After the positive victory over West Ham on Saturday, Chelsea make the trip to St. Jakob Park in Switzerland to take on FC Basel on matchday 5 of this season’s Champions League. After faltering to this Basel side on the opening match of the group stages at home, Chelsea put that wrong right by turning in three very good performances to gain 9 points from 3 straight wins. Regardless of other results, a single point will be good enough for the Blues to book their place in the knockout stages. However, Jose Mourinho’s side would be in the driver’s seat to finish top of the group with a fourth straight victory in the group, and it would mean not having to face Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, or Barcelona in the first knockout round.
Mourinho will have one player returning from injury and one player exiting the squad due to injury. Fernando Torres has recovered from his adductor muscle problem and will be fit for selection if called upon. However, David Luiz is bruised his kneecap and thus will be unavailable for a week.
This match will begin the start of a nine-match stretch through the month of December, including the festive period, and a good start to this match will mean that the last matchday at home to Steaua Bucharest could be a good chance to rest some players during the run.
Since beating us on the first matchday, Basel’s form in the Champions League has been woeful.
While Basel’s optimism about their chances to qualify for the knockout rounds were emboldened by their performance at Stamford Bridge, things quickly got worse for them with just two draws and one defeat since that match back in September. Worst of all, the two draws came against Steaua and the loss to Schalke came in a match where they played well for much of the match but weren’t incisive enough to create enough chances and Julian Draxler was able to take the best chance of the match.
Basel’s chances to qualify are still there, but they must reverse their fortunes at home, where they have dropped 5 of a possible 6 points so far, and they must win if their destiny is to be in their hands for qualifying. For Basel, that could make them a difficult team to play against because they will believe that they can score against this Chelsea side. The real question will be, how willing are they to push their attack, knowing that with just a point needed, the Jose Mourinho counterattack is coming.
Chelsea need just one point, and this Basel side isn’t one to sit back and defend, especially at home. Expect the counterattack.
The interesting thing about this match is that it was Basel’s counterattack at Stamford Bridge in the second half that largely took the points away. Until that point, a 1-0 uninspiring win was on the cards until Mohamed Salah drifted away from Ashley Cole and slipped the ball past Petr Cech. Both goals from Basel came via the transitions, which was a work in progress under Mourinho. No one believed Mourinho when he said the side needed work, but he was 100% correct.
In the first match, the possession was good, but the lack of a final ball was evident. Even in transitioning from attack to defence or defence to attack, the speed of movement and positioning was much slower than what you would expect from a Mourinho-coached team. That was a learning experience for the squad, and I think that the team is much better placed now to play that counterattacking style than they were in the last meeting, and Basel better beware.
Not only has the counterattack improved but the speed of thought to move the ball quickly through the lines and draw the opposition out to make space. Two of the three goals involved a number of passes designed to draw the opposition out, but one or two quick incisive passes that took advantage of the spaces that were vacated. On Oscar’s goal, Eden Hazard came deep into the space between midfield and attack, flicked the ball through the line, and Oscar took advantage of woeful marking. For Frank Lampard’s second goal, Lampard actually sprints through the middle with the ball in transition, then plays it towards the left to Hazard leading to passes that sucked the entire West Ham team to that side, exposing the right. Eight passes later, Ramires plays Branislav Ivanovic into space on the right, and West Ham are exposed. That type of incisive thinking was largely missing in the first encounter.
Chelsea may have stumbled upon the formation that best suits the side.
It may have taken to the end of November, but I do believe that in the time that Mourinho had no one to train, he may have found the system that offers the most balance overall. He says that the formation was just to play against West Ham, but I don’t believe him at all. I believe that they style of play was specific to West Ham, but the shape was not.
The fact is that the side looks much more balanced with John Obi Mikel playing the old Makelele role in a 4-3-3 that Mourinho entrusted him with in his first spell in charge. Not only does it suit Mikel in terms of his ability to hold the ball and distribut it intelligently, it suits the team because it provides an anchor point from which to attack, and it means that you don’t have to sit Ramires or Lampard to make room for Mikel.
If nothing else, 4-3-3 gives both Ramires and Lampard the freedom to get forward and attack more, which they’d both love to do, and it gave Chelsea the stabilising force in midfield. Lampard and Ramires were neither one particularly suited to the double pivot roles, yet, you could hardly justify dropping either for long periods either due to lack of replacement or lack of the ability to replace the all-around contributions to the side.
The big thing is that it wasn’t really a 4-3-3. It wasn’t really a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree. This was something different and something that he’s often played around with in preseason – the idea of playing an anchor point with five floating positions in advance. Samuel Eto’o didn’t really play as an out-and-out center forward. Oscar didn’t play on the right the entire time. Eden Hazard wasn’t on the left. And there were times that Lampard was the furthest forward in attack. It’s something that I’ve not seen him try to do in competitive matches, but may pop up from time to time.
However, I do think that the idea of playing the good old-fashioned 4-3-3 might be about to happen more often.
Cesar Azpilicueta, left back of the future?
This was something that surprised me the first time I saw it because I hadn’t ever seen anything out of Azpilicueta that would make me think he was a suitable left back. In fact, at first, I thought it was a slight to Ryan Bertrand to once again be on the bench for a more experienced player. Boy, I was wrong. Since filling in for Ashley Cole after the rib injury, Azpilicueta has been immense at left back, providing both the attacking width and the defensive capabilities that you want out of your left back. The only question marks surrounding him are the fact that he’s very dominant on his right foot and not so much on his left.
However, if you look back at Mourinho’s time at Inter and at Real Madrid, he has had success converting right backs into left backs for a period of time when they needed to play. At Inter, he moved Javier Zanetti (who honestly might be able to play anywhere) to left back despite being right-footed. He also took a young 18-year-old right back named Davide Santon and moved him to the left with success, a position which he plays for Newcastle now. At Real Madrid, until the permanent move of Sergio Ramos to right back, Alvaro Arbeloa, a natural right back, played a number of games at left back for him, particularly when a more defensive option than Marcelo was needed.
I’m not saying that Mourinho is the master at making right-footed players use their left, but he does have enough confidence in a player’s ability to move him if he needs, and he’s usually very successful. After all, this is the man that managed to get Geremi and Lassana Diarra to both move to right back for a time.