As we all know, Jose Mourinho loves winning matches. But above all, Mourinho loves to win at least one trophy in his first season in order to breed a culture of winning within his new club. While the Chelsea team he inherited isn’t devoid of success and silverware, Mourinho will still want to cap the season with a trophy to celebrate.
On Sunday, perhaps Chelsea’s best chance at silverware continues with FA Cup fourth round and the visit of a familiar foe, Stoke City. The last time these two teams met, Chelsea met defeat at the Brittania Stadium to a late strike from Oussama Aissaidi. The 3-2 defeat on that day precipitated a solidifying of the defence, and since that time, Chelsea have only met defeat once, and that was at the hands of Sunderland in the League Cup. Aside from that defeat, it has seen the Blues drop just 2 points in the league, and the squad will enter this match at Stamford Bridge with a sense of positivity.
Stoke City, meanwhile, have the opposite situation. Since that win against Chelsea, Stoke have won just twice in all competitions with decisive defeats along the way. In that time period, Stoke have conceded at least 3 goals in 3 defeats, with 2 of those defeats coming by conceding 5 goals. This is hardly a team visiting Stamford Bridge in form, particularly since they were just defeated by Crystal Palace 1-0 just a week ago.
Chelsea will be looking to add to that string of defeats by knocking Stoke out of the FA Cup, especially in a week where transfers have dominated the headlines. Just a quick word on the sale of Juan Mata: while he’s done a lot as a Chelsea player in terms of creating goals and his importance to the side over the past couple of years, the system under Mourinho is clearly changing and moving away from the Barcelona type of midfielder. While Mata would be effective in a system that “hunts in packs,” individually, he’s not as suited to defend in one-on-one challenges. With that being said, every player has his price, and while selling Mata may not be popular, £37 million is nothing to sneeze at and is probably more than he would command in the summer. Let’s put it this way: if small, creative number 10s who aren’t great defensively were popular, Juan Roman Riquelme would still be in Europe. Let’s appreciate Mata’s contributions and wish him success in picking off our title rivals this season.
On to Stoke…
Chelsea will be looking to set right that previous defeat against Stoke.
The reasons for the defeat against Stoke in the league were clear enough that it prompted Mourinho to rethink his approach. Until the Stoke match, the Blues had played a much more fluid approach with more freedom to move around the pitch. Since that time, the system has asked for much more positional discipline in covering the pitch, but still allowing some amount of freedom to swap positions. I think Match of the Day did a good job of highlighting this movement in the match against Hull where four players attacked the penalty area, and whenever another player joined the attack, one of the four came deep and plugged the gap. That’s made the team much harder to break down defensively, but it hasn’t cost the creative players the ability to move and play between the lines.
The change of system has solved one of the main problems against Stoke; getting caught too high up the pitch and leaving the back four exposed to someone running at them. The one weakness of the defensive line is when the midfield is bypassed and a talented attacker is able to run at them. In the first match, Aissaidi scored the winner because the midfield was pushed up to chase the goal, and once the ball came back, he was able to run at Branislav Ivanovic who backed off. That’s been solved by the wide men in Willian and Eden Hazard coming back quickly to protect the full backs and the defensive shape resembling more of a 4-2-1-3 than a 4-2-3-1.
The second problem was the inability to clear a set piece. The first two goals came from an inability to deal with the second phase of the set pieces when the ball came back in the box. None of the defenders were able to clear the ball effectively, and it allowed balls to ricochet and fall to Stoke players who found themselves unmarked. Since that time, set pieces have been tightened up, and it hasn’t been quite as haunting to see a ball fired in from a free kick or a corner.
Stoke have had a lot of trouble scoring goals since that defeat.
Going into the first match, I had highlighted Stoke’s issue in creating chances and scoring goals. Well, as they’ve adapted to Mark Hughes’ style, their chance creation has gotten a lot better, but their conversion rate has not. In the nine matches since our last meeting, Stoke have managed 9 goals, 3 of which came in a 5-3 defeat to Liverpool. 5 goals in 9 matches is hardly a prolific rate, and it’s more in line with the number of goals scored overall this season.
Again, all three of Stoke’s goals against us came from what could be considered defensive errors and frailties, and I would assume that for this match, a lot of those holes will be plugged.
Oussama Aissaidi and Charlie Adam will need to be watched
With Aissaidi, we’ve already witnessed the threat he possesses with his pace and willingness to put the defence on the back foot, but he’s also been the most dangerous of the wide players from Stoke. This season, he’s chipped in with 4 goals in 17 appearances and is fourth-best on their scoring chart. More importantly, he’s provided the only real flair in a side that is lacking that little bit of unpredictability.
Through the middle, Charlie Adam has had somewhat of a renaissance through this middle of the season. Of his 6 goals, 4 of them have come in the last 6 matches, and a brace against Liverpool was his best match of the season. Adam does have skill on the ball, but it’s been masked a bit over the past few years under Tony Pulis and his hard-tackling approach. While Adam still has that in his locker, he’s played a much more metronomic role as of late, which is important because Stoke are lacking accomplished ball-playing midfielders through the center.
Expect a strong side from the Blues.
I would expect one or two rotation selections from Mourinho, but I wouldn’t expect major changes, outside of perhaps appearances for Andre Schurrle, Demba Ba, and a possible full second debut for Nemanja Matic. The fact is with the sale of Juan Mata and Mohamed Salah yet to officially finalize his move from Basel, the side is a bit short of numbers in the first team. Most likely, this will mean that the likes of Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Willian will still find themselves in the squad, but perhaps not all starting.
The only concern is that with West Ham in midweek and a trip to Manchester City the following Monday, the squad might be short on rest. However, given that they’ve had to play just once a week for the last three weeks, I’d say that shouldn’t be an issue, and the side on Sunday should be strong enough to progress to the next round.
Nemanja Matic’s second debut will be better than his first.
When Matic left as a makeweight in the David Luiz deal, I’m not fully convinced that the club actually wanted him to go. Back in his first spell, he was compared in potential skills and abilities to Michael Ballack, who was just on the books the previous season before leaving for Bayer Leverkusen. In fact, it was expected that after making his debut in the 2009-2010 season under Carlo Ancelotti that he would push on to at least feature in the first team every now and then. That never happened, partially due to the arrival of Ramires, and his potential abilities were coveted by Benfica, and he was used to fix a center back problem that we had that year, with the partnership of John Terry and Alex not quite hitting the heights of the previous year.
It wasn’t the worst move for Matic because his opportunities were limited, and he did need to play matches to develop. Three years later, he’s begun to resemble the player that I thought he could be when we purchased him, and he’s filled a need that we’ve had since the departure of Ballack. I don’t think we ever quite filled the versatility of Ballack, who in his Chelsea years did a lot of the subtle work that kept the midfield ticking. Matic has a very similar skill set in that he’s good in the air, can get forward and score goals, can win a tackle, and can intelligently play a pass. Those were all things that Ballack offered the squad, and as much as Ramires has provided the energy that was lacking since the injuries to Michael Essien, I have to think a good all-around midfielder is something that was a need, especially one that can play deeper effectively.