Chelsea played the majority of the game with nine men, but still competed with their London rivals and came close to getting a point.
The initial setup from Andre Villas-Boas was the customary 4-3-3 system, with Drogba and Terry restored to the starting line up, as well as Sturridge, Mata and Mikel.
Queens Park Rangers played in a fairly broad 4-4-1-1, with Adel Taarabt behind Helgusson.
The red cards undoubtedly changed the game, but it was the early penalty before the reds that decided the scoreline. Chelsea’s second half setup kept them in the game, playing to the weaknesses of QPR, and pulling on the reserves of Chelsea’s determination and fitness. It was an enthralling game.
The strange thing was that QPR played best when the sides were evenly matched at 11 v 11. Pressing high up the pitch, working hard to win the ball back and looking to play long balls behind the Chelsea defence, it was a case study in stifling the Chelsea attack. The small size of the pitch at Loftus Road would have helped in the Rangers’ attempts to condense the pitch and made it difficult for Chelsea to play between the lines. On this point, such an energy-sapping tactic might not be so feasible at wide pitches like the Emirates, and furthermore QPR seemed unable to sustain a similar intensity in the 2nd half (although this may be attributable to having the lead and complacency)
They also looked to target the right hand side of Chelsea’s defence, the David Luiz and Bosingwa defensive zone, with numerous balls played in to the Ranger’s attackers. These were Shaun Wright-Phillips and Adel Taarabt, who drifted inside. As Wright-Phillips had switched sides from his nominal position this denotes a targeted area of the pitch, and rightly so. This tactic paid off when David Luiz foolishly allowed a long ball to bounce in the box, leaving him in a difficult situation.
After Bosingwa’s red card Rangers were still working hard out of possession, but it was Drogba’s red cards would have given Rangers the feeling the game was won, but as the major turning point came near half time – giving Villas-Boas the chance to re-adjust accordingly.
Second half with 9 men
The shape for the second half was, as Jon Obi Mikel admitted, a 4-3-1 with four defenders, three midfielders and one attacker, but the initial shape is indifferent when you recognise the individual tweaks this eight man system.
The defensive line was extremely high up the pitch, running risks with the pace of Wright-Phillips on the left, but there were numerous offsides accumulated – seven all up. Playing closer to the defenders made it easier for Chelsea to pass the ball around and retain possession – and this again showed when they dominated the possession statistic. The centre backs were also heavily engaged high up the pitch, looking to join attacks and create an extra man. By coming from so deep they made it difficult for QPR to track their runs, and therefore the element of surprise was there in attack, contributing to our positive performance despite the nine men.
The full backs played high up the pitch and looked to cover the whole flank by themselves. The individual performances of Cole and Ivanovic helped in this regard, who shut down QPR’s width. It is important to note however, that QPR were very poor in the second half, not making the most of their extra men by switching the ball from flank to flank, but rather looking for individual runs/magic. Spreading the ball would have tired Chelsea earlier.
The centre midfielders, Lampard and Meireles, and later, Malouda, played narrow in the centre almost as shuttlers (like the carrileos in Ancelotti’s short-lived diamond formation), working hard back and forth across the pitch – although the same could be said for the very fluid nature of the formation that allowed for pressing from all players. Mikel was less attacking, as per normal, his movement more defensive than Lampard and Meireles. However all three did on occasion drop in as a third centre-back, a common trait of the holding midfielder in Villas-Boas’s Chelsea – a similarity shared with Barcelona, whom he greatly admires.
It was interesting, as a side note, that the two central midfielders often made runs to drag away the QPR full backs. As Carefree Chronicles noted, the Rangers fullbacks were the weak link in the oppositions’ defence, and he suggested using the wide players to exploit this. At nine men, the wide players had been sacrificed as to add compactness through the middle, but this blunted Chelsea’s attack. On numerous occasions the two centre midfielders ran at the Queens Park full backs, as to draw them away from Chelsea’s semi-wingers. This opened up the ball down the flank for a cross into the box, chances that were scuppered with the final touch.
Finally, up front, Nicolas Anelka worked tirelessly to press the ball carrier and run on to through balls. He played his role well, linking up with Meireles and Ivanovic particularly well.
This system was a brave move from Villas-Boas but it so nearly paid dividends. The unorthodox attacking threats confused QPR and made our attack more unpredictable despite a lack of width, and the high tempo period after the break caught them out – getting a goal back early took priority over conserving energy. This showed later on when many players looked exhausted. Villas-Boas was vindicated in this tactical masterstroke which enabled us to gain control of the game. Credit must also go to the players for executing them very well and so nearly bringing something out of nothing.