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On AVB, Tactics, and United

Since his much-heralded arrival this summer, plenty has been made of Andre Villas-Boas' tactical genius. Is he, as many would argue, a tactical maestro? Or as others would argue, an impostor that's yet to face any true challenges in his fledgling career? To get to the root of this, and as part of the inevitable hype surrounding Sunday's United fixture, we take a closer look at the formations, substitutions, tactical adjustments, and philosophies of Mr. Villas Boas since taking the top seat at the club. The results and more, after the jump:



What began as a routine analysis of all things tactical quickly devolved. My intention was for this piece to be as close to technical as my untrained eye could offer. As I began researching formations, tactics, lineups, substitutions, passing charts, player work rates, tackles, dribbles completed, shots attempted, crosses, interceptions, yards covered, and a laundry list of other 'components', I found myself in over my head. What follows is my best attempt at trying to make sense of these many factors, and the subsequent ramble which manages to tie everything together in a tidy package. For this exercise, I've opted to start from the Stoke fixture, neglected the pre-season as a number of players either featured or were out due to injury.

Stoke City 0-0 Chelsea FC - August 14th, 2011

Starting the season on the road is never an easy proposition. Add to the mix a team with as much size, physical strength, and tenacity as Stoke and you wind up with a potent combination that can cause any side problems. For his part, AVB elected to field a 4-3-3 formation from the onset. This particular lineup was as follows:

CFC Stoke 4-3-3

Traditional 4-3-3

As indicated above, the formation was not something new to any of the players familiar with the Ancelotti regime. During our historic double winning season, Carlo deployed an almost identical set-up, with Didier Drogba playing through the middle alongside Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka. On this afternoon, AVB elected to start Fernando Torres, with a trident featuring Salomon Kalou and the aforementioned Malouda, with Florent drifting inside, Ramires filling the left side to cover, and Torres/Kalou interchanging the front slot. On paper, this formation seemed to be an ideal map to counter stoke's obvious size but apparent lack of footspeed at the back, with Matthew Upson and Johnathan Woodgate ideally being exposed for their supposed lead-footedness.

But all did not go according to plan, with both sides laboring throughout much of the first half. Chelsea mustered just two off-target chances on goal in a first half that was as much about laboring as it was about opening day jitters. In short, it was an unmemorable start to the 2011/2012 campaign. On display was a poor sense of understanding in the final third, and some confusion as to where to be when in the flow of the attack. For their part, Stoke were giving nothing away, both in the tackle and in possession. As both clubs headed down the tunnel for halftime, a chorus of jeers and frustrated whistles descended upon AVB from the traveling support. As they saw it, here was a manger that was brought in and promised to deliver a free-flowing attacking blueprint with the stylistic tendencies of the worlds greatest clubs. For 45 minutes, however, this supposed revolution was nowhere in sight.

First Half Shots

Two first-half chances, neither on target

Both clubs returned for the second half, but it was Chelsea who began the proceedings with more intent. AVB's halftime talk centered on pushing the defensive line higher, and moving the ball forward at a quicker pace. For much of the first half, Chelsea were caught deliberating rather than reacting. Much has been made of this approach by AVB, which is supposed to free the players up and allow them to be more 'expressive' and utilize their natural abilities rather than to force them to play within a more rigid framework. The idea, therefore, is that players with the creative ability to conjure moments of brilliance will have the license to open up play as they deem it appropriate. Under the Ancelotti regime, players were instructed to pass and pass and pass until a defensive lapse or an open run developed. In the second half, it seems, Chelsea were beginning to implement this much-maligned philosophy that AVB brought from his Porto squad. The results, were significantly better.

