Jose Mourinho’s side look to be taking shape this season. Ismail Bello has taken an in-depth look at a key area of Chelsea’s system – their defence.
Two games into the Premier League, and things are looking good for Chelsea. The wins against Leicester City and Burnley both comprehensive at the end of the day; but dissecting those matches deeply show that there were brief moments that things may have been different. Part of the reason why is that with the addition of the creativity of Cesc Fabregas and the world class ability up front of Diego Costa, it has meant that Chelsea have had to alter their approach to the smaller teams a bit. Last season, fans had to endure some frustrating performances against the teams Chelsea should really be beating. The reason being that for the balance of the team and defensive solidity (things Mourinho values), the team had to play a bit conservatively after Christmas with the more expansive high press they tried to play got continually exposed by organized teams.
Now with the new signings come a probable return to an expansive high press, which Mourinho stated was his ambition when he first took the job. But the question about whether Chelsea stand the risk of suffering the same way they did last season looms. To answer that question one has to understand how exactly the team was set up last year, the reasons Mourinho set the team that way, and how Chelsea’s new signing will affect the set up.
Chelsea’s mid/low press
This picture portrays Chelsea’s deep/mid block which was employed for most of last season after the high press was abandoned. The picture on the left shows Chelsea’s shape when the ball is not with them. The team forms compact 2 banks of four with the two strikers the only ones pressing high so as to force the opponent into passing the ball forward (they do this while blocking passing lanes through the middle forcing the play wide), quickening the process of winning the ball back. The 2 banks of four stay behind the half way line and their press is only triggered when the ball is in the middle of their final third. Otherwise they try to block passing lanes and force the opponent wide where winning the ball is easier and less risky.
The one on the right shows the set up when Chelsea have the ball. The back four remain deep (fullbacks can make underlapping runs but it didn’t happen often), and one of the central midfielders is always behind the ball never surging forward. The other has a bit more license and aids transitions, but can only join the attack in counters via deep runs. The second midfielder must always be on hand to apply initial press if the ball is turned over. One of the attacking midfielders drop deep to aid transitions, the second opens up out wide for width and the third occupies the space between the opponent’s lines. The striker tries to run the channels. Although sometimes the striker may be the one drifting wide to create space for an attacking midfielder to run into.
Chelsea owed much of the good season they had to the balance in defense that Jose Mourinho gave them on his return, something that they haven’t consistently had for a whole season since Carlo Ancelotti’s first season. What is more amazing about it all is that Mourinho achieved this stability at the back with pretty much the same players that Andre Villas-Boas & Roberto Di Matteo (2012/2013) had, while failing to achieve the same. So this leads one to think that the fact that Chelsea weren’t solid under AVB and Di Mattero but are under Jose Mourinho says more about how the defenders at Chelsea are used in related to the team’s overall style and structure, than whether the defenders are any good at all. Prior to the beginning of last season John Terry was looking past it, and Gary Cahill was not even seen as someone the fans should regard.
Infact, after the 2012/2013 season, David Luiz was by far Chelsea’s best centre back. Now, Terry and Cahill are coming out of a season as probably the best defensive partnership in the Premier League last season while Luiz was sold to PSG after a season which he failed to establish himself at centre back and only really impressed in midfield. Key to Terry’s resurgence and Cahill’s rise to prominence (and Luiz’s relative decline) was the structure and style that Mourinho brought with him last season.
For most of last season, Chelsea’s style was centred around maintaining a mid-low block. Waiting for opponents to attack them, winning the ball back and counter-attacking the space that the opponents leave behind. This favoured their centre backs; because to start with, John Terry is getting older, he is slower and not as dynamic as the first time Jose Mourinho was at Chelsea. This made him look very vulnerable under Andre Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo (first full season), he was left exposed in a more expansive system that left him with a whole lot of space behind/around him, while he did not have the athleticism to effectively cover those spaces. Cahill on the other hand is strong, quick and dynamic, but his decisions and positioning are not sufficient for an expansive system. His poor positioning sometimes let strikers in behind.
Hernandez’s goal in the FA Cup under Benitez was an example of this. He also made the same error against Man City in the FA Cup that same season, stepping up instead of holding the line to let Aguero in, although he was able to recover and prevent the goal. Cahill also has a problem deciding when its best to commit to a tackle. While he is a good tackler, he waits till the player is in the box or about to shoot before making a last ditch challenge (something he is brilliant at to be fair). In a more expansive system, giving some players that space and time could be detrimental as they can do damage even before a last ditch challenge is on as Benteke showed at Villa Park when he went past Cahill to score in the Premier League in 2013.
In picture 1, Chelsea’s shape looks decent, Carrick has the ball deep and all seems well, but Hernandez (pink) sees a chance. Luiz (dark blue) steps up towards Rooney. Cahill (orange) does not recognize the threat yet and only covers the space between him and Luiz leaving the space by his right for Hernandez to run into.
