Given the huge number of games the squad are ploughing through on a week-by-week basis most of Benitez’s tinkering is put down freshening up the starting eleven and resting fatigued players. With media scrutiny focused on the coaches perceived priorities, the trophy for the CV or the financial imperative of the league position, every decision is being analysed and questioned. Sometimes the tactical choices are overlooked for sensationalism, such as when Terry or Lampard have not made first eleven. Benitez got the tactics emphatically right in the away game against Basel and really should have delivered a two goal cushion to take into the second leg at the Bridge.
Firstly the changes in personnel were all about nullifying the threats of Basel. Often accused of being a defensively-minded coach as default Benitez was perhaps in his element in countering Basel’s strong points. The muscular defensive pairing of Terry and Ivanovic were picked ahead of the more mobile Cahill or Luiz and duly blunted Basel’s focal point of the 6’5 Marco Streller. The pace of Cole and Azplicueta were vital in stopping Basel’s key wide forwards Salah and Stocker. Both players however took differing approaches, the lightening pace of Salah meant Cole cleverly checked his runs forward and didn’t allow any space to be opened up behind him. It resulted in Basel’s star man being subbed late in the game without having any influence. On the opposite flank Dave burst forward whenever forward going beyond Ramires and leaving Stocker chasing him rather than the other way round.
Secondly the changes in tactics were all about halting Basel’s attacks on the flanks and breaking quickly. Moving Luiz forward into midfield might have been a choice based on form, Mikel’s has been patchy of late, but it was also about injecting steel and energy into the midfield base. It was a fine performance from the Brazilian, full of neat touches and powerful blocks, but also featured some superb reading of the game. Time and again he moved quickly to support the flanks, particularly on the right, and stop Basel’s wide players from making headway. Lampard’s superior passing ability complemented Luiz’s energy and his eye for a long range pass was crucial in allowing us to break quickly.
Two of the key tactical choices were the wide front players in Ramires and Moses. A lot was asked of both players in the system and they both delivered. The main role on the evening was to track the overlaps of Basel’s full backs Degen and Park, and prevent any two-on-one situations developing on the flanks. Moses and Ramires worked tirelessly to prevent those runs. The second job was to break forward with pace and support the attack whenever possible. On another day both players could have been rewarded with a goal as time and again their runs forward caused Basel plenty of problems.
Finally playing Eden Hazard in the number ten position was an inspired choice. Of course this has been Mata’s starting role for almost every game we’ve played this season. Mata’s creativity, touch and vision is perfectly suited for a central position and has been fundamental to our short and intricate passing game this season. What Hazard brings to the role is searing pace, close control and dribbling ability – all perfect attributes for counter attacking. Hazard drifted to support the wide players, closed down the defence and got close to Torres for knock downs and flick-ons. His burst forwards caused the defence problems all evening long and even crowded him out often failed. The Belgium’s performance should have been topped off with a goal when a clever inside from Moses found him breaking through one-on-one. So effective was Hazard in this position that the coaching staff will no doubt be working out how we can get him into these areas more often during games. If Mata stays in the middle when we have possession and Hazard shifts to take up the number ten position when we are under pressure or looking to counter then we might just have an unstoppable formula.