Chelsea weren't particularly impressive against West Bromwich Albion in week two, but picked up the points regardless. The same went for their game against newly-promoted Norwich City on Saturday, which saw the Blues get off to a blistering start only to see woefully incompetent defending allow the Canaries back into the game before a late surge inspired by debutant Juan Mata allowed Chelsea to grab three points in what ultimately ended up being a comfortable 3-1 victory.
Formation chart and other such goodies after the jump. This was a fascinating match, so get settled in for a long read. Don't worry, there'll be pictures. Lots of pictures!
Andre Villas-Boas lined his team up in what Chelsea were calling a 4-4-2 diamond initially but was more properly a 4-1-3-2, while Paul Lambert's Norwich were in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid shape, which marks the second time in a year that a newly-promoted, attack focused side has changed their shape to a more defensive alignment when coming to Stamford Bridge - Ian Holloway's Blackpool team also switched to a three-man back line when they came to visit last September.
Just like in the 4-0 win against the Tangerines, the defensive plan from the visitors was rather thrown on its head by an early goal by Chelsea. Jose Bosingwa's 6th minute goal was directly attributable to the Norwich back line being too focused on holding in one position - there's no excuse for five men in the back with spare defenders while leaving blue shirts free to shoot from 25 yards. Ramires and Bosingwa got chances that way, and the latter took his with aplomb.
Chelsea were in complete control of the game in the early stages mostly because of their fullbacks, who took turns going forward and providing width in the midfield. With the Canaries' wing backs sticking very deep to prevent the Blues getting in behind the defensive line to cross the ball. Norwich started to find their feet when Marc Tierney and Kyle Naughton pushed forward - this restricted Bosingwa and Ashley Cole and forced Chelsea's midfield into a three-on-three situation, which was less comfortable than when they always had the extra man.
The 3-5-2 vs. 4-1-3-2 situation didn't survive the half-hour mark thanks to an injury to one of Norwich's centre backs - Zak Whitbread had to come off, and Anthony Pilkinson, a midfielder, was put on his place to make Norwich revert to their standard 4-4-2 diamond. I'm not sure if the tactical switch was premeditated on Lambert's part or whether his hand was forced, but things seemed to work pretty well and Norwich were able to do a far better job in the centre at four on three.
Frank Lampard did reasonably here, retaining possession and keeping things moving (plus he'd been superb in the opening spell), but the other midfielders had it a little harder. Ramires saw less of the ball as he was crowded out, while Florent Malouda's passing became rather wayward in the middle of the first half. John Obi Mikel didn't have his best day either, making a number of uncharacteristic mistakes in front of the defence that led to some nervy moments as well.
Norwich's diamond only lasted thirty minutes, as another substitution was made on the hour mark. Steve Morison was deployed in play of Wes Hoolahan as the Canaries shifted into a loose 4-3-3 which further pinned back Chelsea's fullbacks an allowed their own to attack. Kyle Naughton immediately took advantage of his new-found space to launch a long ball into Henrique Hilario's penalty area - the type of pass that had been giving both John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic fits all night - and although it should have been dealt with easily by some combinations of Hilario and Cech, a goal resulted, which made everyone rather cranky.
Chelsea too would switch to a 4-3-3 before the end of the match, although once again it's difficult to know whether that was Andre Villas-Boas' intent or if he was obligated to switch away from 4-4-2 when Didier Drogba was injured in that nasty collision with John Ruddy. Either way, Juan Mata and Nicolas Anelka came on and the Blues went back to their typical free-moving trident, featuring first Fernando Torres as the spearhead and then debutant Romelu Lukaku after a Lampard penalty had given the Blues a lead.
So we had no less than four different shape battle: 4-1-3-2 versus 3-5-2, 4-1-3-2 versus 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-3-2 versus 4-3-3 and 4-3-3 versus 4-3-3. Broadly speaking, Chelsea won all four - Norwich might have looked adequate in fits and spurts but they were never really a better side than the hosts. That said, it was clear that some of the Canaries' shapes bothered Chelsea more than others, and emphasised the need for a midfielder capable of controlling a possession game for effectively than the ones available at the moment (Josh McEachran, anyone?).
The Defensive Line
As far as Chelsea are concerned, the main tactical issue was that Norwich were able to penetrate too easily whenever they had the ball. The Blues had enough possession to essentially render their guests impotent without much of a problem, and yet they completely failed to do so, looking amazingly vulnerable at the back for a team describe as having amazing depth in the centre of its defence.
This is solely a defensive problem - the midfield could have been better but largely did its job* - and there were actually two main issues that raised their ugly heads throughout the match. The first was that John Terry kept getting caught out by passes while playing on a high line. This isn't much of a surprise, since the captain isn't as quick as he once was and was never particularly fast, so it's kind of excusable, but it's going to be difficult to control the area just inside our half (which is really important for maintaining possession) without either a deep double-pivot in midfield or a high line, which doesn't suit Terry one bit.