Disregard the questionable refereeing decisions of Mark Halsey and his crew, and negate whether a penalty was due for a reckless Shawcross challenge on Lampard in the box. The second half was as much about tempo as it was body language. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea resumed play with an added spring in their step. Passes were crisper, player cuts were more acute, rotations were faster, and the overall tenor of the match gradually swung in our favor. But the goal that was so desperate to capture the full three points didn't look likely- until Villas Boas brought on his first substitute. Removing Florent Malouda, AVB introduced Nicolas Anelka, and immediately decided to adjust the on-pitch formation to a 4-4-2 diamond. Ten minutes after the introduction of Anelka, Didier Drogba was summoned to spell Kalou for his efforts, effectively pushing Drogba and Torres up top together, with Anelka roaming in a free role behind two strikers. Before the match ended, Torres was replaced by Yossi Benayoun, who took the free role from Anelka who slotted into the strike partnership role vacated by Fernando.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 2.58.41 PM

Flat 4-4-2 Diamond, how it ended

While the goal never matriculated, what's important to note was how Chelsea controlled the entire second half from beginning to end. Keeping Stoke on the back foot by applying consistent forward pressure, Villas Boas realized the necessity to play two strikers in tandem to create confusion and marking difficulties for Stoke's back line. It almost worked, with a number of second half chances coming close to crossing the threshold. The combination play of two strikers presented a new look for Stoke, and allowed wide players to float crosses in from the flanks. The match ended in a draw, but the second half was a significant improvement on proceedings.

All Shots

Significant improvement over 45 minutes

In his post match press conference, AVB lauded the players for their 'spirited' effort against a Stoke side that battled for every ball. Despite dominating the second half and controlling possession for the majority of the game (66%), AVB was disappointed to not find a goal. For all the positives that could be extrapolated from the second half, the first half raised many questions amongst fans, analysts, and journalists alike. Would the 4-3-3 be abandoned going forward, seeing as we toiled with it for 65 minutes with nary a chance on goal to show for it? What of the enigmatic Fernando Torres, who looked bright but couldn't find the net once again? What of our desire to add creativity to the squad in the form of Luka Modric? All valid considerations to be had in mind at this juncture. But let's examine the positives for a moment:

  • As the graphic below demonstrates, Chelsea were relentless in challenging Stoke across the pitch for the ball. Getting stuck in at every angle, the pressure significantly increased over the second half of the match.
  • The adjustment to a Flat 4-4-2 worked wonders in opening up channels and angles towards Begovic and behind the Stoke back line.
  • Electing to build off the ground in the second half, as opposed to using an aerial approach was wise. Stoke are a large side to begin with, and their physicality and height wore Torres down in the first half. Had Drogba started in his stead, this approach may well have been more effective. But, the shift to a deck-based approach in the second half underscores AVB's keen eye for tactical advantages.
  • The interchange of Lampard and Ramiers from left to right in the second half allowed Ramires the chance to forage into the box on two separate occasions. His trademark bursting runs were buffered by Lampard edging outside the box and Mikel pushing behind him to offer defensive cover.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 3.25.18 PM

Getting stuck in

Chelsea 2-1 West Bromwich Albion - August 20th, 2011

The home opener, in years past, has been a showcase of excellence for Chelsea. Under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea dominated their opening fixtures at Stamford Bridge, beginning the past two seasons with 6-0 victories. The expectation, perhaps unfairly, was that Villas-Boas and company would come out guns blazing. An away draw at Stoke, while acceptable but not satisfying, was in the rear view mirror. After a week of speculation as to who would feature, AVB elected to field another 4-3-3 as indicated below:

4-3-3 with Arrows

4-3-3 (Standard)

A few changes from the Stoke fixture, with Cech ruled out due to injury Hilario was called to action. Fernando Torres and Salomon Kalou were rewarded for their fine individual performances with a recall, while Nicolas Anelka was asked to play along the right side. Ramires and Lampard were swapped for this match, with Ramires filling the right-side shutter role. For this match, however, Mikel was asked to track more laterally than in previous games, often covering lots of ground while the top five foraged for opportunities.

