There’s rarely a dull moment down at the Bridge but you bet that all concerned with Chelsea could do with getting back to a bit of normality.
Three defeats from five, two consecutive home losses and only two wins from seven is causing much delight around the rest of the country but within the corridors of power at Cobham, there will be some serious head scratching about just what is going on with one of the teams who have dominated English football in the 21st century.
Crisis may be an over used adjective monopolised by the tabloids, but even if things aren’t that bad their current form will be much cause for concern.
Twelve points adrift of Manchester City at the summit of the Premier League and with participation in the Champions League in the balance is not where last seasons league runners-up envisaged themselves being at this stage in proceedings.
But all is not lost, indeed all can be salvaged, but Andre Villas-Boas certainly needs to right some wrongs fairly sharpish if they are to compete for the honours they would have expected at the beginning of the campaign
A brittle backline, a midfield that lacks class and authority and a set of forwards who are reticent to make places their own are all jeopardising another season after the 2010 league and cup double winners finished potless last season.
There is something about the autumn months which causes the Blues to shed points like the trees shed their leaves. At the same juncture last year the wheels had fell off under Carlo Ancelotti and although they recovered to chase Manchester United down to the bitter end, the damage had already been done.
The solution under Ancelotti was to launch cash at it during the January transfer window and the least said about that the better, so without going down the same route again once auld lang syne’s died down, just what can AVB do to steady the good ship Chelsea?
He could start by heeding these five pieces of wisdom.
1) Get Alex in.
Not many of the Chelsea brethren can work out why the big Brazilian has been so sparingly used by AVB. He dropped a clanger early on against West Brom but for the large part the former PSV stopper has been effectively solid at the heart of the back four.
Despite his offensive abilities from deep, David Luiz’s wing and a prayer defending is not what Chelsea need at the moment, especially next to Skipper John Terry who seems particularly vulnerable next to the eccentric Sideshow Bob look-a-like. Alex may lack a bit of mobility but he rarely gets caught out, and if Chelsea are thinking of going back to basics, an Ivanovic-Alex-Terry-Cole back four would be as good as any place to start.
2) Ditch the high line
Since AVB came in he’s tried to adopt the tactics which brought him so much success at Porto. The concept is fairly straightforward and indeed it’s similar to that which Barcelona so brilliantly execute. It involves pressing high up the pitch, and engaging the opposition in their own half – well away from goal.
The policy of pressing this high in theory means there’s no easy way out to gradually play the ball into your half, and by doing so, if you win the ball back by rights they’ve got less distance to travel to the business end. The idea makes sense but in order for this to be effective, the right players with the right attributes are needed, and Chelsea haven’t got those types of players to make this system work.
For a start, their midfield no longer contains the power, pace and tenacity of the likes of Essien, Makalele, Lampard and Ballack to enforce this high-tempo strategy, meaning the hassling and haranguing is too easy to play around and as such brutally exposes a weak defence.
The midfield is also struggling to control games and play at their pace. Barcelona pull this off because they have innate ball-playing midfielders who can constantly move the ball onto options scattered around and peg the other team back. Chelsea don’t have the type of players to dictate the flow of games in this way, and their constant surrendering of the ball leaves them susceptible to the counter, with vast swathes of grass left behind this high defence.
3) Easy on the entertainment.
When Mourinho’s production were sweeping all before them, they were doing it with the grace and posterity of a wrecking ball smashing a shed. Despite the lavish outlay on some of Europe’s top players they were mechanically effective rather than mesmerically excellent and their abrasive nature endeared them to few.
Abramovich wanted more, he perhaps never even muttered the term ‘blue Barcelona’ but you caught his drift. He wanted a team that won with a style and grace you’d expect for a billion large, yet the more he’s strove for this utopian blue dream, the worse they’ve become.
AVB was the latest in a long line of managers charged with combining style and substance but perhaps he’s taken the remit too far. Slapstick defending and a cavalier attitude means Chelsea games are packed with goals and gaffe’s but to the detriment of results.
There is no doubt that Chelsea have tried to be more expansive this season, but expansive means open and open means vulnerable. Their full-backs are constantly on the charge, their midfield trio lacks a definitive anchor man and the wide forwards see tracking back as an optional extra.
