Chelsea's victory over Aston Villa might have been lucky. It was certainly very close -- a 2-1 home victory where the opposition has a not-unreasonable penalty claim turned down during second-half stoppage time isn't the most relaxing thing in the world -- and the tension makes it easy to forget just how calm the bulk of the first half was. If not for Christian Benteke's strike just before Kevin Friend blew his whistle for halftime, the Blues would probably have cruised to a fairly routine win. That would have been nice.
Here's how things got started.
Brad Guzan had the ball in his own penalty area. At this point in the game, there was no threat here. Guzan's long balls forward weren't sticking in the Chelsea half, and the Blues could afford to let him kick long and then wipe up the mess. That's what they tried to do.
Guzan aimed for Christian Benteke, who was being tracked by right back Branislav Ivanovic. Ivanovic won the header under some pressure. But suddenly there was a problem. When defenders get to aerial balls uncontested, they're generally able to direct possession to a teammate and calm the game down. At the very worst, they can knock the ball out of play and regroup.
But that becomes harder and harder to achieve the more you have to fight to win the header in the first place, and in this case Benteke was fighting Ivanovic hard. So the header ended up in a place Chelsea really didn't want it to:
By the time Ashley Westwood brings down the ball, there are serious hints of trouble. Since Ivanovic is guarding Benteke, he was by definition not marking Villa left forward Gabby Agbonlahor, which meant that one of Juan Mata or Ramires should have been moving to cover. But they were both moving forward to track the ball and close Westwood down.
When football fans talk about the transition game, they usually mean the switch from full-on defence to attack, exploiting the opposition being stuck in their attacking shape in order to counter (or reforming quickly when the reverse happens). But there are subtler transitions as well. This is one of them -- Chelsea's midfield went from having the ball behind them to having the ball in front of them and had to change directions as a result. Villa did not. They exploited that difference mercilessly.
Nobody save Ivanovic was able to track Agbonlahor after Westwood brought down the ball, and it wouldn't have been acceptable to give him a free run down the Villa left. Ivanovic did the right thing in handing Benteke off to Gary Cahill and moving to intercept Agbonlahor, but he was too aggressive about cutting off the pass and ended up behind him. That's bad news against opposition as quick as Aston Villa.
Agbonlahor managed to gain the touchline without much problem, which drew out Gary Cahill to block the cross. It's not an unreasonable decision, given that a failure to make the challenge there would have given Agbonlahor a free run on goal. But it meant that Benteke, Villa's primary goal threat, was unmarked in the box. And worse, Cahill's attempted block was shaped to stop far-post crosses, even though he knew exactly where Benteke was.
Agbonlahor saw an open passing lane to his club's top scorer, and duly took it:
The rest of the story is pretty obvious. Benteke controls and hammers in off Petr Cech's near post.
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The defensive breakdowns here are not too severe. There are decisions that, in retrospect, seem wrong to me, but since I know that the move ended up resulting in a goal I have the benefit of perfect hindsight. Even the most egregious mistake -- leaving Christian Benteke alone in the box and failing to close down the passing lanes to him besides -- is justifiable thanks to Agbonlahor beating Ivanovic.
Chelsea had no obvious answer to dealing with the Agbonlahor-Benteke combination when Ivanovic was the player contesting the initial ball, and so this move informed Villa's attacking play for much of the rest of the match. Previously, they'd looked toothless against the Blues, and now they had a means of prying the defence open. Paul Lambert noticed, and acted accordingly in the second half.
It came very close to paying off for him