Wednesday night, Chelsea welcome Aston Villa to Stamford Bridge in a rearranged fixture, scheduled for midweek due to the Blues participation in the UEFA Super Cup. While Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert was crying foul about this, it does seem like a good time to get it scheduled before other midweek competitions, such as the Capital One Cup and the Champions League group stage begin in earnest.
For Chelsea, it gives them the possibility of going to Old Trafford on Monday night with a three-point gap and the potential to take an early six-point lead with an extra game. While too early to be thinking of this as anything concrete, the psychological factor of that gap, coupled with a chance to win on David Moyes’ first match at the Theatre of Dreams, is a rather tasty proposition.
Before the Blues look too far ahead, they have to deal with the challenge of an Aston Villa side who are riding high after an opening win away from home at the Emirates against a, maybe not surprisingly, poor Arsenal performance. Villa showed an incisiveness to their play and perhaps one or two stylistic differences from what we’re accustomed to seeing from Lambert’s sides, but it proved effective and really seemed to affect Arsenal.
Whether they can impose their style on Chelsea is another story, as the Blues are coming off a rather comfortable win over Hull City Tigers in Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The 2-0 scoreline is slightly flattering to Hull, given that the Blues could have had 5 before the half, but even if the team took their foot off the gas after the opening half, they showed an organization in defending that showed that Mourinho may not have lost his pragmatic side.
In any event, in the second match of the season, there are one or two interesting things to look for going into this match.
Paul Lambert’s shown a gung-ho attacking mentality. However, Villa counter attacked Arsenal to death.
I think the most surprising thing from the victory over Arsenal was how effective Villa were on the counterattack for the duration of the match. The fact is that every time Arsenal got ripped apart, it was because of a Villa counterattack or a ball played with space in behind, but not as a direct result of a counterattacking move.
In the past, we’ve seen Paul Lambert’s sides attack in numbers, sometimes to the detriment of the team’s defence. In this particular match, his team sat back a bit more, played with good shape and organization, and waited for the moment when Arsenal were drawn out before exploiting them with pace. Now, that’s not necessarily the normal definition of counterattacking play, but it is very similar in that you draw the opponent out and punish them in the gaps.
It’s a style that works for Villa, especially given the continued development of Fabien Delph and the inherent pace up front. Whether they can play that kind of football at home remains to be seen, but it was a very effective style against an Arsenal team that do press up.
Villa didn’t make many signings, but the biggest move was keeping Christian Benteke.
Let’s preface this by saying that if it weren’t for the second half that Benteke had last season Villa would have gone down. That being said, the interest in moving to a bigger club might have been there, however, in a World Cup year, playing regularly might be more important. After handing in his transfer request, for one reason or another, he signed a new contract instead. Whether his transfer request was a ploy, we’ll never know, but Lambert will be delighted to keep him.
The interesting thing about Benteke is that he can literally do everything as a striker. He has good technique and skill and is a physical specimen that can beat you for pace and power. That was shown against Arsenal in the number of headers he won, the fact that Bakary Sagna nearly killed himself when he tried to challenge for a header, and the number of times he latched onto balls played through the line.
He’s clearly the danger man for Villa, and what the Chelsea defence should look for is his ability to run the channels and find space. Though he is capable of winning the ball in the air, he’s also very much a pace striker that likes to run in behind.
Ironically, Chelsea do have a player who can mimic that style in training, but more on that later.
Villa’s main threat tactically is their pace in their front men.
In Andreas Weimann, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and Benteke, Villa have three men with great pace that can give any side trouble, especially when they can get behind you. I think it’s that skill that inspired the counterattacking style of play from Villa on Saturday, and it’s something that against the high line of Arsenal that worked.
However, it will be a much trickier test against Chelsea, mostly due to the fact that Mourinho will not make the mistake of playing his defence too high. In addition, one of the two holding midfield players will be the more defensive-minded option with the capability of breaking up play, which is something that Arsenal lack at the moment.
I would expect Ramires, Michael Essien, or John Mikel Obi to play in that defensive-minded role and make life more difficult on the midfield of Villa. In addition, Chelsea showed a much higher-pressure side than they did at times last season. Both the midfield and the strikers were quick to close down and attempt to win the ball back, and often did with great aplomb. However, that will be something that the team will have to build towards fitness-wise, as it was clear that it lessened as the legs got tired.
Kevin De Bruyne played very well on Saturday, but I think he gave a glimpse of the role that Mourinho sees for Juan Mata.
This is an interesting one because all the speculation was whether the shape would be 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and where does that leave Mata. On Sunday, Mourinho chose to leave Mata out due to a niggling injury, and in his place was De Bruyne.
I thought and thought about it on Saturday night, and I was convinced by Sunday that De Bruyne would start on the right ahead of Victor Moses and Andre Schurrle. Why? You might ask.
My conclusion was that the system we may see from Mourinho may still have elements of pragmatism, however, he also has more creative playmaker types in one side than I think he’s had at any other club. I started wondering, given the ability of De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Mata to play anywhere in the front three positions, I thought we might see something that wasn’t so cut and dry as to put a “shape” on it. Remember, we’ve seen this out of Mourinho in the past as an experiment in preseason. Before the 2007-2008 season and after the purchase of Florent Malouda, Mourinho tinkered with a system that liberated the five forward-most players in a free system with only one center midfielder, Essien, as the static set pivot. I always thought that was a bit of fantasy, until Sunday.
Given how much time De Bruyne spent in central areas and not really wide, I would surmise that Mata would play a rather similar role when fit and in tandem with Oscar and Hazard. Oscar has already shown the tactical awareness to cover for Frank Lampard and Ramires’ forays forward, while Hazard was able to work the left hand side and create space in the middle. De Bruyne played wide at times, but often drifted inside when either Fernando Torres or Oscar drifted wide on his side. I would imagine that a fit Mata plays that similar role, especially after seeing how De Bruyne was used. One thing is for sure is that when the teams are announced I will be keeping an eye on the latest Scores Website!
Strikers, Strikers, Strikers.
Ah, the yearly discussion on strikers and who should play. While some of Mr. Torres’ play wasn’t brilliant on Sunday, I thought he did what he was asked to do very well. While £50M strikers are always going to be judged on goals, I thought that his clever play and ability to interchange and link with the overall shape and movement of the play worked very well, and I thought he played some rather nice passes in around the box when single touches were required.
Of course, he’ll always be compared with the man who came on for him in Romelu Lukaku, who had a good game and showed himself to be dangerous coming deep and holding the ball up and an ability to lay it off and get forward. The interesting comparison for Lukaku is that he’s very similar to Benteke in size, pace, and skill-set, and that may eventually be what we see from Lukaku in a year or two.
However, the question mark for me is can Lukaku do it from the start when everyone’s fresh and can he move about the final third to allow the others to have the space when needed? Say what you will about Torres, but his time in the Spain team has given him a great platform for how to drift about the pitch and not disrupt the move when he doesn’t have the ball. Some of the backheels and flicks were played as a result of Torres being a “wall” of sorts to bounce the ball off of. I haven’t yet seen that from Lukaku’s game, but in the interest of rotation, I do believe that he’ll get his shot against Villa. But for me, until he shows that he can do it from the start and not in preseason, Lukaku is choice 1b for me. However, that’s not to say if Torres isn’t playing well that he’s not a great option to bring on and hook Torres off early.