Regrettably, the match would not start out brightly. Quite the contrary - it was West Brom who opened the proceedings with a goal after just three minutes of action. AVB's home bow could not have started any worse, with Chelsea struggling to find any sort of rhythm for much of the first half. Rather than sit idly by and watch his side toil towards the halftime break, Villas-Boas decided to make a drastic change in the 34th minute, replacing the ineffective Kalou with Florent Malouda. Commentators argued that Kalou had picked up a knock, but to the discerning eye, this had nothing to do with an injury. This had everything to do with what was happening on the pitch. Previous Chelsea managers, save for Jose, would have sat by and allowed the team to limp into the break. But Andre, for his part, felt it more prudent to make a change.

The introduction of Malouda on the left side, adding a natural left-footed player into the mix, was both wise and bold. Managers often risk the wrath of players when they're subbed out so unceremoniously. The weaker of the lot tend to kow-tow to player egos and prefer instead to keep 'everyone happy'. But Villas-Boas, clearly, has no preconceived notions about friendliness in this regard. As evidenced by his decision to remove Kalou from the fray, he's less concerned with perception and more concerned with results. As the club were booed off the pitch at the half, a growing sense of discontent was mounting. Here was a Chelsea side, laden with talent and riches, but struggling to find a clear chance on goal- again.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 4.04.05 PM

Shots on goal (red off target, blue on target) before and after Kalou subbed off

As indicated by the above graphic, the removal of Kalou and insertion of Malouda brought more natural synergy to the offensive flow. Though Kalou is competent in playing either side of a 4-3-3 trident, he is not as well-versed on the left as Malouda. Much like the Stoke match, Chelsea returned for the second half with more vigor and a spring in their collective step. It took seven minutes after the restart for Chelsea to find their first goal of the campaign, courtesy of a lovely bit of individual skill from Nicolas Anelka. From this point forward, Chelsea seemed to have the match firmly in their grasp. One goal was all it took, it seems, for the players confidence to rise and for chances to start evolving at a faster rate. AVB's second tactical adjustment was to push the midfield and fullbacks higher up into the attacking third, leaving Mikel, Alex, and Terry as cover on the counter. Though it left us exposed at times, it was an effective strategy in creating more chances and maintaining pressure in the West Brom half.

On 59 minutes, Torres was withdrawn for Drogba, and on 66 minutes, Branislav Ivanovic got his first call of the campaign, replacing the shaky Alex at the back. You could sense the deadlock would be broken by Chelsea, with chances aplenty starting to form. Then it came, on 82 minutes, with Jose Bosingwa using a lovely bit of skill to maneuver past two defenders before driving a low cross through the West Brom box, to find the waiting left foot of substitute Malouda. In the end, Chelsea edged West Brom, but not before a collective heart attack was registered by the fans and AVB alike.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 4.17.23 PM

As it ended, 4-3-3

  • In keeping with the spirit of the Stoke match, Chelsea dominated possession once again (66%)
  • After introducing Malouda, AVB instructed his wide men to stretch further out to hug the touchline, allowing space for Ramires and Lampard to carve runs through the middle of the pitch
  • Using width helped to expose West Brom's lack of defensive athleticism, most notably on the second goal. Bosingwa's individual skill and dribbling helped him split two exhausted defenders, before dispatching a low cross that found the on-rushing left boot of Malouda (who was entering the box from out wide)
  • Substitues, once again, played a critical role in determining the outcome of the match
  • Rather than wait for the half to analyze his teams performance, AVB sprung to action immediately, and implemented tactical adjustments in real-time to avoid wasting minutes
  • Unlike Stoke, where we lost a number of challenges in the midfield and final third, Chelsea were more ferocious in the tackle, winning the majority of their challenges across the pitch- again.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 4.23.37 PM

Dialing up the intensity

Chelsea 3-1 Norwich City - August 27th, 2011

Our third match of the season was once again at home, against recently promoted Norwich City. This was a fixture that was circled on my calendar for some time, as I had the fortunate privilege of attending this match in person. For his part, AVB decided to rotate some players for this one, and included recent signings Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku on the bench. Fielding a new 4-1-3-2 formation, the lineup for this fixture was as follows:

4-3-1-2 Start

Restructured 4-3-1-2

A bold tactical adjustment, but one that netted immediate results. For this match, AVB introduced a formation that was used momentarily during our preseason tour of Asia. This particular formation continued to provide avenues for both Cole and Bosingwa to get forward, but also allowed Malouda to drive down the left channel, Ramires to cut inside off the right, Lampard to push wide off the right from the center, with Torres and Drogba released to interchange with one another. Mikel, Terry, and Ivanovic once again held the back line, continuing to push up the pitch.

