The biggest month-long span of Chelsea’s 2013 campaign begins with the first of two matches to be played in the Champions League against FC Schalke 04. These two teams will meet on Tuesday night at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen with the second match coming in a fortnight at Stamford Bridge. Between this match and that one, the Blues welcome Manchester City before traveling to the Emirates in the Capital One Cup and taking a trip north to face Newcastle. This tricky period should give us a clearer indication as to how this Chelsea side is shaping up, especially after the ups and downs of Saturday against Cardiff.
As for the Champions League campaign, 4 points from these two matches against Schalke are crucial, as Schalke have won both of their first two fixtures in this campaign. When you look at the fact that we suffered a home defeat against Basel, the optimal points total is 6, getting us 1 point away from the magic number of 10, though more points may be needed.
We may, however, be catching Schalke at the right time as injuries have taken their toll on a good, but inconsistent team. Some of that can be blamed on the long-term injury to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but some of it also can be attributed to the make-up of the team. This team has a few weaknesses in certain areas that cause a slight inbalance to the side, which is what I’m here to look at.
Suffice it to say, I’m convinced that Chelsea’s best route is to play a formation with players who are willing to start in a wider area, even if they still want to come inside. Midfield space will be at a premium, but we may find some joy playing from outside to inside against this side.
Schalke have a tendency to play a very counterattacking tactic based on the shape of the team.
When you look at Schalke at full strength (just with the names, no injuries), there are three big areas that stick out for you. One, they have a very good all-around striker in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Two, they have very good wingers who can score, create, and take on defenders in Jefferson Farfan and Julian Draxler. Three, they have two exceptionally good young centre backs in Benedikt Howedes and Kyriakos Papadopoulos. On the basis of their full-strength side, they have a very good spine of the team, and they line up in a 4-2-3-1 with two true holding midfielders. When accompanied by the above players, the natural instinct is to play counterattack because you have the ability to release players wide. Here comes the fun part.
As I mentioned, this might be the best time to face Schalke because three of those players mentioned are unavailable. Huntelaar has been fighting a knee problem that has required surgery, and he’ll be out until after the new year. Papadopoulos has a long-standing injury history and hasn’t been available since last November with a knee problem. Farfan has been out for the past couple of weeks with an abductor muscle tear.
If you look at the team without them, they’ve had to play most of this season with Adam Szalai at striker who has 6 goals this season, but he’s also made 15 appearances so far and is rather inexperienced when you look at his overall appearances at age 25. Lately, the solution to solve the Huntelaar absence has been to play new signing Kevin Prince-Boateng as either a number 10 to add that depth behind the striker or as an out-and-out striker. However, he has his own knee problems and though he will play, it’ll be interesting to see how he fares.
In addition, with Papadopoulos on the shelf, Schalke have played a rotating partner for Howedes this season with both the young Joel Matip and Felipe Santana seeing action, with neither one really standing out. Right now, Santana is their first choice, though that might change.
Overall, expect counterattacking, even at home, from Schalke, but also expect this side to either be very good on the night or very bad on the night, given that they’re sifting through this rash of injuries.
Schalke’s main defensive problem against us is the possibility of being pushed deep by our attacking three and cutting out their options for an out ball.
In the absence of two strong centre backs and a dearth of ball-winning midfielders, Schalke generally employ the midfield two in their 4-2-3-1 very deep and play them as dedicated holding midfielders with the fullbacks given license to try and overlap. That’s the key to their counterattack in that they are able to defend with a box of 4 players to offset the wide men going forward, giving them a bit of cover in the spaces wide. Generally, they like their two midfielders to shield the central defence, helping them to not be exposed to players running at their centre backs free with the fullbacks up the pitch.
Against us, that means that the midfield three of Lampard, Ramires, and most likely Oscar will find a lot of space deep behind the ball and will have to find a way through those defensive midfielders. That’s where point 3 comes in, but we’ll get to that.
Injuries have once again crept up on Schalke, and they will be without their man holding midfielder in Marco Hoeger to a cruciate ligament injury that will keep him out for the season. They will welcome back Jermaine Jones from his own knee problems, but as a person who watches a lot of US games, he’s a walking yellow card waiting to happen and doesn’t really pass the ball very well. With Jones partnering Roman Neustadter in the center, you effectively have two defenders playing ahead of two centre backs, so the likelihood of space is even greater.
Chelsea must find a way to force the fullbacks deep.
One of the biggest battles that Chelsea must win is the ability to force the two fullbacks deep to defend because it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier to score against them. In fact, facing a “bus” is the most likely outcome in that situation. But what it does do is cut off the attacking three from the rest of the team, blunting their attack. The creativity of Schalke mainly comes from their wide areas, partly because their only true number 10 is very young and still developing, but also because Draxler and Farfan are that good on the counter. Without Farfan, it takes one of those weapons away, but at the same time, cutting off the supply line to the forwards is always a priority.
Another reason you do this is because neither fullback defends particularly well in the wide areas. While they can both get up the pitch to aid the counterattack, they’re also very slow to recover, so if you can force them to play deeper, you can make life a lot easier on yourself. Keep in mind that both Atsuto Uchida and Dennis Aogo are essentially wide midfielders retrained to play fullback. That can’t be underestimated when attacking that space.
Though that is the way to play on the attack that will work against Schalke, Jose Mourinho may also look to be a bit more pragmatic and counterattack them and invite their attack.
As I mentioned, Schalke do tend to play a lot more counterattacking play, particularly to mask their weakness at fullback, they also tend to play attacking football at times. The problem is that leaves them exposed in their weakest area defensively, the wings, which is simultaneously their strongest area of attack.
Part of me expects Mourinho to set out his side to counterattack the wide areas of Schalke, forcing the fullbacks to come deeper or be exposed or disrupt that midfield box to allow runners in from deep.
Schalke’s side is predicated on that central box between the two centre backs and the two deeper midfielders. They try and maintain that shape at all times defensively, but it also means that they’re slower in the transitions. Given Mourinho’s tendency to like to dominate the transitions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an attacking four of Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Andre Schurrle to try and maximise the counterattacking chances.