Chelsea beat a below full-strength Blackpool 3-1 at Bloomfield Road despite never looking very comfortable. For some reason, Chelsea seem to be the one side that Ian Holloway fear most - he played a weirdly defensive shape against the Blues back at Stamford Bridge and today his side lacked their usual attacking spark. How much of that was due to the enforced absences of DJ Campbell and Charlie Adam is anyone's guess, but Blackpool don't seem to have a problem going after everyone other team in the league. I wonder what it is about the Blues that has Holloway so scared that he turns such a vivacious attacking team into a turtle when they play us. Anyway, it was a Chelsea 4-4-2 vs. Blackpool's 4-5-1. Formation chart after the jump...
I think the first and most obvious thing to point out is that Chelsea's 4-4-2 wasn't exactly an orthodox one. In the typical 4-4-2, the band of four midfielders typically features two staggered central and players and two wingers - in Chelsea's both wide players tucked in - both Yuri Zhirkov and Ramires were playing centrally enough to be considered shuttling wingers in a 4-4-2 diamond, but Frank Lampard wasn't playing high enough to really be considered a trequartista.
This left a huge gap between the midfielders and the two forwards, where Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba found themselves rather starved of supply. Keith Southern, the spare man in the Blackpool midfield, dropped into that space, which clogged things up further. Chelsea simply couldn't get the ball to their strikers on the ground, while in the air, they mostly found Torres, who was abused in the air, attempting five headers and winning none.
At the other end of the pitch James Beattie was overmatched against John Terry and David Luiz - Terry in particular was spectacular, winning six of eight headers and keeping Beattie very quiet. Luiz was strong in possession and in the air, but clearly had some sort of problem in his one on one defending. It's not something that's manifested itself in previous games, so my suspicion is that it's to do with his dodgy hamstring that nearly kept him out of the match. Chelsea looked most vulnerable in the back when Blackpool's wide midfielders took control of the ball, with Jason Puncheon particularly dangerous.
The Blues took a 1-0 lead on a set piece courtesy of a Terry header from a Lampard corner, but they never looked that dangerous in open play and Blackpool slowly started to turn the screw. The situation remained pretty bad for Chelsea until Drogba was forced off with a hip injury in the 55th minute, whereupon they introduced Salomon Kalou, who's far happier on the wings than Drogba is. While Kalou obviously isn't the threat that Drogba is to score goals, his movement is excellent, and his presence caused some major consternation in the hitherto untroubled Blackpool defence.
Anyway, with the switch, Chelsea became much more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2, and suddenly played with a verve which had escaped them before. Within minutes, the game was over, with Lampard scoring twice to put the Blues up 3-0. Blackpool rallied late as Chelsea lost focus in the last few minutes, scoring through Puncheon, but by then it was far too late.
Figure 3: Individual passing for Blackpool and Chelsea, 3/7/11. Powered by Tableau.
Not much to report here. As team passing went, so too did the game, with Chelsea doing very well up until the opener and dominating following the withdrawal of Drogba for Kalou, who managed to play himself into the conversation for a starting role down the line. Despite being outnumbered in the center, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard had by far the most passes in the game - this is less of a surprise once you consider the fact that Blackpool's spare man dropped very deep rather than assist much in the midfield.
The highest pass completion ratio went, unsurprisingly, to Josh McEachran, who completed 18/18 pass in the fifteen minutes he was on the field. However, my feeling was that the substitution was a bit of a mistake, as he came on for Ramires who was playing brilliantly beforehand. With Lampard and McEachran both on the pitch at once, Chelsea's midfield was less capable of hounding Blackpool in possession, and I think that showed in the last few minutes. Of course, by then the game was won, so there wasn't much harm in sending McEachran out there.
Anyway, I don't think Chelsea played particularly well until Drogba left the pitch. Whether that's Drogba's fault or a systemic flaw is an interesting question - I'm inclined to believe it's systemic but I could see it going either way. Drogba had a poor game by his standards and picked up a lot of detractors with the performance (disappointingly, Yuri Zhirkov was also abysmal), but I'm not sure Anelka or Kalou would have done any better had Ancelotti not tweaked his formation to accommodate them.
PS: Check out Tangerine Dreaming for the Blackpool side of the story.