Bosingwa set the match in motion with a marvelous curling 30 yard drive in the sixth minute. As has been one of the hallmarks of this Chelsea squad for many years, our fullbacks continued to contribute to the attack throughout the first half. The goal immediately dented Norwich's plan of deploying five defenders to combat our attack-minded approach. Unsurprisingly, Norwich replaced Whitbread with Pilkington on 30 minutes, to offer a more balanced 4-4-2 approach. It was a game that looked well on its way to being comfortably put home, with several excellent chances having been created over the first 45. But Norwich keeper Ruddy did his part to deny Chelsea a second before the half, and entering the break, AVB's men were ahead by a goal, their first lead at the half for the season.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 4.51.59 PM

Taking and creating chances, long range vs. short range

The image above highlights another tactical adjustment implemented by AVB and his crew at half time. Clearly, instructions were handed down to forage further into the box itself, with too many long range efforts in the first half flying wide. After the restart, Chelsea found themselves on the back-foot, when Holt pounced on a Hilario/Ivanovic mistake to volley into an open net. With just under 30 minutes to play, Villas-Boas found himself with his back against the wall in his third consecutive fixture. Before anyone knew what had happened, Didier Drogba was rendered unconscious by the fists of Norwich keeper Ruddy. After an extended medical break in the action, AVB brought on the substitution pair of new boy Juan Mata and Nicolas Anelka, replacing the aforementioned Drogba and Malouda. The new players were instructed to push higher up the pitch, particularly Mata. As the image below indicates, the substitutions were designed to disrupt and test the mettle of the replacement keeper. Moreover, the formation seemed to morph into a more traditional 4-3-3 as the game wore on.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 5.00.56 PM

I'll explain the arrows, I swear

So you're looking at the above graphic and thinking, what the hell is up with Mata? The answer is simply that he was given a free role by AVB to work as a 'disruptor' and 'creator' with the space to float across the front three, pick up the ball, and forage for chances wherever he felt appropriate. The results were immediate, with Mata providing supplier and helping to carve the Norwich back line to bits. A penalty conversion from Lampard - that saw Ruddy red-carded - coupled with Mata netting a debut goal sealed the three points for the Blues.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 5.04.55 PM

All about Mata

  • As the graphic above demonstrates, Mata was in fact given the space and time needed to create chances for everyone. As he drifted across the pitch to collect and produce passes, he gave an insight into AVB's tactical mindset for how the diminutive Spaniard would be used in the near future.
  • We increased our possession total to 70% for this match, courtesy of Norwich being down a man for certain- but credit where it's due to the players for increasing the tempo and looking to hit Norwich on the break as often as possible.
  • Again, substitutes make an impact. Never one to shy away from a dramatic adjustment, this time AVB threw a new formation, new players, and new ideas into one match. The result, a tidy 3-1 victory at home no less, doesn't hurt in the slightest.
  • We were less efficient in the tackle than in our previous match, winning the overall battle 28-21, but often giving away possession in the midfield. Understanding this, AVB would enter the market over the two week international break to supplement the squad with additional midfield mettle.

