On Saturday afternoon, Chelsea look to continue their run of form by winning at a ground that hasn’t seen the greatest results over the years, Villa Park. Last season against Aston Villa, it was a Fabian Delph backheel that consigned us to defeat. However, Villa have also had their own troubles against us, with defeats of 8-0 and 7-1 at the hands of the Blues, and who can forget the 4-4 Boxing Day thriller at Stamford Bridge between the two teams in 2007?
For obvious reasons, Chelsea come into this side much the better side in terms of both quality and form. A 1-1 draw last week against Manchester City sees the Blues maintain the 5-point gap at the top of the Premier League, even though the match itself wasn’t one of Chelsea’s best performances by any stretch. The positive for Chelsea is that they survived a match in which two of their key components were missing. Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were not available through injury and suspension, respectively, and with the impending departures of Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah, Chelsea’s bench featured just two outfield players from the regular first team squad. On Saturday, Costa will serve the second match of his three-match ban, while Cesc Fabregas is again available for selection.
For Aston Villa, this season has been an interesting one. Going into this match, Villa have played 10 hours and 12 minutes of football in the Premier League and haven’t scored a single goal. In fact, their 11 goals scored in the league this season is by far the lowest total. The return of Christian Benteke hasn’t provided the goal-scoring spark they’ve needed, and he hasn’t shown the form he did last season before the injury. The positive for Villa is that aside from the 5-0 defeat to Arsenal, their scorelines read like binary code, with a collection of 1s and 0s. It’s kept them out of the relegation zone, but for how long?
Frankly, it’s becoming amazing that Aston Villa haven’t managed to score a goal.
Aston Villa’s goal-scoring drought really defies all logic. Before Benteke’s injury last season, it seemed that Paul Lambert had found the magic formula to get his side clicking. He turned them into a team who counterattacked at pace, using the speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann to create chances for Benteke, and stayed solid at the back. This season, he’s got the “stay solid at the back” part right, but the counterattacking at pace is missing.
The strange thing is that it’s not like these players got worse overnight. They’re largely the same side, and they have Benteke returning from injury, someone they missed for a large portion of the season when he tore his Achilles tendon. However, the form of those front three, coupled with Delph not getting back to the same form he did before his England call-ups, have really given them problems creating chances. They do create them, as they did against Liverpool, but that final touch eludes them and it’s almost like they’re snatching at every chance.
But write Villa off at your own peril. For Chelsea, in recent weeks, teams have seemed to work out that the Blues have a problem defending pace running through the middle. Pace is something that neither Weimann nor Agbonlahor have any problem with. Despite their inability to score goals, there is always a chance that that pace could get them firing again, especially if the Chelsea backline isn’t careful.
Aston Villa’s midfield may be a significant part of why they can’t seem to score.
One of Villa’s main issues lately has been the lack of incisive passes coming from the midfield. Fabian Delph has been their main creative force in that midfield, and this summer, Tom Cleverley was brought in on loan to bring a bit of energy and workrate to that midfield. None of that has worked out well for them so far this season.
In fact, it’s been highlighted to death the way that Villa’s midfield lacked any sort of versatile passing against Arsenal, almost as if they didn’t want to take the risk to play the ball forward. But that’s not the first time it’s happened this year. In fact, it’s become a major issue for them, especially when it comes to an identity.
The way that the midfield passes suggests that they don’t really have an idea of what they want to achieve with their passing. With Carlos Sanchez and Ashley Westwood together in midfield, you have two players who really prefer to cycle possession but don’t often provide the final ball. Cleverley may provide energy, but he’s never really been a player who likes to play between the lines or even who likes to play as a shuttle-man who links midfield to both defence and attack.
That’s left Fabian Delph to shoulder most of the work in linking the play, and teams are working out that he’s the only real passing option they have. It doesn’t help any of them that Benteke hasn’t shown the workrate or the same hunger he had before the injury yet, which I think has caused them to have no forward options at times.
Interestingly, it was their defence that was a bit shaky and lacking in pace last year, but this year, it’s their midfield and attack that’s letting them down.
Ironically, the best way to attack Aston Villa may be to not attack them.
As I mentioned, their midfield isn’t the most creative group of players and their defence isn’t really the paciest defence in the league. But the one thing that you do see from their midfield is really a lack of decisive decision-making. It’s almost at times as if they either don’t see the forward option for a pass or they simply ignore the option in favor of a safer pass.
Normally against teams that aren’t of the same quality, you would see teams like Chelsea try and dominate the ball and force them back. However, the fact that Aston Villa have conceded just 30 goals this year suggests that they are far from the worst defence in the league. Possessing the ball and trying to break them down could be difficult, so in this case, take advantage of their weakness or inability to see forward passes.
In fact, you saw Arsenal almost provide the blueprint. They let Villa have the ball and play a high line, knowing that often they’ll just pass it sideways and backwards in front of the opposition lines, and then when they made a mistake and lost possession, they broke the high line and countered at pace.
If Fabregas returns to the starting 11, you now have a player capable of splitting high defensive lines with a variety of passes, and in the absence of Diego Costa, Loic Remy has the pace to break that high line. Sometimes when playing against a team that lacks potency in attack, rather than attacking them first and seeing them retreat, it may be better to let them be the architects of their own downfall. This might be one of those times.
Farewell, Andre Schurrle. Hello, Juan Cuadrado.
Transfer deadline day proved to be a real bore to watch on television, except for one notable transfer. After weeks of speculation, Chelsea finally pulled the trigger on their pursuit of Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina, raising the money for the £26.8 million
transfer by selling Schurrle to VfLWolfsburg for a reported £22 million.
While Schurrle played well for the Blues and will be missed by the supporters, his contributions to the side this season were minimal, and he can’t be faulted for going somewhere to find more playing time. Part of Schurrle’s problem for Chelsea was that he’s not really a natural right-sided attacker, even though he’s right-footed. When he played for Bayer Leverkusen, he made his mark by playing on the left side where he could attack and cut inside the fullback. Even for Germany, his best contributions came when playing on the left. For Chelsea, he was never going to get a chance to play there regularly with Eden Hazard occupying that spot, and because he didn’t possess the defensive work and discipline of Willian, he wasn’t able to nail down a spot on the right either.
His sale brings in Juan Cuadrado, who starred for Colombia at this past World Cup, tying Toni Kroos for most assists. He’s a very different player from Schurrle in that he’s a true winger. He’s best when running at defenders, and he prefers to do so from the right side. There have been question marks over his finishing in the past, but he has improved that area of his game in the last year.
The one thing that everyone seems to knock him on is his positional discipline in terms of defending. The one thing everyone forgets is that Cuadrado has played at both right wingback and right fullback earlier in his career, and while he sometimes can get caught out of position, he does remind you a bit of Willian when he first arrived in terms of his tactical sense and his willingness to work off the ball.
Those are tools that Jose Mourinho can shape, and while the finishing of Schurrle departs, Mourinho will be quite happy to have a player who is probably a better all-around player.