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Chelsea FC 4-2 Sunderland AFC: Match Analysis

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A major tactical shift for Chelsea saw them hammer Sunderland 4-2 at the Stadium of Light yesterday, and looking over the numbers, it might have been by more. The statistics paint a picture of near-total dominance by the Blues, and had it not been for some elementary mistakes while defending, good goalkeeping by Craig Gordon, and hideously bad luck in front of goal, Chelsea might have won by five or six. It was a far cry from the disaster at Stamford Bridge. Formations are after the jump...

Figure 1: Chelsea vs. Sunderland formations, 2/1/11. Data: Guardian Chalkboards. Powered by Tableau.

Sunderland lined up in a fairly standard 4-5-1, although Kieran Richardson was slightly more advanced than usual and Chelsea's fullbacks forced the home side's wingers to stay very deep. More interesting was Chelsea's shape, which could be described as a lopsided 4<4>2 or a slanted 4-2-2-2. Functionally, they're more or less the same thing, but I think the intent was to start with the 4-4-2 diamond and the lopsidedness came from the players deployed.

Obviously, Chelsea were experimenting with a two-striker system to see if their shape could accommodate new signing Fernando Torres. Salomon Kalou is actually a pretty good proxy here, thanks to his reasonable pace and eye for the run. Stylistically, they're very similar players, but Torres is Kalou's slight superior at most aspects of the game and is much, much better at finishing. Kalou's partnership with Didier Drogba was therefore a great way to evaluate whether Torres would fit into the chosen shape.

It's tempting to say that Drogba had a bad game compared to his partner but the simple fact of the matter is that Kalou was free more often as he was able to drop deep while Drogba occupied a defender. The other centreback often seemed unwilling to chase Kalou deeper and risk the threat of Drogba finding space, so Kalou was under far less defensive pressure whenever he picked up the ball. He had a good game, but frustration over Drogba's relatively play is only partially justified - he soaked up the defence's attention so that Kalou had time and space to run.

Carlo Ancelotti sprung a surprise with his midfield. While Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are expert shuttlers (Ramires would also be a good fit) and John Obi Mikel should be the first choice at the base thanks to his aerial prowess, physical strength, and game-reading ability, hardly anyone was expecting Nicolas Anelka to be the spearhead. In Dominic Fifeld's Guardian article about Chelsea's possible formations with Torres under control, he had Lampard at the tip and Florent Malouda as a shuttler. Although that doesn't really suit either player - both are more adept in the 4-3-3 - it was still a good bet for Chelsea's diamond shape. Everyone guessed wrong, however, and Anelka excelled.

The main reason he was so good is that he was the extra man in midfield. We've seen a lot of two versus three battles where Mikel is the spare, most recently against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok, but this is the first time Chelsea have had a man advantage over a three-man centre. Here, Keiran Richardson matched up to Mikel, with Steed Malbranque and Jordan Henderson picking up Essien and Lampard respectively, but there was nobody in the middle to mark Anelka, and he absolutely reveled in the space.

Sunderland were totally unprepared for the change in tactics and I'm not sure we can expect this sort of performance from Anelka again - a deep-lying midfielder will be deployed to pick him up by other teams in future, but at the same time that's not a huge concern. The twin threats of Torres and Drogba will almost by definition draw defenders away from Anelka, who displayed brilliant dribbling and passing skills very few even knew he had. He obviously has potential in a diamond, but don't expect him to be given the freedom of the pitch ever again. Nobody will want to repeat Sunderland's mistake.

Of course, shape doesn't mean anything. The combination of Torres-Drogba-Anelka-Lampard-Essien-Mikel in the middle of the park is extremely difficult to beat one-on-one, and if Chelsea persist with the diamond it'll be more or less impossible to outnumber them in the middle of the park. Sure, they have no width (more on that later), but look at how they dominated the passing numbers:

Figure 2: Pass Completion and Frequency (15-min weighted averages), Sunderland vs. Chelsea, 2/1/11. Data: Guardian. Powered by Tableau.