With the ball they are too eager to spring forward and once again this is exposing what started off as a back four, but soon becomes a back John Terry with David Luiz somewhere in the vicinity.
The best teams have control and poise, a methodical swinging pendulum of balance which comes from keeping the ball, moving it about in areas which aren’t necessarily a threat, manipulating play here and there, back and forth in and out before seizing the moment and striking.
Manchester City have rammed home masses of goals so far this season, but by no means would you describe their manner as overly attacking. Much of their game is still largely built around the foundations of 18 months of Mancini pragmatism, so they have a base from which to build, allowing a forward trio or quartet to interlink and drift with a positionless conivance knowing they are still reinforced defensively. Chelsea simply do not have this balance.
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4) Switch to 4-4-2
There must be a constitutional statute at Chelsea which insists the side must be decked out in some permutation of a 4-3-3. Ever since Mourinho implemented it some seven years ago now, no manager has ever strayed from the tried and trusted set-up for any sustained period and the fact that everybody knows the shape they will adopt must surely limit its effectiveness.
At present, there are a couple of things wrong with this formation, for this team, with this set of players. The primary problem is that all of Chelsea’s midfield stocks do a similar job, with little variation or positional difference. Bar the ineffective John Obi Mikel they’re short of the Makalele type fulcrum to protect the back four and after years of trying to acquire some sort of fantasical creative force, they’re still too one paced and predictable.
All of Frank Lampard, Raul Meireles and Ramires perform similar functions but being so similar, and without a genuine holding or floating figure, Villas-Boas essentially has three men doing the job of two which removes bodies from other areas of the pitch.
Given that the 4-3-3 isn’t working seamlessly, AVB could easily shuffle to a 4-4-2 using virtually the same players. Ramires and Mata could operate the flanks with Lampard and Meireles manning the centre in a tactical switch which would arguably provide the Blues with more natural width and two genuine central midfielders instead of three.
The other aspect of this is it would finally allow the Chelsea to pair a strike duo up top with support for one another. Torres, Drogba, Sturridge, Kalou and Anelka are all naturally central strikers yet three fifth’s of that forward line have been made to operate as quasi wingers throughout much of their Stamford Bridge stint.
The 4-4-2 has evolved from the rigidity of the English model from the 80’s and intuitive use of the ball still allows players to roam and venture away from their pre-defined stations. For example, David Silva at Manchester City is often lined up initially at left-midfield but that doesn’t stop the fleet-footed Spaniard from venturing into areas of influence. Should Juan Mata perform a similar function, Ashley Cole would provide the width vacated by Mata’s marauding’s whilst on the other side Ramires has more than enough pace and incision to flank that side. It’s only a slight variation from where they are now, but small measures can make a big difference.
5) Pair up Torres and Sturridge
The other bonus of the 4-4-2 would be that Chelsea could finally put together a decent strike partnership. The inquests into Fernando Torres’s failings have run long and deep yet he has always largely been asked to play the target-man role as a central striker spearheading a three man attack. With the width coming from either side, Torres has little licence to run the channels and neglect his central standing.
Utilising him as one of two would allow Torres and his partner to wonder where necessary knowing there’s someone else to fill the central void. Granting strikers the autonomy to go where they want can make them difficult to pick up, and more of Torres game could be spent facing goal rather than with his back to the action.
If Chelsea do pursue this option, Daniel Sturridge would be an ideal forward to try to restore El Nino to former glories. Since flourishing on loan at Bolton, Sturridge has been Chelsea’s in-form striker and most dangerous striker, and his pace and movement could dovetail ideally if Torres embraced similar traits.
What Torres needs is to find a niche within this team, and playing with his back to goal with two centre-halves for close comfort is not his natural game. A lot of Chelsea’s problems would be eradicated, or at the very least masked, if Torres could start firing again and gaining points from losing and drawing positions.
However, these partnerships aren’t borne over night, and with Anelka and Kalou n the periphery of things and Drogba getting no younger, these two need to be given an opportunity to forge and understanding to shoot Chelsea back to the top.
Follow John Baines on twitter @bainesyDiego10
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