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Chelsea 2-1 West Bromwich Albion: Tactics And Stats

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Chelsea earned themselves a 2-1 win over West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, their first win of the season and Andre Villas-Boas' first real victory whilst in charge of the club. For a long time, it looked as though they wouldn't get a win at all - the Baggies were in the lead for fifty minutes and then level for a further half hour, and it took some luck for them not to extent said lead in a shambolic first half from the Blues.

It was a far cry from last year's opening-day performance, when Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea ripped apart the same side 6-0. Villas-Boas blamed some of his side's poor display on a negative mentality following conceding a very early goal, and while there's some merit in that Chelsea's dire performance in the early stages also had some tactical undertones, especially as regards the Frank Lampard-Fernando Torres link, which once again failed to fire. Formation chart after the jump...

Figure 1: Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion formations, 8/20/2011. Mouseover players for stats. Data: Guardian Chalkboards. Powered by Tableau.

Despite the two changes to Chelsea's starting eleven (Henrique Hilario for the injured Petr Cech and Nicolas Anelka for Florent Malouda), Villas-Boas didn't do much tweaking of his shape from the 0-0 draw at Stoke. There was no real reason for him to, either: Chelsea were unlucky not to take three points out of that match against a pretty tough team. There were a few differences though between Saturday's game and last Sunday's however, one of which was driven by Chelsea and the other by West Bromwich Albion. Let's take those in reverse.

Like the Potters, Roy Hodgson deployed his team in a rough 4-4-1-1, with Shane Long and Somen Tchoyi looking to knock the ball down after long passes forwards and send the other in behind the defence. The main difference between Stoke's setup and the one Chelsea saw on Saturday was width, both of the fullbacks and wingers. While Stoke's fullbacks stayed very central, WBA's were far more traditionally placed, preventing Salomon Kalou (later Florent Malouda) and Nicolas Anelka from doing much wide without support from Chelsea's fullbacks.

Chris Brunt and James Morrison, on the other hand, stayed fairly central in order to contain Chelsea's midfield three. This allowed Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole plenty of space and the fullbacks advancing provided a useful out ball when the Blues got stuck in a corner, and ultimately led to the winning goal from a Jose Bosingwa run. However, it did somewhat limit the effectiveness of Ramires and Lampard, especially in the first half.

Figure 2: Frank Lampard Passing Heatmaps by half, 8/20/11

Speaking of Lampard, the difference between the way he played in the first half vs. the second was like night and day. In the first half, he only ever had the ball in very deep situations, and did approximately nothing with it, while in the second he contributed massively to Chelsea's comeback. Take a look at the passing heatmaps on the right, split up by half.

In the first half, we see Lampard mostly playing around the centre circle. He completed a good amount of passes here - 31 from open play, but in his role as link player between Torres and everyone else, he did very poorly.

This may not be entirely Lampard's fault (it's hard to criticise him as being a poor playmaker when he is in fact no playmaker at all, anyway). Despite a superb individual performance at Stoke, Torres was spending far too much time deep, and so had very few chances of his own. Against West Bromwich Albion, he was pushed higher up the pitch, even further from Lampard.

As a result, Torres barely saw the ball. He also wasn't nearly as good at keeping it when he did have possession - he managed to get himself tackled no less than seven times whilst trying to run through players, and it was pretty obvious to everyone that despite playing reasonably well, he was pressing.

Lampard was far more advanced in the second half and more or less took ownership of the game at that point. He didn't really combine with Torres any better, but he allowed Ramires to float around and disrupt the Baggies' play as well as providing a scoring threat of his own. The equaliser, of course, involved Ramires and Lampard combining (somewhat fortunately) with Nicolas Anelka.

At the other end of the pitch, the Long/Tchoyi combination caused Chelsea far more problems than one would reasonably expect. Long's goal, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with tactics - he just pounced on an individual mistake by Alex and did what strikers do - but overall the pair had a lot of joy slipping between Chelsea's two centre backs and causing havoc, especially in the first half.

Why were they allowed so much space between John Terry and Alex? That's actually a question about John Obi Mikel and the Chelsea fullbacks. When Cole and Bosingwa are upfield, Chelsea usually convert into a back three of Mikel and the two central defenders, with the former dropping very deep to accomplish this and the central pairing spreading wider.

