Chelsea return to domestic competition, welcoming Burnley to Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon. These two sides met on the opening match of the season at Turf Moor, with the Blues running out 3-1 winners in an impressive opening performance. That match was probably best known for Burnley opening the scoring with a brilliant goal from Scott Arfield, a goal of the season candidate from Andre Schurrle, and Diego Costa beginning his torrid run of goals to start the season.
Since that time, Chelsea have kept that momentum going, sitting 7 points clear at the top of the Premier League and looking more and more likely to be champions elect. Meanwhile, Burnley, as expected, are in the heat of the relegation battle. But after a shaky first half of this season, the Clarets have bounced back and strung together some good results, getting their fans dreaming of a second season in the top flight.
However, the task facing Burnley is a daunting one. Only one team, second-placed Manchester City, have come away with any points at Stamford Bridge in the league, and the Blues are unbeaten at home. However, Chelsea’s record in matches after Champions League adventures hasn’t been great historically, and after a taxing match against Paris Saint-Germain, Burnley will have hopes of taking an important point away from the Bridge.
Burnley’s style of play has evolved quite nicely this season from how they played in the Championship.
Early this season, Burnley were looking like the side most likely to go down and finish at the bottom of the table. After the Chelsea match, they adopted a counterattacking tactic where they had a tendency to try to sit deep and absorb pressure before springing forward. However, most of Burnley’s performances forgot about the “springing forward” part, and they tended to find themselves under pressure an awful lot. Against Premier League opponents, that often proves fatal.
Credit goes to Burnley manager Sean Dyche for recognizing that and changing the system without losing the general principles. He’s changed tactics from a passive counterattack to one that’s a bit more aggressive with their pressing. Burnley have started sitting deep and allowing the center backs and midfielders to hold the ball. But once the opponent crosses the halfway line, the midfielders pressure the ball quickly before dropping into space if possession isn’t won.
It doesn’t hurt that system that Danny Ings is fully fit and on a good run of form. It’s allowed them to counterattack using long diagonals from midfield to spread the play and create the spaces that Ings thrives in.
The question for Burnley is whether that system will work on the road against top opposition. It worked against West Brom, but against Tottenham and United, they were exposed and forced back, and against Crystal Palace and Sunderland, who also have decent players on the ball, they also came up a bit short. Dyche’s men will have to find a formula to stay solid while presenting a threat to the Blues defence. If Jose Mourinho plans on playing Cesc Fabregas a bit deeper, Chelsea will give you a couple chances, and Ings must put them away.
Ings is clearly their main threat, but don’t discount the contributions of Ashley Barnes.
The one big positive for Burnley is that they’ve finally found a strike partner for Danny Ings that benefits both. Sam Vokes injury last season has hampered his ability to perform this season. Cruciate ligament tears are not easy to come back from, and he has not been able to restore the partnership with Ings that was so prolific in the Championship last season.
In Vokes’ place has stepped in Barnes, and he’s provided that extra threat that was needed. Ings was never quite comfortable playing as a lone striker, and Dyche was never truly comfortable with playing anything other than his preferred 4-4-2 because of that. Earlier in the season, he played Lukas Jutkiewicz a lot in an effort to try and replicate the partnership of Vokes and Ings, but eventually turned to Barnes to get more power up front.
What Barnes has brought to the table is the willingness to drop deep and create space in behind. He’s not a target man, as such, who wants to hold the ball up and flicks on headers, but rather he’s a smallish striker who likes to come back to the ball. Because of his ability to run at a backline and unsettle the center backs, it’s allowed Ings the ability to do what he does best – run in behind and finish chances when given space.
It’s worked well in combination with their commitment to playing diagonal balls wide from the center midfielders, but it still hasn’t resulted in the consistent chances for Burnley that they need. It’s still a concern, particularly if Gary Cahill plays because there is a bit of a lack of pace in that back line without Kurt Zouma.
Burnley are short of center midfielders, so they’re playing wide midfielders in the middle. That can be a problem.
Against Chelsea, especially as a team like Burnley who aren’t the most gifted in midfield, you can’t afford to be missing key players in the center of the park. Burnley captain Dean Marney is out with a long-term injury, so Scott Arfield has been taking care of that position in his absence. There is one problem with that. Arfield is more of a wide midfielder than a center midfielder and while he’s played well, he does make one or two key mistakes.
The big problem with that lack of midfielders is that the depth isn’t there for Burnley to match up a 3-man midfield against Chelsea’s 3-man midfield. Burnley do tend to play variations on 4-4-2, but with their absentee list, they must play a 2-man midfield. That will mean that either Barnes or Ings must drop off the line to help out their midfield, or George Boyd or Michael Kightly must tuck in and help.
Both players are capable of playing such roles, but at the same time, you must worry about the wide men of Chelsea and the advancing Branislav Ivanovic stretching your lines. My guess is that they’ll use the man on the right side to come inside, rather than leave their right back exposed to Eden Hazard’s attack, and trust that Willian won’t hurt them 2 v 1 out there.
That’s really the only good option for them to defend against the Blues’ quality in midfield, but it is a system that will be hard to sustain for a full 90 minutes away from home.
Is the lack of rotation and a small squad beginning to catch up with Chelsea?
The one thing that was notable in the PSG match was that the energy levels of certain players, such as Hazard, Fabregas, and Willian, seemed to drop a lot in the second half of that match. It’s something that is a bit troubling, given that Chelsea are still active in three competitions and the congestion will not improve as the season goes on.
Jose Mourinho himself admitted that a number of players hadn’t trained ahead of the PSG match due to various niggles and injuries, and that’s something to watch out for, particularly with playing a match just four days later.
The positive for Chelsea is that their elimination from the FA Cup will help that congestion a bit. While losing a cup competition and a chance at a trophy isn’t a good thing, it means that Chelsea will have a week between next week’s midweek matchup with West Ham and the second leg against PSG, in addition to the week-long break ahead of next Sunday’s Capital One Cup final against Tottenham.
Hopefully, that time off will give the injured Blues a chance to recover from some minor injuries and be fresh for the end of the season. But the fact that Chelsea do have a smaller squad could be a factor coming down the stretch, especially if they continue in the Champions League.