Saturday afternoon, Chelsea take the trip to Stoke City badly needing a win to relieve some of the pressure that the team has come under after a woeful defeat at home to Swansea City in the Capital One Cup. Fan displeasure is once more at a high after the defeat that sees Chelsea carry a 2-0 deficit into the return leg and having conceded two away goals that could be vital and also could have been prevented.
Rafa Benitez’s side once more find themselves needing a positive result, though I’m not entirely sure that Benitez would earmark Stoke as the best place to be going at this moment. Stoke are on a good run of form with a defeat to Manchester City the only black mark on their record in their last 11 league matches. In addition, Stoke are never a side that anyone wants to play given the nature of their style of play.
However, the Blues will welcome back John Terry to the squad, though he’s not expected to start after playing in the youth team match on Thursday. Petr Cech will take a late fitness test on his injured groin before a decision is made on his availability, and John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses have reported to Nigeria for the African Cup of Nations.
This isn’t necessarily the best time to be facing a squad with the resolve of Stoke, but Blues fans can have faith that the team can replicate the performance in the earlier meeting this season. A late goal from Ashley Cole sealed the victory after a spirited performance and a disciplined one. Hopefully, the Blues can replicate the trick away at the Britannia.
Welcome back, John Terry.
While reports indicate that the Chelsea captain will not start but will be included in the match squad for Stoke, I don’t believe it for an instant. If Swansea showed Benitez anything, it’s that squad rotation is great, but if you don’t rotate, there are consequences. The two mistakes by Branislav Ivanovic that led to the two Swansea goals, I believe, were a product of a bit of mental fatigue. Ivanovic is one of three players who have featured in every match since the return from Japan, and I think that the Swansea match is a product of that run of matches.
As long as David Luiz continues in midfield, Terry’s return to the side is the only scenario that would see any rotation at center back. In addition, his ability to organise a defence has been sorely missed. My gut feeling is that if he’s fit to play, he’s going to find a way on the pitch.
While I’m on the subject of David Luiz, his performances in midfield have been a mixed bag for me.
There are two concerns that I have going forward in the David Luiz is a midfielder experiment. One, Luiz is still giving away senseless fouls when defending. It was a problem that he had in defence, and the argument always was that if he were played further forward, it wouldn’t hurt the team as much. The second concern I have is his biggest problem. He tends to try to show how clever he is by finding the “Hollywood” pass rather than the simple, easy pass.
It’s something that Claude Makelele was always the master at. He was a great combative midfielder, but his range of passing was sometimes his weakness. But in his position, it’s always more important that you keep possession rolling and not always try to cut the defence. You have other midfielders in positions to create. You have to keep it simple and let them do their jobs. Until Luiz finds that part of his game, for me, he’ll always leave me wanting in the center of the park.
On to Stoke, and nobody talks about it, but they have a bit of a striker crisis.
Stoke has one consistent center forward this year in Jonathan Walters, but he’s not the target man that Stoke are used to playing with. He has to have a partner striker, and that’s where their problem lies. Do you pick Kenwyne Jones or Peter Crouch?
To be honest, neither have really done much as far as attacking prowess in open play. Both work most of their goals on set pieces, especially Crouch, though Jones probably offers you more in terms of hold-up play. To me, that’s the main weakness of the Stoke side is their forward line. Only Walters has really shown any sort of natural finishing ability and ability to create a chance for himself. Both Jones and Crouch are expected to be the big men, but they also need the service to do so.
Studio wrestling? Maybe.
Against Stoke, I sometimes wonder if there should be turnbuckles and ropes placed around the pitch for their matches. This isn’t a problem isolated just with Stoke, but a photographer friend of mine pointed out a number of his images that included much shirt pulling, bear hugging, clutching, and overall grabbing that occurs in the penalty area against Stoke. It’s something that I think is a major problem as a whole, but it gets magnified with Stoke because of their nature of play.
Whereas some teams are looking to disrupt your style of play, Stoke generally try to frustrate you into playing their style of play. By that I mean that if this were a boxing match between a slick, clever puncher and a brawler, Stoke would be the brawler, and as a brawler in boxing does, he tries to suck the clever fighter into a street brawl just to take him out of his game, mentally.
That’s what Stoke have done this season. They’re not always pretty to watch. In fact, sometimes they’re downright dour. But what they do is frustrate you to the point that the match ends up being played to their style, which they are very good at. This generally leads to draws or 1-0s, but generally the best way to beat them is to stay patient, composed, and keep plodding away. It’s what we did in the first match. The last thing you want to do is to resort to just pinging crosses into the box. That’s exactly what they want you to do.
Stoke vs. West Ham: A comparison.
I bring this up simply because of the disastrous result Chelsea had against a similarly tough-minded opponent in the Rafa Benitez era. Stoke and West Ham generally play an organised defence that is coupled with a good counter attack and set piece attack. However, I’m not as concerned with Stoke as I am with West Ham simply because I don’t think Stoke play as cleverly as West Ham.
West Ham are different side simply because they are organized, but they do break out with a bit of creativity. Sam Allardyce sides are generally coached to simply disrupt the flow of play in midfield and get the ball forward as quickly as possible. Stoke do something very similar, but they’re not as active in closing down opponents as the Hammers are. Generally, Stoke like to play in a structure that is hard to break down, but they rarely break formation. When you push them back, you still can make out the lines that they create. The only difference is that the space between the lines is more compressed.
The biggest difference is the way that they transition into their attack from defence. West Ham caught us out as most teams did behind the fullbacks. The idea is that midfielders play the ball wide to initiate the attack and they get forward quickly. Stoke generally play it to the center forward, who in turn brings the rest of the side into play as the opposition defenders come tight. Thus, Stoke tend to play more of a “route one” style than West Ham, which is probably why they don’t always look as if they will score many goals.
The big key to both is to resist the urge to ping balls into the box and instead try to get them to have to move. Chelsea were very successful in doing so in the first match against Stoke. Let’s see if they can do it again.