Sunderland 1-2 Chelsea - September 10th, 2011

Coming off the international break, Chelsea introduced Raul Meireles to the squad, as well as said goodbye to Yossi Benayoun for the season. Meireles wouldn't be the creative presence the club sought, but he would add another dimension to a thin midfield contingent. For this fixture at the Stadium of Light, AVB elected to field a 4-3-3 formation, with a number of changes to the side that beat Norwich. Returning to the fray after a three-match suspension was Daniel Sturridge, whilst, Juan Mata received his first start for the club. The midfield comprised Lampard, Ramires, and Meireles, replacing the fatigued Mikel. The defense remained the same, but Cech was back in net. Opting to use his preferred formation, AVB pushed Meireles further up the pitch, skewing slightly from the role Mikel normally holds. This allowed Meireles to involve himself in the attacking half of the pitch more often, while lending itself to an overall faster tempo.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 6.03.21 PM

4-3-3 Standard

Of note, the fullbacks were instructed to hug the touchline, Meireles was free to move further up the pitch, Anelka and Sturridge interchanged, Mata had the license to move through channels across the pitch, and the backline continued to push higher up the pitch. What was particularly evident in this match, unlike our prior three attempts, was the fluidity of movement, crispness in our passes, and incisive approach towards the Sunderland box. Meireles, in particular, helped to spread the ball across the pitch, completing 47 of his 54 attempted passes for an 87% efficiency rating at the half. Mata, meanwhile, continued his stellar play by providing passes all over the park, linking up brilliantly with Ashley Cole throughout, and interchanging with Daniel Sturridge throughout the first half. This was another marvelous tactical adjustment by AVB- utilizing Daniel Sturridge's left foot on the right side of the part to cut inside for shooting opportunities.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 6.10.07 PM

Magic Johnson Flow

What's striking about the above graphic is how often Meireles managed to play his passes 'forward' as opposed to Mikel's desire to move the ball laterally or within a 10 degree angle of himself. While it reflects positively on the player himself, it also lends credence to AVB's decision to bring the player in, knowing that the formation requires a holding midfielder that can contribute in the attacking third, thereby adding a sixth body to the attack. Perhaps the play of the night, Meireles hit a forward lob from the left side of the park to the marked Daniel Sturridge, who conjured some brilliance to back-heel a delightful finish to secure the full three points. Unlike previous matches, AVB's substitutes in this fixture were simply brought on to reinforce the scoreline. It was the first time since taking charge of the club that he was not scrambling to finish a fixture with a win. There were many positives to take from this match, but in particular:

  • The tempo of affairs was much faster than our previous matches. The passing was sharper, there was greater one-touch play, and the players seemed to have a better understanding of what was expected of them.
  • We had our lowest possession figure of the season, 60%, but looked to be in control of the match from the onset. It was our most complete performance to date.
  • AVB, beginning to find his comfort level, settles into the 4-3-3 yet again, but deploys Mata once again in a free role on the left side, and Meireles in the holding role- who has the license to push forward.
  • The introduction of Meireles adds another dimension to the attack, as evidenced by his quick trigger on passing opportunities. AVB uses this to increase the speed of the match and take advantage of Sunderland's apparent lack of foot-speed.
  • The defenders were able to get further involved in the match on the attacking side of the park than before. Intermittently, AVB throws Terry and Ivanovic past the touch line, allowing Terry in particular to forage into the box- resulting in a goal in this case.
  • Nicklas Bendtner gave John Terry and company a torrid time in the air. Realizing this, AVB decides to drop the line back to provide security for any balls lost in the sky, as the image below dictates, there were a number of tackles lost in the Chelsea third. Thankfully, players from the midfield helped in this regard- another tactical wrinkle from AVB wherein the entire team drops past the line to help in defense.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 6.21.02 PM

Losing in the air, not on the deck

Chelsea 2-0 Bayer Leverkusen - September 13th, 2011

Starting our European campaign with a win was of the utmost importance to AVB. Not just for the sake of his job security, but for the continuity and continued motivation of the squad going into a tough weekend trip to Old Trafford. Understanding the need for fresh legs, mixed with the differences in continental football, Villas Boas elected to field a 4-3-3 featuring a returning Fernando Torres, flanked by Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge. Meireles, Mikel and Malouda would fill out the midfield, whilst David Luiz would get his first taste of action in place of John Terry.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 6.29.32 PM