For whatever reason (possibly to help what often ended up being a four against two situation higher up the pitch, where Lampard and Ramires were having to deal with Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Paul Scharner and Youssouf Mulumbu on their own) Mikel was spending time far higher up the pitch than usual, which left Chelsea phenomenally exposed on the counterattack, when a long punt out could simply mean a two on two for West Brom's strikers against Chelsea's defence. With neither Terry nor Alex particularly fast (and Alex looking not entirely fit), this caused all sort of issues and probably should have led to more goals. Villas-Boas is lucky it didn't.

Like the first game, Chelsea unsurprisingly dominated the passing statistics in this match:

Figure 3: Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion team/individual passing, 8/20/2011. Powered by Tableau.

No surprises there at the team level, but Jose Bosingwa's presence at the top of the individual passing charts is striking. The Portuguese attempted a breathtaking 102 passes and completed 80 of them, including the game-winning assist (and he was five out of eleven on crosses, too!). He didn't do much on defence, because he didn't really have to, but the first two matches have showed that the Bosingwa of 2008/09 may well have just been sleeping, not dead. Having a proper right back again will be a huge boon.

Also, Jose Bosingwa cross watch 2011: Sixteen attempts, five successful, one assist. He's making us look stupid.

Figure 4: Salomon Kalou passing, 8/20/11

Figure 5: Salomon Kalou radial passing map (complete passes only), 8/20/11

At some point I'm going to have to talk about Salomon Kalou, and it might as well be now. Kalou, who's started both games of the season so far, was yanked off the pitch in the 34th minute by Andre Villas-Boas. The manager has portrayed this as springing a surprise on the opposition, but that's unconvincing, mostly because using Florent Malouda in a Chelsea front three is about as surprising as Arsene Wenger buying a sixteen year old.

Kalou played badly enough for the Stamford Bridge faithful to jeer him off the pitch, which is disappointing. I decided to take a peek at his stats to see if the eye test matched up with his raw numbers, and got the following: Nineteen of twenty two passes complete; two out of two dribbles successful. Those aren't bad for thirty minutes of work - in fact they're downright excellent for a forward. Why then, was Kalou considered to have been playing so poorly by more or less everyone?

The answer, I think, is that the stats were lying. The chalkboard of Kalou's passing (Figure 4) doesn't present a pretty picture, and when you convert that to a radial passing map* things look even worse.

*I.e. bucket passes by angle and range rather than Cartesian coordinates, with darker areas indicating multiple passes.

Kalou managed a grand total of six passes forwards, and of those six the two most penetrative both came from within his own half. In fact, forward may well be a misnomer there - the other four were more sideways than anything else.

There's only one pass that Kalou made in the entire match that could possibly be construed as anything like useful to the attack, and that was actually his last touch of the game, a ball to Ramires in the penalty area in the 34th minute. No wonder everyone was calling for his head - it's not that Kalou was losing the ball particularly often, it's that he wasn't doing anything with possession despite the team being down a goal.

Kalou was by no means alone in this one, although as a striker he has a higher burden in terms of attacky-ness and he was the worst offender on the day. After West Brom went ahead, Chelsea played a suffocating possession game with zero penetration whatsoever, more or less until half time. If you didn't know any better, you'd probably have guessed that they were the ones in the lead. They took no risks, and got no rewards - everything was hyper-cautious.

Possession is great, but not if you're so scared to lose the ball that you can't actually do anything with it. Villas-Boas made a reference to the squad's anxiety at halftime, and this I think was the most dangerous manifestation of it. One Chelsea started taking real risks again, they were fine.

Now for some location data to play with...

Figure 6: Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion location data, 8/20/2011. Powered by Tableau.

I'm not really sure what to make of this. Like with Stoke, most aerial play was done in the Chelsea half, although Alex and Terry weren't nearly as dominant in the air against Long and Tchoyi as they were against Jonathan Walters and Kenwyne Jones, which is weird. The Baggies did a lot of last-ditch defending by intercepting the ball in the final third, but aside from that there's nothing particularly unusual about the distribution here. Still, it's a neat chart.

Anyway - the big tactical lessons to take away from this are that Mikel needs to stay back if Cole and Bosingwa are going to plant themselves forward, that Frank Lampard should stop pretending that he's Luka Modric and, most importantly, that the team has to take risks if they want to get anywhere. Forget that last one, and they're toast.

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