*Ok, so John Obi Mikel had a few bad errors.
Figure 2: Typical Norwich pass into area.
The second issue is that Branislav Ivanovic was having a shocking game, seemingly unable to track runs that weren't going straight at him (or competently playing the high line either). Norwich took advantage of hitting an absolutely crazy amount of long balls - punted pass attempts made up a whopping 33 percent of their passes, particular a diagonal ball from their right to Chelsea's into the space between the Serbian and where Jose Bosingwa would have been were he not busy playing winger* (see Figure 2, left).
*I'm being harsh here. Bosingwa did pretty well in tracking back, despite his attacking contributions.
It's difficult to understand how this was allowed to happen, because the whole 'running in behind you' play is not exactly some Paul Lambert/Grant Holt original. Ivanovic should have been able to deal with those balls in his sleep, and yet there were multiple instances where Norwich were left with a clear goalscoring opportunity following mistakes on said passes, and Holt managed to convert one, leaving a certain Mr. Terry rather cross.
Obviously, John Terry will play until he does his annual broken-down thing, so Chelsea are a little bit stuck with their high line problem, but something should probably be done about Ivanovic's performance. If you remember, Alex was benched for a defensive mistake in the West Bromwich Albion game, where he was sold short by Ramires and subsequently mugged by Shane Long, and I wouldn't be surprised if Ivanovic failed to make the starting eleven in Chelsea's next game against Sunderland.
With David Luiz supposedly back in the lineup following the international break, Chelsea's defensive issues... well, they'll still be there, but they'll be very different, and presumably far more entertaining. I can forgive a lot if it's silly enough.
Figure 3: Chelsea vs. Norwich City team/individual passing, 8/27/2011. Powered by Tableau.
As with Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea had the vast majority of the passes in the match. This, of course, is something you might expect out of a game against a newly-promoted side at Stamford Bridge, but a quick check back at the numbers for the first three games of last season (West Brom at home, Wigan Athletic away and Stoke at home) shows that Chelsea opponents averaged more than 380 passes over that time. That number has been slashed by 100 this season, and attributing all of that to playing against Norwich rather than Wigan seems a little far-fetched.
In this specific match, the Blues attempted almost 600 passes, completing them at an impressive 88 percent clip. Norwich, meanwhile, tried the simple pass a whopping 250 times, completing two out of every three. Tiki taka football this wasn't.
If you click over to the individual tab, you'll find that right back Jose Bosingwa was Chelsea's top individual passer with seventy of them, following closely by Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. In fact, all of the starters bar the centre forwards completed more passes than every single Norwich player. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, Juan Mata, who made his Chelsea debut in the 68th minute, also outpassed every Norwich player. Ouch.
Of course, raw numbers don't tell the whole story, and with Norwich hitting lower-percentage efforts that are nevertheless very dangerous when they come off, we should fool ourselves into thinking that they were totally, because they were actually rather incisive. Whether or not that was more to do with Chelsea's problems defending in this match than any particular skill on the Canaries' behalf is difficult to say.
Drogba And Torres
Figure 4: Passes received by Chelsea centre forwards, 8/27/2011. Powered by Tableau.
One of the most interesting aspects of a Didier Drogba-Fernando Torres partnerships is the clash in the respective styles of the two players. Drogba is a beast of a player who loves to hit the space between centre halves because a) he can often bully two of them at once and b) it opens up holes down the channels.
Torres likes the ball between the fullbacks and the centre backs a little more, and is less capable than the Ivorian of holding up play. Torres thrives (or, at least, he used to) on through passes that allow him to use his speed and lethal* finishing to greatest effect.
That's not to say that both are one-trick ponies - that's very much not the case - but the do play the centre forward position very differently, which leads one to imagine that they might just work as a tandem. Maybe. Ish.
Anyway, I was curious to see where our centre forwards normally gained possession, so I did some chalkboarding and got some interesting results. The chart on the right shows where Chelsea's centre forwards (including substitute Romelu Lukaku) received the ball on successful passes.
Blue is Torres, red is Drogba, and green is Lukaku, by the way. Mouseover the locations for passer and time.
As you can see if you play around with that chart for long enough, Torres and Drogba don't really gel very well. They nearly linked up a couple of times against Norwich, most notably when Torres came within a foot of setting up Drogba for a one-on-one against Ruddy, but they never really connected effectively, finding each other with a pass on average about once every 15 minutes. That's not really a very good number.
Moreover, different players passed to Torres vs. Drogba. Check out the breakdowns of who was giving each of the ball in Figure 5 below:
Figure 5: Sources of passes received by Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, minutes 0-68, 8/27/2011.
