On Chelsea's tempo problem

Clive Rose

Sometimes football can be too easy. It is simple enough to look at a strikers tally in front of goal and decide that a more potent centre forward is required, just as it is deceptively simple to sum up a sides problems with defending by blaming an enthusiastic central defender.

That's not to say these sort of things can't be entirely reasonable solutions, but sometimes there are things in football that simmer below the surface, often unnoticed by the naked eye, that have an equally profound effect on a teams ability to win a game.

Chelsea unquestionably have problems defending down the flanks when they deploy three playmakers in tandem, and this has largely been the error associated with Roberto Di Matteo's downfall, and the problem has persisted under interim Rafa Benitez.

But the lack of midfield control is another tactical issue that the Italian failed to address, and his Spanish successor has so far done little to suggest he can stem the tide.

When push comes to shove, Chelsea cannot stem the tide. When facing a side carrying the majority of momentum, they struggle. Amongst other things, the lack of a 'controller' in midfield is a clear factor - the squad simply doesn't possess a player who can control the tempo of a match.

Think back to the FA Cup final, where Di Matteo elected to play a reactive brand of football featuring defensive wingers and a heavy emphasis on counter attacking. That's a perfectly justifiable tactic against Liverpool, and one that carried the Blues into a 2-0 lead.

Then Andy Carroll entered the fray. The lanky striker is often a figure of derision, and despite some promising performances in the weeks beforehand, no one seriously expected him to have a meaningful impact on a game in which Chelsea had perfect control.

It wasn't a particularly inspired tactical switch either - hurling long balls towards a tall player hardly requires rocket science, but within minutes, it had the desired effect, as Carroll smashed home a fierce strike that brought the contest back to life.

The drama that followed was a clear endorsement of a tactical issue - not of the perks of route one football, but of the flaws associated with Chelsea's midfield strategy. Neither Frank Lampard or John Obi Mikel, as gifted players they are, had the composure to possess the ball, slow the tempo and restore Chelsea's dominance.

Instead, we got a hellish, kamikaze fifteen minute period in which Carroll appeared the world's most dominant centre forward, and he should have scored an equaliser if Petr Cech hadn't been in imperious form.

And it's not just the FA Cup Final that has illustrated this problem. Time and time again under Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea would attempt to play an open brand of high tempo football that would result in wildly entertaining matches but ones Chelsea were never fully in control. Meanwhile, rivals Tottenham Hotspur were surging onwards and upwards largely thanks to the calm, measured passing of Luka Modric, who had been a Chelsea transfer target.

After Villas-Boas was sacked, Di Matteo resorted to more cautious (and common sense) measures, but even he had a bizarre record of conceding late in games - other factors were present, of course, but it's hardly the greatest endorsement of any Chelsea midfielders ability to dictate the tempo.

What exactly is dictating the tempo? Last year, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame wrote a very good argument in favour of Chelsea playing Juan Mata central.

Chelsea had gone 3-0 up without playing particularly good football, but had then allowed United back into the game. The second half was frantic, fast-paced and end-to-end. Chelsea, the side with the two-goal advantage, didn't want that - they needed to calm things down, kill the game, control the tempo.

Mata was the only one who understood that. His pass was unspectacular, underwhelming and lacking in ambition. But it was the right thing to do; it prompted a whole minute of pure Chelsea possession, something they struggled to recreate later on, at a time when United attack followed United attack and Chelsea made clearances when they could have played passes.

He was on the money - Chelsea were a much better side once Di Matteo shifted the Spaniard towards a more classic playmaker role, and his ability to find space combined with incredible intelligence and awareness meant the Londoners attack had a far greater structure and cohesion.

It would be lovely if we had another Spaniard we could deploy deep in midfield (and this isn't a somber reflection on the loss of Oriol Romeu for an extended period of time). Instead, it's a bitter lamentation on the limitations of Chelsea's current midfield stock.

The pairing of Ramires and Lampard on Wednesday was a combination of two players who have continually shown their strength is driving forward from midfield, while the recently redeployed David Luiz lacks the decision making and sensibility that such a role requires. Mikel is instead the closest to meeting the criteria but even still is better when allowed to focus purely on defending, and besides, is absent on African Cup of Nations duty.

Without wishing to scapegoat a very good player, it's Ramires who best sums up Chelsea's problems in this zone. He was excellent when given freedom to drive forward from midfield in Villas-Boas' 4-3-3, and thrived on the defensive responsibilities of Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1, but it became clear as that system evolved into a more offensive style that Ramires was no longer a good fit on the wings, as his first touch and attacking style didn't befit an attacking 4-2-3-1.

Instead, he was shoehorned into a deep-lying position where although his ability to win the ball was initially very useful, his lack of suitability for a role that requires discipline and positional awareness has become clear.

When Chelsea play high up the pitch, closing down from the front, his tenacity and energy is perfect for winning the ball back. But whereas that was clear in the first half against Arsenal, it was significantly less so in the second, because Chelsea were on the back foot and simply couldn't hold onto the ball for long periods.

And tempo doesn't strictly apply to regaining momentum either - there have been plenty of examples this season of Chelsea dominating possession, but being completely and utterly unable to break down a side sitting deep. Again, it's not the perfect solution, but having a player able to pick up the pace of the passing game and help transition possession into penetration would be hugely useful.

All of this seems to paint the picture that Chelsea should be dipping into the transfer market to pick up a player with the required attributes. Benat Extebarria or Kevin Strootman are ideal candidates, as is our own Josh McEachran, but it appears - on the flimsy evidence of transfer rumours, at least - that Chelsea would prefer to play the waiting game and rely on the talents of the current Middlesbrough loanee when he returns to Cobham, or better still, wait and see if Oscar can transition to a deeper role.

Either way, the problem remains present. There's no tangible way to demonstrate what Chelsea are missing, but as West Ham, QPR and Southampton have shown, something doesn't have to be obvious for it to be a problem.

The worrying thing is, it's becoming far too obvious.


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