quality around him to find those gaps is evidenced by the fact that Moses, Mata, Hazard, Oscar, and Frank Lampard have all hit double digits in goals this season.
In contrast, Demba Ba is a much better, more composed finisher than Torres, but against teams that sit deep, he has a real problem. He doesn’t use his movement well enough off the ball to really open up the spaces for his midfield against teams that defend deep, instead, preferring to try to bull his way through the defenders and hoping a cross comes in.
I think the contrast was quite evident in the difference between the United match and the Tottenham match. Against United, we were much the better side, but failed to really create anything because Ba wasn’t trying to drag Johnny Evans and Nemanja Vidic out of their deep positions (and they were quite deep), rather he was trying to fight the physical battle to occupy them and look for a ball into the box. It ended up doing nothing but congesting the area that Mata, Hazard, and Oscar were looking to play through and it made things very easy to deal with.
Against Spurs, Torres was everywhere, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of our chances came because Michael Dawson or Jan Vertonghen were out of position. Torres ability to move out of the center and the ability of the three behind to find the spaces his movement makes creates fluidity to the system and makes it easier to break a team down. Ba, in my mind, isn’t quite as good as a mover, but he might be a better finisher when he gets a chance. For me, I would pick Torres in every big match over Ba just because I do expect more from my lone striker than just goals.