After seventeen years, Wolves finally conquered Chelsea, and with the 1-0 victory they consigned the Champions to even more misery. The loss leaves Chelsea hanging perilously outside the Champions League places, and now face an uphill struggle to re-enter the world’s premier club competition – never mind defending their historic title. Even if Chelsea were to win every one of their next eighteen games, they would recoup the same amount of points they won last season -86. In a rollercoaster season like this it remains to be seen whether that will be enough. If we are to go on one of the best runs of our history after one of the worst, then it’s time Ancelotti dumped the now much-maligned 4-3-3, and seek pastures new in search of regaining that famous Blues’ swagger.
1. Drogba is all alone up front
Too often we see Drogba all alone, stranded up front, struggling like the rest of his teammates.
While Drogba has the ability to play on his own, our recent form and his increasing age means he is too lonely when playing as a lone striker.
With no one nearby, Drogba is all on his lonesome and this shows in the amount of passes he completed against Wolves.
As a result of being on his own and having wingers in poor form, Drogba is moving all across the pitch to find a breakthrough, and this means he becomes more and more fatigued, especially as he is not getting any younger.
2. Over reliance on Drogba exposed with one striker
As Drogba becomes more disillusioned from Ancelotti’s one striker system, the team’s reliance on the powerful Ivorian’s contribution to goals becomes more and more glaringly obvious, as pointed out by a excellent article by Alan Smith (no, not that one) for the Irish Independent
Drogba started the season well but now is in a bleak period after his bout of malaria sidelined him for weeks, around the time that the whole slump began.
As mentioned before Drogba is the sort of player that when he starts to hit form, it’s near impossible to control him. Playing by himself means he has a lot more work to do, and now as he struggles to score Chelsea falters dramatically.
Even on the occasions where he has hit the back of the net, it’s been a stroke of luck or flashes of the “old Chelsea” – i.e. against Tottenham Gomes failed to knock away his strong shot, or against Villa where it was a scrappy goalmouth equaliser.
Chelsea’s other contributors to the goal tally, Malouda, Anelka, Kalou and Sturridge, are all also in poor form. Malouda has lost his versatile confidence to beat defenders and Anelka is dropping far too deep to cause any damage to the opposition. Sturridge and Kalou have been more promising, Sturridge could probably claim he hasn’t started at all, and Kalou, while the bane of frustration of some fans, has shown he can be an effective substitute, rather than a right winger in the starting XI.
3. Lack of numbers in the box
As mentioned in the holiday season tactical analysis post, there’s not much happening in the box when Chelsea attacks the opposition.
Spot the difference between our games against 1. Zilina (4-1 win) and 2. Arsenal (3-1 loss)
Playing with a 4-3-3 means you look to control the midfield and use your width via your full backs and wingers. But when teams shackle Ashley Cole, we have considerably less width on our left hand side. When Bosingwa plays he is not man marked because his attacking capabilities are somewhat less as he returns from the shattering eleven-month injury suffered against Villa. His replacements, Ivanovic and Ferriera, are nowhere near as comfortably getting forward, and so our right hand side is relatively quitet. Couple that with the fact that Malouda normally does not cross, leaving that responsibility to Cole, the teams looks to play through the middle. However in our particular 4-3-3, we have a holder who rarely strays forward and a physical midfielder in Essien/Ramires. Lampard is the only player who naturally can time his runs from deep. Our wingers are too wide on the pitch (see above in the Arsenal photo, Kalou is way out on the right. Chelsea attacks through the middle, but with only Drogba up front and one naturally attacking midfielder, we are short for numbers in the box.
4. Too much workload for the midfield
The 4-3-3, as said before, focuses play through the midfield, which is often an inverted triangle as a player plays as a defensive anchor man.
While it was fine when teams did not know how to manipulate the source of width Chelsea used, now with Ashley Cole shackled our midfield is shunted into taking responsibility to pushing the ball wide. Playing narrowly is not an option, with just the one striker that the 4-3-3 contains. Therefore our midfield is stretched across the centre of the park, as they look to supply the ball to Malouda and Anelka/Kalou.
If that doesn’t happen, then we just have no width. Anelka moves in far too close to the centre, probably because he likes to play as a central forward, and if he’s not doing that, then he is dropping into the midfield.
