On Sunday during our goalless draw against the reigning League Champions Manchester City, we witnessed a few changes from the new manager, who is known for his defensive discipline and organisation.
Most notably what I picked up on was the positional play of our attacking wide men. Both Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were not allowed as much freedom as they have had this season and they were both playing a lot deeper than usual. If you look at Mata, he also stayed wide as much as possible.
Having Mata and Hazard playing wider was stretching the play and utilising our attacking outlets, as well as providing more support for our full backs. It’s hitting two birds with one stone in a sense, giving us both extra strength at the back as well as another option going forward.
Rafael Benitez had clearly ordered his wide creative players to play a more defensive role, and in this situation it worked, we kept the Champions at bay by using more bodies, committing less men forward and defending as a unit. Certainly this is something that has been missing during recent matches where our defence had been leaking goals and large spaces had been exploited.
So is it possible to configure such attack minded players into players who also want to work as hard as part of the defensive unit as they do in the attacking third? Well, reluctantly for them, yes it is possible and it will have to be possible if these players want to be part of the manager’s plans.
You don’t have to be a tough tackler, good at man marking or good in the air to be effective at the back, when you defend as a unit, merely being there as a body can be enough and both Mata and Hazard did this well on Sunday, they tracked back more, made the right decisions, used the space well, hassled and pressed their opponents which made defending a whole lot easier for everyone else as they did not need to cover the spaces in behind them.
Before we had a situation where both Mikel and Ramires were constantly being dragged out of the centre to cover the spaces left by an ambitious Mata, Hazard or Oscar, thus leaving gaps in behind them with a knock on effect. Oscar also played slightly deeper and did not commit forward as much as he has been.
Some might say this is a negative move, but although we didn’t create much on Sunday, it is quite the opposite. When they learn to get the right balance and use the right decisions, they will create more. When they get forward you need them to be effective, but when they return to their defensive duties they must be aware not to leave large gaps, and I believe this is what is being worked on in training currently.
Many believed the manager would change the personnel on Sunday in order to create a better defensive unit, but at the moment this does not look like it will be the case, it seems as if he would rather use the usual players, but mould them and change their mentality slightly, a bold tactical move that could well pay off.
After gaining our first clean sheet in eleven matches, that is already a vast improvement to the defensive problems despite the match being somewhat a bit of an anti-climax. It was edgy and neither side wanted to take risks, which is understandable with so much at stake. I feel we will see improvements game by game now, after all we must build from the back first, get that right then we can work on our attacking against the lesser teams.
Written by Simon Phillips @chelseafctbos