A scintillating first half of football against Hull, full of crisp, intricate passing and high intensity pressing, was followed by a less energetic and far less memorable second. Was this the team collectively taking their foot off the gas to save some fuel in the tank for midweek? Rather than any tactical change Mourinho believed it was the lack of energy from our creative hub that put the brakes on. “I think our three players behind Fernando disappeared in the second half. They went down but because the score was 2-0.” As midweek travels and early season fatigue set in so too did the influence of Messrs.’ Hazard, De Bruyne and Oscar.
Against Aston Villa another quick start and early goal was followed by a possession-based game before a sucker-punch in the final seconds of the first half. The three amigos may have started this game but they did not hit the heights of last season in this one. Villa packed the centre and made it difficult, wisely Cole and Ivanovic were mindful of the pace of Weimann and Agbonlahor on the break but, in doing so, the width on the overlap was all too often missing. With Mata predominately on the left wing and short of match fitness we struggled for any consistency in the final third. Villa did leave space in behind which opened up further after the break. In hindsight the pace of Torres would have been better suited to the ill-timed runs of Ba, offside on five occasions. After the break Chelsea looked more threatening as they went for the win, the introduction of the pacey Schürrle and muscular Lukaku adding some edge into the attack as again legs tired.
The creative three appears to be a key area for Mourinho and the coach has been quick to place onus on the attacking skills and verve of the players who can fill those roles. With six creative talents competing for the three positions who should we start in the two huge games against the champions of England and the current holders of the European Cup next week?
Against Hull Kevin De Bruyne impressed throughout with his work rate and attacking threat, so much so that the Belgian youngster was awarded Man of the Match, not least for his clever assist for the first goal. However arguably it was Hazard and Oscar who had the bigger influence on the game. According to Opta stats it was Oscar who topped the number of passes in the final third (28 successful from 35) with Hazard not far behind (25/29). The fourth highest passing combination and the highest of any attackers in the game, involved these two amigos with Oscar to Hazard 15 passes, Hazard to Oscar saw eleven passes. Of the 16 chances created, 14 were in open play, 11 of which were set up by either Oscar, Hazard or De Bruyne. Incidentally Hazard’s six chances created was a Premier League high in the opening round of fixtures. A similar statistical pattern follows with dribbling, of the 12 attempted take-ons half were from the same attacking trio, they were also responsible for 4 out of the 5 team take-on successes. Eleven of the total sixteen chances were also created in the first half which backs up Mourinho’s view of the creativity disappearing after the interval.
Aston Villa saw one change in these positions with Juan Mata coming in. As I mentioned the Spanish star was off the pace in his first competitive start since injury and looked isolated at times on the right wing. The Opta stats show he attempted one take-on which was unsuccessful and was only eighth on the passes in the final third list, completing 8 from 10, well below his usual impeccable standards. When he drifted in-field more frequently in the second half his influence grew. Mata to Cole being his top combination, all from the centre. It will be interesting to see where Mourinho plays him as his fitness improves. Normally it would be as the Trequartista but Oscar shined in the role again against Villa and again showed a strong partnership with Hazard. This time the Belgium topped passes in the final third, 23/32, with Oscar next on 18/25. Oscar to Hazard was the top attacking combo with 13 passes, Hazard returning 12 the opposite way. Of the eleven chances Chelsea created in open play Oscar and Hazard were again almost responsible for half, with five. Four of the six successful take-ons were also completed by the duo.
The Opta stats may point to Mata having more influence in the centre but they show that Oscar and Hazard are developing a strong combination. Chasing the game we saw Oscar drop deeper in midfield and, against defensive opposition, that might be the best way to accommodate both creative talents centrally. De Bruyne’s work rate, pace and threat on the right flank should make him favourite to start at Old Trafford. At the moment it would be a tough call to break-up the Hazard/Oscar partnership that has created the bulk of Chelsea’s chances in the opening two fixtures.