Over the last few weeks, there has been a huge amount of media speculation about the recent appointment of Andre Villas-Boas as Chelsea manager. Without doubt his record is impeccable, with an incredible 84 points from a possible 90 amassed during his inaugural treble winning season at Porto. However, particularly amongst the notorious British Press, there are question marks over the 33 year-olds ability to inspire an ageing and ego-orientated Chelsea squad both on and off the pitch. Roman Abramovich has been only to keen to remove recent coaches as he chases his ultimate goal of winning the Champions League. Nevertheless, the speculation and controversial appointment has partially overshadowed the tactical side of Villas-Boas that makes his appointment so intriguing.
Way back in August 2010, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea looked intent on regaining their Premier League title. They won their first 5 games, 2 of them 6-0, amassing 20 goals and destroying teams with a blend of high pressure and fast, counter attacking football. A key feature to the early success was due to the amount of early goals scored by Chelsea. In 3 of these matches, they led by the 6th minute and they were winning by half-time in each one. As the season progressed, it became clear that an early goal was key to Chelsea winning any game as they only dropped 6 points from winning positions in a season that contained 9 losses and in which Chelsea dropped 43 points overall. However, while never losing from a winning position showed the Blues to be mentally and tactically adept at “seeing games out” by switching their conventional 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1, their inability to break teams down when trailing or drawing was a main reason why they ended the season trophy less and an eventual 9 points behind the champions Manchester United.
While the 4-3-3 system worked wonders in the 2009-2010 double-winning season, the absence of key players such as Drogba and Lampard for significant parts of the season meant that Chelsea struggled to achieve a balance in 2010-2011. The team that started the most Premier League games was:
Ivanovic Terry Alex Cole
The initial problems began with the injury to Bosingwa which meant that Ivanovic was forced to move to right-back as cover. The fault was not Ivanovic’s himself as he enjoyed a strong season, making 34 appearances and scoring 5 goals, but the fact that his natural central-defensive style made him uncomfortable overlapping and linking with Anelka in the same way as Bosingwa. In effect, whilst Ashley Cole provided wide attacking support on the left with Malouda, Ivanovic struggled to develop the same relationship with Anelka meaning that opposing sides could play higher through the midfield as Ivanovic did not press deep in the opposition’s half. Furthermore, the fact that Anelka is a natural centre-forward meant that there was a lack of natural width on the right in their attacking play with Ivanovic staying deep and Anelka cutting inside. As a result, sides were not only able to use Chelsea’s right side as a place to launch counter-attacks , but were also able to crowd the central areas and penalty area to stifle any Chelsea creativity through the middle – a combination that Chelsea never quite managed to fully overcome.
The 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in February highlighted the fundamental problems with Chelsea’s formation and style. Although Bosingwa had by then returned to start at right-back, his poor form meant that the issues remained the same. During the course of the match, Bosingwa failed to deliver a single pass into the Liverpool penalty area that reached a team-mate, and Anelka touched the ball twice as much in the central third of the pitch than in the right third. Simply put, Chelsea posed negligible threat on the right side which allowed Dalglish’s Liverpool to play 3 natural centre-backs, stifle the central threat of Essien and Lampard through the middle, and attack on the counter.
Although many people have attributed Chelsea’s poor season down to there being no creative midfielder, it could equally be seen that the right-back position was a direct cause of many of their problems. After all, Lampard and Mikel had enjoyed fantastic success in 2009-2010 with the same formation and with no significant personnel changes, it seems bizarre that Chelsea could suddenly swap from a free-flowing title-winning side, to one castigated for having no “creative midfielder.”
Undoubtedly a central attacking midfielder in the mould of Modric or Sneijder would have aided Chelsea’s cause – providing a perfect foil for the power and strength of Drogba and Torres. However, considering that the Blues destroyed everything in front of them in the previous season without the creative “number 10,” perhaps it was not Chelsea’s lack of creativity, but their imbalance out wide and across the backline that made them struggle. As such, opponents could pack the central areas with bodies, restrict the flow to Drogba, and prevent Lampard from finding space to shoot from outside the box. The result of all this was that Chelsea were toothless, predictable and open to quick counter attacks.
Having shown the tactical problems with Chelsea’s approach last season, and considering the worrying rumours behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, it is clear that Villas-Boas has a major rebuilding job on his hands. Above everything else though, he has to find the solutions to the tactical problems that seem to have been lost in the midst of press speculation about the dressing room. The only way to achieve success is through winning on the pitch, and evidence suggests that, despite the Press’ insistence, this could be a much harder task than winning over the squad for the young Portuguese manager.