Traditional 4-3-3

Electing to leave Terry out and Lampard on the bench was a decision that seemed to ruffle a few feathers and cause some concern for fans. But Villas-Boas seemed not to be bothered, and felt that the front three of Torres, Mata, and Sturridge would be an exciting mixture of speed, power, and finesse. Much like our previous matches, Bosingwa and Cole were required to hug the touch line, although Bosingwa would have a difficult time getting forward with the ever-impressive Schurrle causing plenty of defensive problems. Cole, meanwhile, linked up fluently throughout the opening 45 with Malouda and Mata, as the left-footed trio interchanged to perfection.

Meanwhile, the middle of the park was dominated by Mikel and Meireles throughout the second half, but the goals did not seem to arrive- despite Fernando Torres receiving his best service this season and having at least three genuine chances on goal. To start the second half, Villas-Boas elected to keep the original 11 players, but prepared Lampard and Anelka for their entrance on 64 minutes. Two minutes after their introduction, Chelsea struck gold in the form of a training ground set up and finish. David Luiz surged forward from the back line, dropped off a pass to Torres, who set it up on a plate for Luiz to crack from the left side of the box, curling into the bottom right corner.

Screen shot 2011-09-16 at 6.54.59 PM

Tactical Adjustments

  • After toying with three different formations this season, AVB seems to have at last settled into a 4-3-3 shape which he prefers. Though, as we've seen, he's not opposed to toying with rotations and formations depending on what the defense is giving us. This might be the single biggest difference between AVB and his predecessors. Rather than force the issue and stubbornly stick to a style or formation that doesn't click, he reacts to what the landscape provides, often making minor or major tweaks throughout the game, moving players, shifting lines, and swapping sides here and there. The result, is four consecutive wins- including three home matches that have been won courtesy of some brilliant substitutions.
  • Pushing the fullbacks up the pitch has been a hallmark of our club for years, but there's a renewed sense of balance in the way AVB elects to use it. Here, midfielders such as Meireles, Lampard, and Ramires are required to track back in cover for Cole and Bosingwa. Whereas before Cole was running alone the length of the pitch, AVB seems to have everyone buying into the protect and cover approach.
  • Obviously, Mata has been a revelation since arriving at The Bridge. But flying under the radar seems to be the improved play of Mikel, Ramires, and the impact of new signing Meireles. Though they barely worked together at Porto, Villas Boas obviously sees things in the way Meireles plays that can offer a new dimension to our previously rigid structure.
  • One of the major criticisms of our team in years past has been on the routine, mundane, almost predictable approach on the pitch. When we won the double, nobody seemed to care. Last year, Carlo felt the brute force of the axe for his inability to get the squad to fire on all cylinders. Though we're only five games into the AVB regime, you can already see him toiling against the expectations and demanding results from players. He has already shown limited fear in removing players from the lineup based on performance. I can't recall the last time ampard was dropped for a Champions League fixture for any reason other than an injury- but such was the case on Tuesday night.
  • There's no question that Villas-Boas is intent on making his impression felt at the club. Perhaps the most indicative piece of this is his insistence on increasing the tempo of the match. As on display with Sunderland and Bayer, the club are moving the ball with greater purpose, and interchanging positions faster. The goals have still yet to truly materialize, but there are obvious steps in the right direction that anyone can see.
  • To judge Villas-Boas after five games would be absurd. But, if forced to, I'd give him high marks for his adaptability, ingenuity, and fortitude in sticking to his instincts. Now, we've seen how "sticking to your instincts" can spell the end of a managerial career (See: Scolari, Grant, Ancelotti, Mourinho), but it bears mentioning that so far AVB has gone about his business without a care of concern that he's being judged or not making friends.

Well, friends. My hands hurt. I'm tired. This was more work than I bargained for. But, I hope you find the above in some way informative. I'm off to drink the weekend away prior to the United fixture.

As always, KTBFFH.

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