Picture 2: Hernandez is on the move with Carrick sizing up the pass. Cahill has 2 options, to either get tight to Hernandez, blocking his run, or step up to set him offside.
Picture 3: Carrick has passed, Cahill and Cole (light blue) ruin the offside trap which means Cahill has to get closer to Hernandez and intercept. He is not even looking at Hernandez; still looking at the ball.
Picture 4: Too late. Cahill just started turning in Hernandez’s direction.
While the run and pass were brilliant the goal was preventable. The pressure on Carrick and the fact that Cahill and Cole could not force Hernandez offside was poor. But Cahill’s initial positioning opened the space for the Mexican and his decision not to get closer to him meant Hernandez had an easy path to goal.
This goal would have been prevented in the first frame if Cahill (red) had gone closer to Benteke (blue) in time. While the villa player behind them (light blue) is a passing option, I doubt he would have done something dangerous before the players tracking back caught up. Instead Cahill let Benteke run until his teammate occupied a very dangerous position which meant that Benteke could play a 1-2 with him or create a scoring opportunity (2nd and 3rd frames). Cahill now goes on to show Benteke into the box as he can’t ignore the other Villa player. It’s an invitation the Belgian accepts. Cahill’s desire to not commit to a challenge till the last moment let him down.
It was in recognition of all this that Jose Mourinho thought it best to give John Terry and Cahill the best protection possible. That they got from the fullbacks who barely offered anything in attack and central midfielders that were stationed in front of the centre backs, shielding them. The freedom of the attacking midfielders was also affected as they had to play more disciplined roles when Chelsea did not have the ball. This favoured Terry and Cahill as the space they had to defend was limited, the line of defense was not high so there was little space for strikers to get in behind, and the midfielders and fullbacks ensured that they had a small area to defend. This meant that Terry’s lack of athleticism was not exposed as he doesn’t have to cover much ground in little time, and Cahill has little space to be caught in two minds or be positioned poorly, and also meant that his last ditch tackles could be fully enjoyed as they were not a product of his errors initially.
Chelsea’s tactics paid off last season in the bigger games, with Everton the only Top 6 side to beat them , and they failed to win only at the Emirates and White Hart Lane. The outstanding performances being the 6-0 thumping of Arsenal, the 1-0 win at the Etihad and their 2-1 victory over Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. Those were the games where the opponents would try to attack them and Chelsea would press them, win the ball back and counter with speed.
But in the games against the smaller teams, things were not going well for Chelsea and that ultimately cost them the title. Against sides that tended to stay deep and compact, Chelsea failed to create much. As the central midfielders, fullbacks and strikers did not contribute much, the onus of breaking down stubborn defenses fell on the attacking midfielders and the burden was too much for them in most of those matches, as the lack of attacking impetus from everyone else meant teams could just concentrate all their resources on stopping them. And in the games where Chelsea got really desperate and started going all out, the defensive solidity goes out the window. The fullbacks and at least one central midfielder would join the attack, which means the central defenders were left exposed. Their opponents then have the chance to counter their depleted backline, and it’s in situations like this that Terry and Cahill’s problems in an expansive attacking system, come to the fore. They end up looking like they did under Villas-Boas and DiMatteo. Losses like Crystal Palace and Stoke are big examples of this.
After beating Azpilicueta in the first frame in the air, Walters (green) is free on Chelsea’s right and the midfield is nowhere. John Terry (light blue), is caught with space behind him in between Walters and Ireland (pink). Terry does not have the athleticism or pace to cover that much ground so quickly, and has to be wary of Ireland. But he tries anyway in frame 2 and gets close to Walters. However, Walters releases Ireland in the space vacated by Terry, and is through. Cahill (dark blue) at first marking Crouch now has to take care of Ireland and manages to get in front of him with Ivanovic (yellow) coming closer to Crouch.
Now why Cahill still has eyes on Crouch in the third frame confuses me, as tackling Ireland relieves Chelsea of immediate danger and plays Crouch offside. He just stands and watches Ireland bend it in (frame 4). This goal just shows how Chelsea’s defenders look when they are not surrounded with players and have to be higher in an expansive system. Terry’s lack of athleticism and pace exposes him while Cahill just stands there (although it must be side, if he had pressed Ireland would have passed, nevertheless sticking to Crouch was the worst decision). The goal was probably scored since Walters won the initial header illegally, but the defensive issues were highlighted as well.
With the signings of Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis and Diego Costa, Chelsea have managed to sign three players in positions of serious need. These are players that will give them much more going forward from central midfield, left-back and up front respectively. Felipe Luis give the team much needed width, allowing Azpilicueta do the same on the right. Fabregas will give Chelsea the much needed creativity and distribution during transitions that they have lacked from a central midfielder. And Costa will add fire power to the forward line. Three of them in the team provide additional threats for teams that used to just focus on containing the Chelsea attacking midfielders as that won’t be wise any more. This means more space to operate for the likes of Hazard and Oscar.
