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Chelsea 0-1 Marseille: Analysis

The game might have been meaningless, but there were some interesting things going on. Formation chart after the jump.

  • Chelsea reverse their midfield triangle. Typically, Chelsea's 4-3-3 uses a 1-2 pattern in the middle band, with John Obi Mikel taking on the defensive duties and freeing up the other midfielders to attack. Against Marseille, with Mikel rested, Carlo Ancelotti deployed Ramires and Josh McEachran at the base of a 2-1 triangle, with Michael Essien as the tip. One might presume that this was to allow McEachran to act as some sort of deep-lying playmaker, but realistically what happened is he was forced into defensive duties that he was simply unable to deal with. Matthieu Valbuena gave him a torrid time whenever Marseille had possession, which was most of the time, and despite some good distribution from the youngster the experiment was in general terms a disaster. With the personnel at his disposal unable to run a 1-2 (and this really underscores how important an on-form Mikel is to the club), Ancelotti simply shuffled his players around in the second half, advancing McEachran and withdrawing Essien. This did a decent job of shoring up the defence against Marseille's rather unorthadox 'let's attack with everyone all at once' policy, but Chelsea still had major problems going forward.

Figure 1: Everton vs. Chelsea formations, 12/4/10. Data: ESPN. Powered by Tableau.

  • Marseille passed Chelsea to death. Since a picture is worth a thousand words and a graph is worth a thousand picutres, here is a million-word thesis on the subject:

    Figure 2: Passing for Marseille and Chelsea, 12/8/10. Powered by Tableau.

    Seven out of the top ten passers in this match were Marseille players. Normally Chelsea's fullbacks, centre backs, and Florent Malouda are all passing machines, but not here. Why? There are a couple of factors at play - Marseille had the ball a lot more, since their passing was generally better, and complete passing leads to more pass attempts (580 vs. 447 passes attempted; 485 vs. 356 completed passes; 15 vs. 24 intercepted passes). That's a monstrous difference, and goes some way in explaining why Chelsea looked so actively miserable. Another possible explanation is the lack of a neat triangle with the centre backs and a single holding midfielder, which we see in the 1-2 system. Triangles are the most natural way to get fluid passing motion going, and the McEachran/Ramires holding duo were instead sitting right of their centrebacks, creating lines instead.

  • Paulo Ferreira had a good game. Ferreira is the defence's whipping boy, and for mostly good reason - he's no longer the type of player who can provide an outlet at fullback and he's certainly not good enough to play left back. As Richard Farley of SBNation Soccer said yesterday:

    I get the feeling Paulo Ferreira is a nice guy, but Chelsea fans have to be sick of seeing him. Whether he's at right back or in the center, whether he's playing well or getting beat, Ferreira's presence in the team is a sign that somebody's either injured, tired, or suspended.

    Yep. However, he's still a reasonably solid defensive fullback, and since his sense of adventure was curbed in this match he stayed at home and did an admirable job locking down the left flank. He didn't make any key tackles or interceptions, but he was instrumental in forcing the play to go elsewhere, which is pretty much what you want out of your fullbacks when you're under pressure. Note that Patrick van Aanholt's run forward led to the Chelsea turnover which launched the attack leading to Marseille's goal. I don't mean to indicate that Ferreira is a good player, or that I want to see much more of him, but it was nice to see an acceptable performance from the defender after some absolutely shambolic displays earlier in the season.

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