Chelsea bowed out of this season’s FA Cup after a high octane and thrilling semi-final where it initially appeared all strategy had been abandoned the minute the players took to the Wembley turf. It was frantic, end-to-end stuff that felt closer to a basketball game rather than the typical cagey top four league encounters or the cat-and-mouse approach of the European knock-out stages.
Like two heavyweight sluggers this was a toe-to-toe trade-off and, unusually for Chelsea sides we’ve been accustomed to, ultimately it was City’s greater physicality that won them the tie. We can no longer rely on a powerhouse performance from a Ballack, Lampard or Essien, players who so often shined in such midfield tussles and outmuscled, even bullied, the opposition. This season’s transformation means that Chelsea are now a team with more guile than physical power, brains rather than brawn. However in the semi-final it was Yaya Toure’s brute strength that caught the eye as well as the plaudits. Our inability to control the midfield effectively, for the bulk of the game, proved costly.
Barring injuries we set out with the same line-up that made such a stirring comeback in the previous round at Old Trafford and so comprehensively outshone United in the replay. It was the shrewd choice to opt for, in previous games Mikel has provided significant security in shielding the back four and his disciplined approach allows Ramires the licence to burst forward from deep positions with pace. The three amigos ahead of the midfield base often roam to find pockets of space between the lines and control possession or to provide good options to counter at breakneck speed. Why we were unable to get our game going to any great effect in the first half was down to a number of factors, not least tactical positioning.
Following a long-haul flight from Moscow and the crowded fixture list we were clearly looking to keep it tight in the opening quarter and reserve some energy. Without Cahill partnering Luiz, and no Cole at left back, we perhaps lacked some pace and mobility in the backline. This meant that the defensive line was held quite deep to prevent any runs in behind from the pace of Agüero and Tevez. The midfield two also dropped back deeper, pressing only in our own half.
The wide attackers tucked in tight, relenting space out on the flanks, but keeping it congested and solid in the centre. Mata was given detail in getting close to Yaya Toure and slow any attacks starting from deep midfield. Whilst relatively solid defensively we were too often hustled out of possession by City’s eager and energetic pressing which caught us in early transitions high up the pitch and dangerously near our own penalty box. Some better controlled passing could have resulted in releasing our attackers on the break but there was some tired and under par performances that perhaps hindered us getting into the attacking third.
The nippy movement of Tevez and Agüero caused us problems, both dropping deep to outnumber our defensive midfielders and exert pressure and also drawing out our centre backs from the defensive line. Out on the flanks City’s fullbacks looked to overlap, with City’s forwards lacking height the threat was clearly more from the central positions. It would need to take something special for City to score from a cross in open play and sadly that’s exactly what happened, Agüero’s headed second unsaveable. The forward runs from Clichy and Zabaleta restricted the attacking threat of Bertrand and Dave (Azpilicueta). It wasn’t until the second half that Chelsea really got to grips with the City’s high intensity approach but by then we had a mountain to climb. The team had little option but to throw caution to the wind and it was only when risks were taken did we performed to our standards.
Once City had achieved a two goal cushion their high intensity pressing dropped as tiredness and nerves crept in, Chelsea had more space and time on the ball to construct attacks. We held a higher defensive line and squeezed the game. Our full backs pushed forward beyond midfield and into the final third. Significantly Mata, Oscar and Hazard took it in turns to either drop deeper to receive the ball or support the previously isolated Ba’s knock downs. We suddenly had more numbers and options in midfield to dominate possession and sustain attacks. The key turning point for us was the tactical change on the hour with Torrres’ introduction for Mikel. Immediately his pace caused City to drop deeper, the extra attacker caused confusion in the opposition’s backline and Ba was able to profit with another fine finish. As well as Torres’ directness the other significant switch was the position of Oscar, he dropped back to the midfield base and had the space to be creative and start attacks from a deeper position – something Toure did so effectively did in the first half. In the last thirty minutes it was the three Amigos who were picking up the ball in midfield – whether it was Mata switching play, Oscar threaded passes between the lines or Hazard turning and dribbling with pace. All three were causing as many problems as Toure, Tevez and Agüero did in the opening period. If only we had managed to get these three on the ball much earlier in the game then Chelsea might have made the final. As it was, a gallant effort was not enough to turn the game around in our favour and the slow start, through fatigue or caution, ultimately proved decisive.
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