That's a really telling set of numbers, I think. Obviously, this is only one game, but if you look at the players passing to Torres while Chelsea are in a 4-1-3-2, you find that two out of every three passes comes from a more defensive-minded player*. 80 percent of Drogba's received passes, however, came from a midfield player or Torres himself. Neither Terry nor Ivanovic passed to Drogba at all.
*Jose Bosingwa still counts as a defender, even though he was a pretty potent attacking force during the match.
You can kind of see why this is when you look at the passes received distribution for each player - Torres is sitting in the channels near the touchline, as you'd expect, while Drogba is more central. However, this doesn't excuse the total lack of service Torres is getting - the regular 'excuse' that the midfield just isn't helping the £50M acquisition score appears to have more than a little validity, at least based on this game.
It's worth pointing out that Torres actually did have a pair of good opportunities to run onto a pass and blow past a defender, receiving two good passes on the edge of the penalty area, but instead of doing what we might expect and attempting to go clean through, on both occasions the 27-year-old checked back. He salvaged one (or nearly did, anyway) with a neat ball aimed at Drogba, but it's a little weird that on the rare occasion that he got the service he wanted, Torres didn't take advantage of it.
Juan Mata Makes Debut
Figure 6: Juan Mata passing, 8/27/11.
Figure 7: Juan Mata radial passing map, 8/27/11.
Although Romelu Lukaku also made his debut on Saturday, it was Juan Mata who stole the newcomer show with an assured display that he ended up capping off with a goal in the 101st minute, the second latest strike in Premier League history.
Mata came on for Florent Malouda in the 68th minute as part of a double substitution with NIcolas Anelka following Norwich's equaliser and the head injured sustained by Didier Drogba, and he went to the left side of a 4-3-3, which is the position most expect him to make his own.
Mata stayed on the left for most of the match, but towards the end of the game started popping up in central positions and even on the right flank. It was from the right where he scored his goal after pouncing on a Ritchie de Laet error and guiding the ball coolly past Decland Rudd, but ignoring what was essentially a freebie goal, his best work was done on the left.
Figures Six and Seven are Mata's passing chalkboard and radial passing chart respectively*, and they tell an interesting story. The radial graph in particular is interesting, because it shows that the 23.5M man very rarely played the ball backwards, for the most part opting instead to play very positive passes that got Chelsea closer to Norwich's goal. Contrast that with, say, Salomon Kalou from last week and you can see why everyone was giddy about the way Mata played.
*As a refresher, completed pass trajectory is measured relative to the player, with 30° segments and five yard range rings.
Anyway, Mata had the ball plenty in his time on the pitch, attempting almost a pass a minute and succeeding with the vast majority of his efforts. He was also calm and composed on the ball, happy to hold up play until an option presented itself rather than trying to force the issue with something that wasn't there.
That quality allows him to pick out passes that aren't just more dangerous but that are more likely to find their marks as well. A reverse ball to Frank Lampard that allowed the midfielder to pick out a cross for Branislav Ivanovic to mess up was especially noteworthy for the way Mata held possession in Norwich's penalty area until a teammate could make a useful run, and the 23-year-old was involved in two other spectacular plays, one of which resulted in the penalty call that would prove to be the winner.
The penalty came from lovely work by Nicolas Anelka on the counterattack and a lung-busting run by Ramires to get on the end of a pierciing through ball, but it was Mata who launched said counterattack by playing Anelka out of the box in absolutely brilliant fashion - his contribution to catching Norwich out in the transition for that goal absolutely cannot be understated.
Mata decided to cut out the middleman on the next impressive play, sending Ramires clear with a very long pass that ripped open the Canaries' defence. Ramires couldn't turn that one into anything, but you couldn't help but be impressed at the sorts of contributions Mata was making with his play on Saturday. The difference between him and Malouda was like night and day - and that's without Malouda having a particularly poor game.
All in all, Chelsea vastly outplayed Norwich across most areas of the pitch except the central defence, where a terrible game for Branislav Ivanovic was not helped at all by similarly poor matches by John Obi Mikel and John Terry. Much will be (and has been) made of Norwich deserving something from Saturday and the penalty/sending off decision changing the game, but the simple truth is that if it wasn't for Chelsea's freakishly bad defending, the Canaries wouldn't have had a sniff at Henrique Hilario's goal. Unless we assume that the poor play is going to continue there (and remember, both Petr Cech and David Luiz are expected to return shortly), being 'even' with Norwich pre-red-card is hardly indicative of how the Blues will play for the rest of the season.
However, the lack of chance creation is worrying. I highlighted Fernando Torres' lack of service from the midfield, but I should probably add that there's no quick ball-mover in the squad right now. Ramires can drive forward, and Frank Lampard can pick passes out, but Florent Malouda and Mikel both slow the play down rather than speed it up. Juan Mata will help with this - as will David Luiz, actually - but a central player is probably necessary at this point. More than anything else, Mata's debut helped me realise just how slow Chelsea's build up play is. Will that change this week? We'll find out soon enough.