André Villas-Boas enters into the biggest clash to date in his brief Chelsea career this weekend, when his side take on top-of-the-table Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The Portuguese, 33, will no doubt wish the game could have come a bit later in the season, as his team look to fully understand the workings of the new system and instructions he is looking to put in place at the Stamford Bridge club.
Three wins and a draw is a very impressive start for the relatively inexperienced manager, yet his team’s positive results have been largely overshadowed by the performances of the two Manchester clubs and a couple of highly visible defensive frailties.
A Clean Slate
One thing that is clear thus far is that Villas-Boas is slowly attempting to reduce the team’s reliance on the players who have served them so admirably for the past decade, but are now as big a part of the team’s decline as anyone else.
The bold selection against Bayer Leverkusen, in which neither John Terry or Frank Lampard featured in the starting line-up, was a sign of the times, but must also not be used as an excuse to write off the veteran pair.
There are many examples, particularly at Old Trafford in recent years, of the value of experienced players and Villas-Boas will appreciate this as much as anyone. The absence of Didier Drogba from the team through injury has also worked in the Portuguese’s favour, as he looks to implement a new style of play at the club, without feeling inclined to revert to the ‘tried and tested’.
Rather than the raw power game of recent seasons, this is a Chelsea team endeavouring to play a new ball retention based game. All the central midfielders utilised by Villas-Boas this season (Meireles – 89, Lampard – 88, Mikel – 90, Ramires -88 and Romeu – 100) have a pass completion of greater than 88% to date, which contrasts with last season when only John Obi Mikel and Josh McEachran achieved this figure.
It is only early days, but for the figures to be so clear-cut shows a clear change in philosophy from the West London club. This emphasis can be seen across an array of statistics, including the number of passes per game and number of through balls. Villas-Boas is in the midst of a silent, but notable revolution at Chelsea, with Ramires and Juan Mata at the heart of it.
A Change In Attack
With Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge operating either side of the main striker both last weekend and in the week, Villas-Boas’ Chelsea side has been given a new injection of life from what had become a very predictable attacking threat last season.
With the midfield hell-bent on retaining possession, Sturridge and Mata can operate from a wide starting position, to provide Chelsea with the dynamic, interchanging forward line that the top sides in this season’s competition have all displayed in these early weeks.
This high-pressing, fluid and dynamic game is the latest norm at the highest levels of European football, in a move championed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team. Chelsea’s version is yet to hit the heights of some of their competitors, but given the dramatic changes been seen in the club’s management, philosophy and key personnel, this is far from surprising.
Juan Mata is often labelled as a David Silva-type figure and although it is a little unfair to compare two such outstanding players, both players strengths are very similar.
Chelsea are keeping the ball better this season and it is now Mata’s task to unlock the defence, rather than stay wide and cross as would have been the aim last season for a Chelsea wide-man. Mata is expected to float off his flank and combine the midfield unit with his attacking colleagues.
On the other flank, Daniel Sturridge provides a pace and directness that Chelsea have lacked from their forwards in recent times. Again, not expected to stay wide, Sturridge can move central to play as a support striker, switch flank with Mata, or even move to form the focal point of the attack, if the main striker should drop deeper to involve himself in play.
The front three are now a fluid unit and rather than positions, they occupy mere starting positions from which the role varies depending on the activity of their team-mates.
Ideally, Villas-Boas would like Fernando Torres to then occupy the central role, as he is the Chelsea centre-forward most adept at varying his game to the needs of the situation, much as Falcao had done for Porto last campaign.
It is interesting that despite his lack of goals, Fernando Torres seems to be enjoying this new philosophy in a 4-3-3, earning many plaudits for his intelligent play and movement when partnered by Sturridge and Mata, culminating in a brace of assists in the Champions League tie this week.
Here-in lies perhaps the clearest flaw in Chelsea’s play to date, with the high back-line having been exposed on several occasions in the opening weeks of the season.
The lack of trust in Hilario as goalkeeper, which has been evident from crosses into the box should be sorted with the return of Petr Cech, but it is the lack of pace of the various centre-back pairings which will most concern Villas-Boas.
The full-backs Bosingwa and Ashley Cole have been generally excellent, thriving in their wing-back roles of providing the true width of the side from deep. The true problems lie in the centre.
Branislav Ivanovic has replaced Alex and abated the issues with playing a high defensive-line somewhat, but it maybe that David Luiz is the required solution to the problem, but it would take a brave man to drop John Terry from the Chelsea side.
Given his lack of pace, Terry is seemingly unsuited to such a high defensive line, but conversely his aerial prowess, know-how and leadership qualities are also key attributes for the team.
Ivanovic and Alex have not excelled alongside the Chelsea skipper this season, so given his midweek display in European action, is it time for Luiz to partner Terry at the heart of the defence?
Luiz is unpredictable. His attacking instincts can win a game for Chelsea, but he has also shown a naivety at times that always labels him a risk in big matches.
For a centre-back he is only young and will learn from his mistakes, but he must work on his decision making in the tackle and also his positional awareness, both of which were shown up in crucial games vs Manchester United at the end of last season.
Undeniably talented, David Luiz could be key to any Chelsea challenge this season, but may not be risked this weekend.
Should Villas-Boas start with a John Terry/Branislav Ivanovic pairing on Sunday, it is absolutely crucial for the West London side’s chances that the breaches of the high defensive line seen so far this season are not repeated at Old Trafford, against a Manchester United forward line that is excelling on such errors.
Against Javier Hernandez in particular, a vast improvement will be needed to keep the Mexican away from goal. The forward is both quick and intelligent, meaning the chosen defensive duo will need to concentrate for the entire ninety minutes to avoid gifting ‘El Chicharito’ a goal-scoring chance.
The Positives To Take Into Sunday
Chelsea are winning. Ultimately, this is the most important statistic in football and a winning team is a good team. This is stating the obvious, but it can be forgotten at times amidst a ground-swell of praise for a rival’s ‘total football’.
Although Villas-Boas knows he will encounter a Manchester United team full of confidence and playing with considerable style, Chelsea have nothing to lose going into this encounter. A loss at Old Trafford is not disastrous by any means, yet a win could be the tonic required for Chelsea to head on to bigger things this season.
Although they will no doubt wish this encounter could have come once the adaptation period was well behind them, Chelsea should approach Sunday’s match with no fear.
Manchester United dismantled Chelsea’s season last time round and are indeed playing well this season, but this is a different Chelsea, albeit with similar personnel.
The North-West club are playing a brand of football that Chelsea also wish to achieve, yet for all this talk of both City and United’s outstanding starts, they are both only two points ahead of Chelsea. Stunning wins mean nothing, if they are followed up by losses to rivals.
If Manchester United win, little changes in the Premier League dynamic, barring a convincing win in which they dismantle Chelsea. It is almost expected that they should win, given the game’s location and their current form.
For all Chelsea’s good results, they are yet to convince in the same manner. There are faults on show, but the style is much improved on some of last season’s turgid displays. Yet, there is a quiet optimism from the club concerning their hopes for the season ahead and the improving football they are playing.
So, if Chelsea are serious about their chances this season, what better place to lay down a marker than Old Trafford this Sunday?