As a proud Italian, who will have been schooled on the catenaccio approach to football, Roberto Di Matteo must be having a few sleepless nights over our defensive displays in recent weeks. As thrilling and as entertaining as the football has been this season, the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ approach won’t be what the manager is working towards.
During his international career Di Matteo was coached by one of the all-time tactical greats, Arrigo Sacchi, who’s revolutionary approach encompassed a high defensive line alongside high pressure. Saachi’s vision is undoubtedly a big influence on our own tactical approach now. Saachi’s disciplined Milan side of the late Eighties and early Nineties did tireless drills to ensure that the midfield and defence were never more than 25 metres apart. The aim being that the opposition would struggle to penetrate through the middle and be forced to go out wide, where the chances of conceding are much lower. We can recognise how much of this blueprint transferred so successfully in the Champions League semi finals and final. Chelsea’s compact centre and disciplined defensive unit meant we were one hell of a tough nut to crack, even against probably the best passing team the game has seen.
This season we’ve seen less of that tactical pragmatism in action as our creative, offensive midfielders have been given more licence to roam in order to find space and hurt the opposition. We’ve also ensured that we keep forward options open high up the pitch for quick counters. In having an attacking emphasis the space between our defence and midfield lines can be less rigid and less solid. In recent games we’ve seen our flanks exploited because of this with both Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk overloading the left flank with two players and finding some joy. There have been some suggestions we need to tighten up on the flanks as opposition teams will now try and follow this blueprint, however I think this is a kneejerk reaction.
Looking at the positives we’ve actually scored some excellent goals on the counter already this season (Hazard’s against Norwich, Ramires against United, Ivanovic against Wigan) and all of these were down to leaving creative players high up the pitch for a break. It’s clearly working. We’ve also seen how hard Oscar, Mata and Hazard are working back defensively, tactically they are not luxuries that need to be reined in. What these players offer us going forwards far outweigh the alternative of wide defensive cover – this doesn’t need to be tweaked.
There are three ways we can deal with crosses and play on the flanks. Firstly we need the full backs pressuring tight and the defensive midfielders covering if a wide player is struggling to get back into position. We’ve been doing this with some success so far but we need to get better at it, in particular recognising when a threat is developing. Secondly we need to remain compact in the centre and show runners onto the outside. Again, bar the odd slip or mistake, we’ve done this pretty well so far this season. Thirdly we need to deal with any crosses or passes into the centre. That means that the defenders, midfielders or goalkeeper need to win their duels and get to the ball first.
I think in recent games too many of the goals conceded have come down to individual errors, whether it be a slip, being out of position, not being tight, or not reacting quick enough. The shape of the team, the compact centre that Saachi drilled into his Milan side, has been pretty robust. The evidence can be seen in our league form where we have the third best record on goals conceded. Even when we’ve been chasing games and pushing numbers forward, when the ball is lost we regain our shape and defensive numbers very quickly. I’d like to see more pressure on the ball higher up the pitch and in midfield to win the ball back but that’s work in progress. The priority for Di Matteo will be cutting out the individual mistakes, as that is all that is stopping us getting back to collecting clean sheets. If we can tighten up our defence and be sharper to cut out threats as they’re developing then we’ve all the talent in our ranks to create the chances that will win us games.