After an impressive performance midweek against Leeds United, Chelsea return home to London to welcome the visit of Aston Villa. It should provide a nice relief before the grueling holiday period to return back home after trips up north and a soujourn to Japan. In Aston Villa, Chelsea meet an opponent who’s discovered a run of form, having won 3 of their last 5 matches in the league, conceding just 2 goals, and an impressive 4-1 victory over Norwich in the League Cup. More impressive was their journey last week to Anfield and the subsequent 3-1 victory over Liverpool.
Manager Paul Lambert has guided this young Villa side to find a bit of good form despite an early run of poor results. However, with just 18 points so far this season, Villa find themselves just 3 points above the relegation zone, despite being in 14th position in the table. On Sunday, Villa will have to make do without the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor and the defensive nous of Ron Vlaar who are both doubtful due to injury. They will welcome Stephen Ireland back to the side after missing last week.
Rafa Benitez enters with a side that showed the grit and determination to come back from 1-0 down against the mighty Leeds United in a match that very well could have been a bit of a problem, given jetlag and the history between the clubs. However, Chelsea found a way back in the second half and simply battered them for the remaining 45 minutes to the tune of 5 goals. He will be pleased, and the supporters should be pleased, to see a bit of the fight and determination and ruthlessness that has been a trademark of this generation of Chelsea players. Chelsea will be looking to this holiday period as a chance to solidify third position, and perhaps gain ground if the teams above them falter.
After Sunday, we will have seen both sides of the Paul Lambert effect on teams.
Earlier in the season when we played Norwich, I mentioned that Norwich were not a good team, but not because of lack of quality. Their problems were a shift from Paul Lambert’s all-action, all-out style that he brought to Norwich that saw them go up 2 divisions in a short time to a more pragmatic approach that manager Chris Hughton brought to the table.
This week, we get to see the opposite side of that effect. Lambert has inherited a side that over the years has been picked through for talent, starting with the departures of James Milner and Ashley Young, and left with just a number of younger, less experienced players. In addition, the side was also conditioned to play a very structured defensive system under both Martin O’Neill and Alex McLeish, leaving him with fewer options for quality in attack.
Lambert has done well to get these players playing for him. In the short amount of time he’s had there, he’s laid the groundwork that he did at Norwich, getting the players willing to go out there and fight regardless of the result. Just as with Norwich, the results will eventually come, and slowly but surely, this young team is starting to learn to play the Paul Lambert way.
However, they’re not there just yet, but they are getting closer.
For me, the turning point in Aston Villa’s season was the 2-3 defeat at home to Manchester United, despite having roared out to a 2-0 lead in the first half, and the subsequent 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City the next week. Lambert will have not been pleased that his Villa side failed to hold a lead against the league leaders, though I would chalk that up to the inexperience in the side, and he wouldn’t have liked the way City tore through them.
Since that point, Villa have played slightly differently. He has finally settled on a system that is a bit more restricted than his teams have played in the past, and he’s set on outworking the opposition and attempting to frustrate them. That’s exactly what they did starting with the next week in a 0-0 draw with Arsenal and repeated the trick last week against Liverpool.
What needs to be watched out for is that they have started to come at teams a bit more. They will let you have all sorts of possession in non-threatening areas, but they counter very well, and when they do, it’s at pace. In addition, they’ve started to finally get goals from their forward line.
Christian Benteke has started scoring, despite a rocky start in England.
More important than style or mentality is the fact that Benteke has started scoring. In the last five league matches, Benteke has netted 3 of the team’s 5 goals and assisted on another. Chelsea supporters watching the International game should also recognize that it’s Benteke at the moment who’s keeping Romelu Lukaku out of the Belgian lineups in international fixtures, and it’s beginning to be quite clear why. Benteke is proving to be more the finished article than Lukaku, and he’s now repaying the faith that Lambert has shown in him with goals.
The Belgian rode out the calls that Darren Bent be restored to the side when they weren’t scoring, though it’s easy to see why. While Darren Bent scores goals, that’s about all he does. I believe Lambert recognized that Bent was not going to contribute to any other phases of play but attack. Lambert likes his center forwards to be big and strong when needed, hold the ball up when needed, distribute when needed, and score goals. For me, Bent does none of the first three things, hence Lambert’s decision to leave him out. For the moment, he looks to be right.
The midfield battle will be the key, especially if Villa go with three at the back, which they have done for the last three matches.
Lambert has finally settled on the central midfield partnership of Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood to martial the center of the field. Both are generally deeper players with Bannan providing more of the energy and creative spark. More importantly, they’ve looked very sharp when partnered with what amounts to a back three. It’s worked for Villa lately.
For Chelsea, the balance of the midfield is very important, especially with the suspension of John Mikel Obi and the long-term injury absence of Oriol Romeu. It leaves Chelsea with no classic holding midfielder, so balance will be the key, and it will be tested, especially if Villa opt to play two players forward behind the striker.
Leeds were able to capitalize on that deficiency in midfield to the tune of one goal off of a mistake, but were otherwise unable to test the Blues in that area. However, with Frank Lampard back, the ball movement seemed a little crisper and the distribution better. Perhaps Chelsea will need to adopt a keep-ball mentality in order to mask that weak area.
New positions for the Brazilians?
It’s an interesting question to pose, though I’m not sure when the switches will happen for good. One of the ways that Chelsea can offset the weakness in midfield is to push David Luiz forward from his normal central defence position and play him in midfield. Benitez experimented with this in the final moments of the match against FC Nordsjaelland and he also did so again at the Club World Cup against Monterrey.
Given the opposition, it wasn’t much of a risk, but Luiz did prove more than capable of holding his own there, though his positional nous was a bit lacking in others. Given his desire to occasionally rampage forward looking to get into the attack, midfield might not be a bad place to play so that he’s not punished for losing possession in the manner that he was against Leeds. However, I think I need to see more of the experiment to come to a conclusion
Oscar, on the other hand, hasn’t been preferred as of late in the line of three behind Fernando Torres with Benitez opting to play the more direct Victor Moses as right winger rather than the interchanging three. However, he has been deployed at times as a deeper midfielder, and I personally think that in England that might be his best position.
One would argue that he’s slight of build, so he might lose out on the midfield battle, but I would argue that he has a similar problem when pushed up. When he receives the ball in the number 10 position, he’s often facing away from the goal and has to turn. We’ve seen him lately get bullied off the ball in that exact position.
For me, Oscar might be the direct replacement for Lampard’s role when Lampard leaves the club.
Lampard always had a similar problem, especially when Mourinho experimented with the diamond and played Lampard at the tip. Lampard’s always been better when he receives the ball in a position where he can immediately get his head up and have the layout of the play in front of him. He’s never been great at receiving the ball with his back to goal and making something from there. Oscar has very similar qualities to Lampard in that regard and while not being the goal scorer that Lampard is, he may just be a better all-around passer of the ball and perhaps the perfect deeper player to offset the brilliance of Juan Mata and Eden Hazard further forward.