But the thing is, with the additional offensive talent Chelsea have added, it only makes sense that against the smaller teams they are looking to be more proactive and expansive going forward. Mourinho is probably looking to bring back the high pressing game he tried to implement last season but couldn’t.
It is also something that can have an effect on Chelsea’s defensive solidity. Adding Felipe Luis at left back (which means Azpilicueta goes right) and Fabregas to the midfeld would offer far less protection for Terry and Cahill compared to having Matic and Luiz/Ramires in midfield, and Ivanovic – Azpilicueta as fullbacks. This could leave Terry’s lack off athleticism and pace and Cahill’s positioning and decisions exposed. Especially in those games against extremely deep opponents, in a bid to break them down the team could end up leaving them without cover and susceptible to the counter especially against quick forwards.
It would not be wrong to assume that with the extra quality Chelsea have going forward, they are more likely to score if they overload the opponent now. Liverpool were within touching distance of the title due to their attacking fluidity despite conceding with alarming regularity, crucially managing to outscore opponents. But I don’t think that’s quite possible for Chelsea. It goes against the steady transition that Mourinho has been trying to take Chelsea through. Because all of a sudden (at least against smaller opposition) Chelsea’s biggest strength becomes their greatest weakness.
Most of Mourinho’s teams have always been built on the foundations of a solid defense. While Chelsea need to be more expansive than they were last season. They must try not to go from one extreme to the other too drastically. That’s a plan that has already failed for Chelsea (thrice). And for the team to play more expansive football without leaving themselves vulnerable at the back, the centre backs must contribute to more than just shielding the defense.
When the team has the ball, and are attacking, at least one of the centre backs should be looking to cover the forward runs of the fullbacks or central midfielders as the case may be. And when the team does not have the ball, should be in a good position to back up the players looking to press. This could even put him in a position to win the ball himself and push higher. They should also be a passing option all the time. It is also important that one of the centre backs is comfortable on the ball and is able to distribute effectively. David Luiz was an ideal player for such a system and Chelsea for a while at the beginning of last season played a high press with the Brazilian playing that role.
Burnley’s high press not giving midfielders space. Oscar (black oval) drops deep to launch ball forward to Costa.
At the time, Chelsea had not signed Matic, so the midfield was not solid and there was no creativity from them; the fullbacks barely helped the attack which put all the pressure on the attacking midfielders. The movement up front was also poor so Luiz’s passing couldn’t be put to good use. Despite the pressing of the attacking midfielders, once teams surpassed them, Chelsea were in trouble. So Mourinho had to bench Luiz for Cahill and reduce the line of defense after realizing that his team were better off deeper. It’s a bit unfortunate that Luiz was sold after all the conditions for him to succeed have been acquired. That shouldn’t deflect from the fact that, for the high press that Mourinho and Chelsea have to play this season to be realized, Luiz will need to be replaced. Chelsea need someone similar (and less crazy) to partner Terry. While the captain is not as fast as he used to be, his positioning is while his decision making could be an asset if his lack of pace is covered for. With the right partner and Matic in front of them, Terry can be covered for.
Chelsea’s high press
The picture on the left is Chelsea pressing high when off the ball. The aim is to win the ball as high as possible so that the distance between the attackers and the goal isn’t far. The striker and the player behind him are the first line of pressing. If that fails the remaining AM’s and one midfielder are the second wave and will look to push the ball wide so the fullbacks can win it.
The picture on the right is when Chelsea had the ball in their high press. As you can see, there is no Chelsea player in their half and the fullbacks are so high they are not even in the same frame. Fulham got a chance from this when Mikel lost the ball.
It is not possible for the whole team to be concerned with pressing, and winning the ball high while the centre backs only shield the defense without the team looking disjointed. The defense also has to contribute its quota to ball circulation, retention and regaining possession. And Chelsea’s defense at the moment is best suited to playing deep and compact. Zouma at this point is young and no different from Terry or Cahill in terms of style. For the team to look more proactive going forward, the defense must provide the foundation for it. The defense has to ensure that the space between them and the midfield is not too large when the team attacks as it will be harder to defend if the opponent counters. This was a problem at Burnley.
Chelsea are still favourites to win the League for me, even if they decide to go into the season with what they have. The test of a good team is not who has the least weaknesses but the ability to win games despite them. And Mourinho is one of the best at maximising his team’s strengths and hiding their weaknesses. But any chance the team has to improve, should be at least considered. Its hard to size up how big a weakness this could be; when Chelsea tried a high press last, the team lacked the cutting edge to create chances and score goals, and didn’t have Matic. Now things are different, and at least going into the season this way will shed more light on what exactly the problem is and can certainly be solved in january. Chelsea already have a wonderful squad as is, a proactive centre back could be the final piece to completing it.
Written by Ismail Bello. Give a read to all articles in our Under The Bridge Chelsea blog.