The first half of Chelsea's 2-0 win at the KC Stadium was -- and this is putting it nicely -- ugly. I don't have numbers split up by halves, but it was obvious that something was off with our passing game before the break. It was frustrating, especially considering the stakes. The Blues needed a win to go (temporarily) top of the table, and it didn't look as though one was forthcoming.
At halftime, however, the manager was calm. Here's what Eden Hazard said about Jose Mourinho's state of mind at the interval: "The manager said at half-time - no stress, continue to try to be the best." Ultimately, he was proven right. Hull dropped off immediately after the break, and when Hazard scored the opener it came as no surprise. Why?
From the outside, Steve Bruce's game plan seemed to revolve around one major element. Although we saw Hull drop into a defensive shell whenever Chelsea did manage to get the ball to stick in the opposition half, that wasn't what they were focusing on. Rather, the standout feature of the first half, when the Tigers were actually imposing themselves on the match, was an aggressive pressing game that forced the Blues onto the back foot.
In theory, every team has a set of triggers that tells their players when to actively challenge for the ball. One of those triggers is how far up the field the opposition is -- everyone will attack the ball within 30 yards of their own goal, for example. Defensive sides will start looking to win the ball as the ball comes into their own final third, and teams with more attacking mentalities will push their pressing line further and further upfield.
Hull's pressing line might as well have been in Petr Cech's six yard box. The Tigers spent the entirety of the first half swarming Chelsea whenever they had the ball. Ramires and David Luiz were man-marked, Cesar Azpilicueta was put under so much pressure he forgot how to pass and John Terry was, at one point, closed down while standing on his own goalline. Only Gary Cahill, who's not a brilliant distributor, was left unscathed.
The plan worked well. Hull denied us the time we needed to start playing actual football, kept us on the back foot, and could easily have taken the lead had Yannick Sagbo made the most of Terry's error midway through the first half. Chelsea simply couldn't play an expansive game under that much pressure.
But Mourinho was calm at the interval for a reason. Even before Mark Clattenburg whistled the first half to a close, there were signs that the hosts were tiring, loosening their grip on the match. The downside of a heavy press is that it costs a lot of energy, and Hull couldn't use the Barcelona solution of using long spells on the ball in order to recover. They could barely keep it up for a full half, let alone a full match.
Essentially, Bruce made a gamble that his side could come out of the gates hard, score a goal while Chelsea were off-balance, and then play deep, defensive football while sitting on a lead. All of his bullets were used up in the first half, and Mourinho knew that. All that was left in the second was to kill the game.
Sometimes you play poorly because you're playing poorly. Sometimes the opposition forces you into it. Although the first half was frustrating, surviving it at 0-0 set the foundations for what was ultimately a comfortable victory.
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