So instead of playing short passes in line with Ancelotti’s philosophy, the midfield are forced into playing long balls over the top, to players who don’t exist and to Drogba, who cannot touch it down to any support player, because their nowhere to be found…because we’re playing 4-3-3.
5. Too much pressure on the base of the midfield triangle
Playing as a defensive midfielder is hard work, but Makelele made it look easy with his calm, composed manner and simple passes. Mikel has been groomed to replace this role, and until he was injured by Robin Van Persie against Arsenal, he did it with aplomb.
When Essien took over the mantle at the base, many fans were crowing for the fact that Chelsea may be more attacking with the ‘Bull’ as the holder, rather than Mikel, who, for all his efforts, can appear to slow play down and dictate tempo slowly, rather than a high impetus transition that fans crave.
Against Wolves especially a problem became clear. The back four receives the ball and looks for the holder who initiates the attack. However, while Mikel can starve off the opposition pressure and move into more available space, Essien does not have this technical ability.
I could not get to the footage to show you this point, but on multiple occasions against Wolves, and too against Villa too, Essien was under heavy pressure when he received the ball from Terry. More often than not, he lost the ball.
6. Predictable, same old moves
Too often we see Ashley Cole pass to Malouda, then Malouda holds it for a bit while Cole runs past, and then Malouda passes it deep to the byline, and Ashley crosses it in.
It worked in 2009/10 and at the start of this season, but now Ashley Cole is man marked, it doesn’t anymore.
7. Anelka dropping too deep
For a right winger in a 4-3-3, Anelka is dropping far too deep. Sometimes he appears to be part of the midfield! As a result, there are not enough numbers in the box for crosses to be aimed at, or to create mayhem.
Against Villa, he spends the same amount of time he does in the right winger position as he does in what is Ramires’ position – the right centre mid!
8. When a player isn’t playing well it lets the whole team down and is hard to cover
The traditional English formation is 4-4-2, with two solid banks of midfield and defence supplemented by two strikers.
4-3-3 on the other hand is a more advanced 4-5-1, which shot to fame with Mourinho’s implementation of it during his time at Chelsea. The midfield is a small triangle in the centre with a solid back four and two wide wingers and a target man up front.
The benefits of a 4-4-2 are that because the two lines are set in the same shape, players can cover for the player behind them. If the left back goes forward the left midfielder knows to stay back and mind the hole the back has left.
Same if a player makes a mistake. Because the formation is symmetrically rigid, players can drift in to envelop the mistake, and not have so much worry about leaving space for the opposition, because with a 4-4-2 teams more easily move across the park to engage the opposition where the ball is. With a 4-4-2, you can also add more numbers to the box and have more flexibility with attacking and defending scenarios.
With a 4-3-3, you have a strong midfield, and presence up front, but there’s less room for error. It is also a formation that requires form, because if a player does not play well he cannot be easily covered, because the formation is not symmetrically rigid like a 4-4-2. Players have to drift out of position, leaving space for the opposition to exploit, and because the formation relies on a strong midfield supplemented by wingers, the width can be easily exploited.
Players like Malouda and Anelka aren’t playing well, and because there is a gap between their positions and the defenders, the opposition can attack that space and have time to dwell on the ball.
9. Easy to manipulate and break down
Really, if you wanted to summarise all these points, you could just say the midfield is outnumbered and Ashley Cole is man marked. And that’s football. Something as simple as marking the left back can lead to a barren run like the present one. There were other factors, like Wilkins and Armesen, but from a tactical point of view this is where Chelsea are struggling.
10. Time to change as personnel changes
It’s looking more and more likely this will be a season of “transition” as older players phase out and younger players phase in.
4-4-2 is commonly adopted across the English game (despite 4-2-3-1 making some headway). A common rule of thumb is that if your team unit works well, you can set up a team to match the other’s shape, and with higher quality players, you can outplay using skill, rather than outsmart using tactics.
A switch to this shape would mean that Chelsea can match a majority of their opponents for shape, and with our higher quality players we can try to resurrect our match day performances.
A 4-4-2 would see the defence retain it’s common shape, and you can place Malouda on the left with Lampard, Essien and Ramires across the four in midfield. You can play Ramires on the right hand side of midfield, because 1. He is capable of playing there and 2. Anelka drops in deep a lot so you do have some wide options on that right hand side.
With Drogba and Anelka up front you supply Drogba with a partner, and for the team as a whole you keep things simple at a time things are complicated and, maybe, perhaps, bring back the glory days.