The conquest of teams that start with the letter “s” continues with a trip the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City. Having despatched with Southampton and Sunderland, a victory over Stoke will take our record to 3-0 on this journey and will keep us 4 points from league-leading Arsenal with a trip to the Emirates in store on the 23rd of December.
Chelsea will enter their trip to Stoke on the back of some very gutsy performances. While the Blues were in control of much of the match at the Stadium of Light, three goals were conceded on set pieces, and manager Jose Mourinho will not be pleased about that. However, against both Southampton and Sunderland, this Chelsea side found a bit of the old never-say-die attitude displayed by Mourinho’s title winning sides by coming back from behind in both matches to win. That should give supporters hope that a serious title contention can be mounted despite the inconsistency of play up until this point.
Stoke come in needing a victory, as they sit just 4 points above the relegation zone and only have a victory over Sunderland and three draws against Southampton, Swansea, and Cardiff. While Southampton and Swansea have proven that they can be tough opposition, the 4-0 drubbing from Everton and the failure to find the net against Cardiff will be cause for alarm. Nonetheless, manager Mark Hughes is overseeing a transition of his own from the Tony Pulis’ style of play, and that was always going to be a difficult period for the former Chelsea player and Manchester City manager.
Once again, we face a team with a striker crisis, but we must be wary after Sunderland.
Stoke City have had a striker crisis all season in that none of their strikers have clearly convinced Mark Hughes that they should be his first-choice strikers. New signing Marko Arnautovic was supposed to be a striker who could make a difference, having a bit more pedigree than his existing options in Kenwyne Jones, Peter Crouch, and Jonathan Walters. However, Arnautovic has failed to nail down his spot, and Hughes is finding that his old guard are still more effective in playing, though not completely compatible with his idea of how to play, i.e. less long balls and direct play.
However, Sunderland also had a similar striker issue, but that was put to rest after 14 minutes when Jozy Altidore spun and fired home off a bit of good fortune, and 2 of the 3 goals were conceded to centre backs from set pieces. If you can’t get set pieces right, no amount of profligacy from the strikers will matter, and I can’t imagine that Mourinho will have not addressed that issue after the match on Wednesday.
Stoke City are in a big transition mode, particularly in terms of style of play.
Under Tony Pulis, you knew you were in for a wrestling match against Stoke. They played big, strong players who looked to bully the opposition into submission while playing a direct game that enhanced that aspect of their play. However, with the hiring of Mark Hughes, there’s been a concerted effort to get away from that somewhat effective but unattractive method of play by introducing a style that’s a bit more technical than physical.
That has not completely worked, given that the squad that Hughes has right now is essentially the same side that played under Pulis. Teaching tough-tackling, strong men to play a more attractive side that doesn’t promote as much bullying is a tough task, and it’s no wonder that Stoke’s performances have looked a bit disjointed at times, keeping possession well but lacking that final ball in tighter spaces.
Stoke’s defence is still good, but their inability to consistently find the final ball often sees them concede possession in midfield, but they still track back well and regain their shape. Again, the old tactic holds true. You must get past their midfield quickly before they can set up their defence in order to generate chances, or they become very hard to break down. And that has been true for years, ever since Pulis brought them to the Premier League.
Asmir Begovic might be their key to victory.
Last season, it could be argued that the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League were Begovic and Simon Mignolet, given the number of saves they had to make and the relative gap in talent between their teams and the top four. Begovic has continued that form and is still anchoring that back line, especially when he has to make up for the relative lack of pace and recovery speed of his centre backs and fullbacks. Begovic has also joined in the goal tally after scoring against Southampton with a long punt that caught Artur Boruc off his line and wandering.
If there is a factor in keeping that defence solid aside from the shape, it is the ability of Begovic as both a shot stopper and a commander of his penalty area. Given that Stoke are hard enough to break down, having a keeper who can play at the level that Begovic is capable is a big boost. Perhaps that’s why we’ve made enquiries about his availability over the past few seasons.
For Chelsea, set pieces must be looked at, which is a bit of a shocker under Mourinho.
One thing Mourinho sides have usually been good at is defensive organization, including set pieces. While the open-play defence has been good, set pieces recently have become a bit of an issue. The question is, why?
Two factors may be contributing to this. The first one is mental fatigue. Chelsea are only carrying three experienced central defenders with a fourth, Branislav Ivanovic, also being the first-choice right back. That has been magnified by the injuries to both Ashley Cole and David Luiz, which has left the Blues short of options at the back and lacking the ability to rotate. Given how many matches have been played in a short time, occasionally, it does look like a lack of focus on all fronts has been at fault, and that can be attributed to a bit of fatigue mentally.
The second factor is the makeup of the squad. In previous seasons, especially when Didier Drogba was here, the striker was the free man in the box, looking to simply roam the box and attack the cross to clear. It allowed the three taller players in the back four to man-mark or zonal-mark players, meaning it was less likely that the stronger opponents in the air would be successful. This season, and even last season, Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o have not been as effective. Torres is the best header of the two, but even he is not really suited to attacking the ball from a free position. In addition, without John Obi Mikel in the side, the overall ability of the rest of the starting 11 to head the ball clear is weakened by either ineffectiveness in heading clear consistently or a relative lack of height.
I’m not saying that both are the only factors. They are just a couple of them. You could argue that against Sunderland, all three goals were a bit of luck, where deflections just sat up for someone to poke into the net. But it is a worrying trend, particularly given how solid the defence has looked from open play. After all, we’ve only conceded 14 goals, and 3 were to Sunderland.
Has Eden Hazard started to turn the corner?
Apparently, before the Sunderland match, Eden Hazard remarked to his manager that he hadn’t scored in a long time and needed to contribute with goals. His manager agreed and encouraged him to look for good shooting positions more and focus less on creating for others. That resulted in one of Hazard’s best performances in a long time where he was virtually unplayable, regardless of how many defenders Sunderland threw at him.
This is the big conundrum with Hazard. At times, he’s absolutely breathtaking with his skill and ability to dominate a match. He can’t be any fun to defend against because he has an incredible ability to stop and start, change paces with the ball at his feet, and a touch on the ball that us normal people only dream about possessing. However, those moments of genius have been offset by large periods of going missing in matches and drops in form that last weeks and sometimes months on end.
The purchase of Hazard and Oscar was on the basis of their potential to develop into world-class talents, with Hazard being believed to be in possession of greater qualities. Oscar has shown a more consistent ability to perform at a high level, while Hazard hasn’t quite lived up to his billing on a consistent basis. If, indeed, Mourinho has gotten into his head and his challenge results in better performances, Hazard could be that player who can single-handedly dominate and win a match since the departure of Drogba, and that would be a welcome addition to an already talented squad.