There was one(!) five minute spell in which Sunderland attempted or completed more passes than Chelsea, which coincided with their second goal. Other than that, Chelsea absolutely dominated possession, playing far, far more passes with much better accuracy. While we should give Sunderland credit for taking their chances, they got much more out of the match than they strictly deserved. The Black Cats attempted 352 passes to Chelsea's 638. They completed 230 of them - 65%. Chelsea had well over twice as many completed passes with a much higher accuracy rate: 505 completed passes at a 79% accuracy rate. The individual passing chart tells a similar story:

Figure 3: Individual passing for Sunderland and Chelsea, 2/1/11. Powered by Tableau.

Every Chelsea midfielder outpassed everyone on Sunderland. Every Chelsea defender also outpassed everyone on Sunderland. It wasn't even close, either. Jordan Henderson completed 34 out of 42 passes - not bad, but not great as Sunderland's top performer. Michael Essien, on the other hand, who was theoretically playing much the same role as Henderson does, with some crunching tackling thrown in, completed 70 our of 80 passes. Even the gap between Chelsea's 8th most prolific passer (Ashley Cole, at 43 of 52) and Sunderland's best is enormous.

Craig Gordon might have had a good game in terms of pure shot-stopping (Frank Lampard is presumably fairly annoyed with him right now) but he did not have a good time with distributing the ball. That may be because Chelsea were particularly good in the air yesterday, which they were, but he still must do better than a 30% pass completion rate. When goalkeepers get the ball, the last thing the defence needs is for them to give it right back. Gordon did this twenty-three times!

Passes aren't everything, of course, but the same story holds true for shots as well. The entire Sunderland team was outshot by Frank Lampard, who had eight attempts with five on frame. Petr Cech faced four shots and let two of them in. All in all, Chelsea fired in 28 shots, of which two hit the post and thirteen required an intervention from Craig Gordon.

In the air, Chelsea dominated, as I touched on earlier. Over the course of the game, discounting fouls, 25 headers were contested, and Chelsea won 20 of them, a staggering rate. John Obi Mikel was particularly impressive, winning five of seven headers and doing a brilliant job stopping service to Asamoah Gyan up front. John Terry and Michael Essien won three each, and of the outfield players only Frank Lampard failed to win an aerial challenge (he was too busy shooting to participate in any).

Chelsea, in other words, did a lot of things right. Let's take a look at what they didn't do well:

  • Goalkeeping. This may be a topic for tomorrow, but Petr Cech was abysmal. He made two routine saves but let two more slightly difficult stops go by him virtually unchallenged. The fourth minute goal he conceded to Phil Bardsley was mildly ludicrous - while there were other errors made by Chelsea defenders, Cech simply fell over in the vague direction of the shot. His total lack of movement on Richardson's equaliser later in the half was also damning. Cech simply didn't have a good game by his very high standards.

  • Flank Play: This is one of the major costs to the diamond. Both Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa faced overloaded flanks, and they were both tasked with being both the sole source of width on the team and defending against a wide midfielder and a fullback each. This is tricky at the best of times and something exploitable. Part of the reason Bardsley was free in the fourth minute was because Bosingwa was occupied with Stephane Sessegnon and thus could not make a challenge without giving Sunderland's left back an easy passing option, which would have resulted in a similarly easy cross.

    This is a fundamental weakness to Chelsea's system and the only solution is to have absolutely elite fullbacks. Chelsea are fortunate to have one on the left in Ashley Cole, but they're forced to make defensive compromises on the right. With Bosingwa a far better attacker than defender, Chelsea have to hope his attacking threat can cow the ambitions of the opposing left wingers. This happened against Sunderland (both Ahmed Elmohamady and Stephane Sessegnon were forced much deeper than they'd have preferred thanks to intense pressure by the fullbacks), but it may not go so well when Bosingwa is faced with, say, Gareth Bale, who took advantage of a similar but superior player in Inter Milan's Maicon several times over two Champions League matches. Chelsea may use Branislav Ivanovic at right back as well as finding room for Ramires in the midfield when such threats emerge.

Overall, though, it was a brilliant attacking performance by Chelsea, marred only by a couple of individual errors for the goals. We also saw a very interesting - and effective - tactical shakeup by Ancelotti, which bodes extremely well for integrating Fernando Torres into the team. An excellent game.

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