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Match Analysis: Chelsea FC 3-1 Birmingham City

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Another week, another 3-1 win, although this time Chelsea took the lead at the very beginning and never looked back, only conceding after they were 3-0 ahead in the 82nd minute. Birmingham opted to do their best to disrupt Chelsea, but their game plan fell apart in the third minute when Florent Malouda stabbed home from a neat Didier Drogba flick, and from then on more or less everything went Chelsea's way. It wasn't as comfortable as the 3-1 win over West Bromwich, though, so let's take a look at why. Formation chart after the jump:

Figure 1: Chelsea vs. Birmingham City formations, 4/20/2011. Data: Guardian Chalkboards. Powered by Tableau.

Chelsea fielded a pretty standard 4-3-3, the only change from their match against West Bromwich Albion being the replacement of Branislav Ivanovic with Paulo Ferreira at right back. Fernando Torres once again could only make the bench, with Didier Drogba chosen to lead a line of Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou.John Obi Mikel anchored the midfield behind Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, and the defence was more or less standard.

Alex McLeish's Birmingham City opted to field a 4-4-1-1 with Alexander Hleb operating behind lone striker Cameron Jerome. Everything else was fairly standard, including a four man midfield line of (left to right) Keith Fahey, Barry Ferguson, Craig Gardner, and Sebastian Larsson.

Normally one would expect Hleb to drop back to occupy Mikel here in order for the visitors to combat Chelsea's numerical advantage in midfield, but that's not exactly what happened. Instead, Hleb was free to rove and didn't do much on the defensive end of the ball, while the left midfielder Fahey tracked inside to help Ferguson in his battles against Michael Essien.

This actually worked reasonably well in terms of combating Essien's threat, and Gardner's more than capable of keeping Lampard at least reasonably shackled, so with nobody for Mikel to pass for the strategy kept Chelsea's central midfield quiet. It also allowed Larsson to keep a close eye on Ashley Cole, normally one of the hosts more potent threats coming out of the back, but they needent have bothered - Cole had an off night and was substituted before the hour mark with an ankle problem.

Restricting Cole and the Chelsea centre using the whole of one's midfield does leave a player free, though, and in Chelsea's case that was right back Paulo Ferreira. It's interesting that we often see managers more than happy to give Branislav Ivanovic the ball with Jose Bosingwa out (the Portuguese defender is still out with an injury), and it looks as though McLeish's strategy here was build to combat a Chelsea defence featuring Ivanovic.

With Ferreira, who's far more capable going forward than the Serbian, the shape backfired more or less instantly when his cross was flicked on by Drogba and driven home by Malouda from close range. With Ivanovic on the pitch, that goal doesn't happen, and it's interesting to see how the match progresses from there, because otherwise Birmingham did a really rather good job of shutting Chelsea down - the second goal was a stunning individual effort from Kalou and Birmingham looked pretty good for most of the first half.

Let's skip ahead to the final twenty minutes or so, when Chelsea introduced Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres and went to a 4-4-2 diamond with Anelka acting as the trequartista. Before I took a look at the numbers, I was tempted to say that following those substitutions we played significantly worse, but I'm having second thoughts about that. Chelsea were less dangerous, but they retained possession far better across the pitch. Their only real problems were the main problems with a 4-4-2 diamond - a lack of width and overworked fullbacks.

Neither Ryan Bertrand nor Paulo Ferreira are capable of providing the entirety of a team's with on one flank, which saw John Terry and David Luiz hideously exposed in defence, ultimately leading to the situation from which David Luiz conceded a penalty against substitute Matt Derbyshire (although that foul was entirely avoidable). Prior to the double substitution, Chelsea made 6.2 passes per minute with a 79.8% completion rate, afterwards it was 8.3 at 85.8%. No, they weren't going to score more goals without width, but the diamond more or less did its job.

Speaking of passing, let's take a look at the fifteen minute rolling team average and individual passing charts, now in one (tabbed) graph!

Figure 2: Chelsea vs. Birmingham City passing, 4/20/2011. Powered by Tableau.

It's pretty clear from the overall graph that Birmingham were doing a good job denying Chelsea of the ball for much of the match prior to the switch to the 4-4-2 diamond. That Chelsea were incredibly incisive on a few attack was nice, but it's not entirely clear that the 3-0 lead was the result of good play or simply karma repaying us from the debacle at St. Andrews' earlier this season.

In terms of individual passing, it's no surprise to see Mikel at the top of the list, but Barry Ferguson was not the next name I expected to see. He and Fahey, if you recall, were the ones tasked with occupying Essien, but since Ferguson was the more central player Essien should have been picking him up on the defensive end. Apparently, that wasn't the case, and I'm not really sure why.

Figure 3: Chelsea vs. Birmingham City location data, 4/20/2011. Powered by Tableau.

So this is a new toy that I put together for the West Brom game, and I've thrown in a few more features. We can now see where on the field both teams made passes, interceptions and successful headers/tackles. This time I wanted to comment on the latter set. Chelsea were totally dominant at heading the ball - those two spikes are called 'Drogba' and 'Mikel', but they were thoroughly out-tackled by their guests, rather painting a picture of a stubborn defence determined to hold out.

Anyway, that was nowhere near as impressive as Chelsea's last 3-1 win. Part of the reason is because Cole was injured, another is that Birmingham's tactics were better set up to frustrate our midfield and yet another is that the attacking midfield duo didn't really have their best games on relatively short rest. But, hey, a win's a win, and it's hard to fault the side much when they score in the third minute and go on to get the three points without breaking a sweat.