Jose Mourinho marked his return to Stamford Bridge with what looks on paper like a fairly routine 2-0 win. Chelsea went ahead early and then took their foot off the gas, defending solidly and refusing to allow their opponents back into the match -- nothing long-term watchers of the Premier League haven't seen before.
But, in truth, it was new for both Chelsea and Mourinho, neither of whom have ever played in a way quite like they did in that first half. Steve Bruce's Hull City were not only outclassed but outthought, left chasing shadows as the Blues ran riot at Stamford Bridge. Here's how the teams lined up.
#1: Petr Cech (GK)
#2: Branislav Ivanovic (RB)
#3: Ashley Cole (LB)
#7: Ramires (CM)
#8: Frank Lampard (CM)
#9: Fernando Torres (CF)
#11: Oscar (CAM)
#15: Kevin de Bruyne (RM)
#17: Eden Hazard (LM)
#24: Gary Cahill (CB)
#26: John Terry (CB)
#1: Allan McGregor (GK)
#3: Maynor Figueroa (LB)
#5: James Chester (CB)
#6: Curtis Davies (CB)
#7: David Meyler (CM)
#9: Danny Graham (CF)
#10: Robert Koren (CM)
#11: Robert Brady (CM)
#20: Yannick Sagbo (LF)
#24: Sone Aluko (RF)
#27: Ahmed Elmohamady (RB)
4-2-3-1 was Jose Mourinho's favoured shape in pre-season, and it's how Chelsea have played since Andre Villas-Boas went away in March 2012, so it came as no surprise that that's how the Blues set out on Sunday. With Juan Mata not yet fit enough to play a full ninety minutes, Chelsea's attacking band featured Oscar in the centre, flanked by Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. Fernando Torres was a somewhat surprising choice to start the first match of the season, while the double pivot was the familiar combination of Frank Lampard and Ramires.
Hull were set out in a 4-3-3 that matched Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 in the centre of the pitch. This trio, with David Meyler deeper and Roberts Koren and Brady more advanced, was meant to shut down the combination of Oscar, Frank Lampard and Ramires. The Tigers used former Swansea City and Sunderland man Danny Graham as their lone striker, going up against John Terry and Gary Cahill, while Yannick Sagbo and Sone Aluko were the left and right forwards respectively.
Bruce's original plan failed, and failed rather miserably. The visitors were completely overrun by Chelsea in the first half (we'll get to the whys later), and only managed to survive the early stages of the second half thanks to the Blues tiring. The solution was to switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1, restricting Chelsea's space deeper and giving Hull a consistent passing option in the middle. This was accomplished by adding two former Tottenham Hotspur players in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who settled the game down and provided the impetus behind the Tigers' only coherent period of play.
Mourinho didn't change his shape at all during the match. He used three like-for-like switches in the second half, pulling de Bruyne for Andre Schurrle, Fernando Torres for Romelu Lukaku and finally Oscar for Marco van Ginkel. But 'like-for-like' substitutions always change the style of play slightly -- while de Bruyne spent much of his time creating overloads in the centre Schurrle was more focused on counterattacking*, and Lukaku added a directness to the attack that hadn't previously been there. Using van Ginkel as a number ten was an odd move, but considering that that substitution occurred in the 85th minute, with the match already won, it's likely that he was introduced just to give him his debut rather than for tactical reasons.
*That substitution quickly resulted in Bruce giving Livermore license to play higher up the pitch.
So, in terms of shape, the match was 4-2-3-1 against a 4-3-3 that became 4-2-3-1 for about ten minutes in the second half before reverting to 4-3-3. But it's not team shape that decides matches -- how the players exploit the imbalances in shape and talent is what counts. Let's take a closer look as to how the match was won.
Hull's initial game plan failed because of the movement of the midfield five. With their fullbacks unwilling to track Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne inside, Chelsea could effectively create a four-on-three (or five-on-three) situation in the centre of the pitch whenever they felt like it.
Even at three-on-three, there wasn't much hope of Hull competing with the Blues through the middle, especially considering Brady's defensive troubles. But Hazard and de Bruyne moving inside (and Oscar going wide, or dropping back) and then combining with their teammates using short, quick passes, opened up a whole range of possibilities.
Although Lampard and Ramires were ostensibly the defensive midfielders in this match, neither is particularly inclined towards such a role. Lampard's always been best higher up the pitch, and Ramires' optimal role is probably as the 'runner' in a midfield three. The amount of possession Chelsea had prior to Bruce re-jiggling the midfield enabled both to burst forward from the back, sometimes simultaneously, overloading the centre even when the attacking midfielders stayed wide.
Essentially, Mourinho had his midfield set up with a five-man interchange. Lampard and Ramires were free to move vertically; de Bruyne and Hazard drifted side-to-side whenever they wanted to, and Oscar, the key man, did his best to pull Meyler (who had an impossible job) out of position. With the Blues holding such an enormous advantage over their opposition in terms of technical ability, there was simply no way to defend against them -- they could take possession of whichever part of the field struck their fancy.
Usually, that was the centre, in the zone ahead of Meyler but behind Koren and Brady, but in the case of the first goal, Hazard, de Bruyne and Oscar created an overload on the left that Hull couldn't handle. The goal illustrates just how discombobulated the Tigers' defence was by the thirteenth minute -- Curtis Davies and James Chester had absolutely no idea where to be -- and Chelsea would exploit their confusion on many further occasions, using one of the oldest tricks in the tactical book.
'False nine' has become something of a cliche of late. Originally, it described a player who started high up the pitch, in a centre forward position, before dropping deep as the attack developed. This poses several problems for the defence, forcing them into a choice. Do they stay with the striker-cum-midfielder, or do they hold his position and allow their man to remain unmarked in the space between the lines?
False nines are strikers who start high and drop back into space in order to disrupt the defence.
Asking that question of Hull was the central theme of Chelsea's attack throughout the game. Once Oscar had established his beachhead in the centre, Fernando Torres then used the opportunity to repeatedly drag defenders out of position. This opened up space through which the Blues' interchanging midfielders (or, on occasion, a fullback) surged to create goalscoring chances.
Torres' movement was almost always focused on creating spaces for others to exploit, and it worked well enough. To be an effective false nine, the defence has to be worried enough about you to mark you tightly, and you either have to have the technical ability to play a ball into the space that's just opened up or quickly pass it deeper to someone who does.
Chelsea managed to pull a defender out of position by running deeper at least a dozen times during the game, and virtually all of their most dangerous moments came from that sort of movement. Torres didn't play his role perfectly -- there were a couple of misplayed balls as he tried to slip his teammates in -- but his performances stood out, because this might have been the first time he's been instrumental in an attacking gameplan that actually worked.
At the same time, it's easy to see why Mourinho would want to bring in Wayne Rooney to sharpen the attack. Torres was only a threat to Allan McGregor's goal in his movement away from it. He played well enough for those ebullient first 25 minutes, but he wasn't actually dangerous in and of himself. Plan A worked fine, but plan B wasn't there until Lukaku came in.
Ideally, you want a false nine who's enough of a goal threat for defenders to continue marking him closely, and unless Torres can show that more regularly (or demonstrate more significantly skill as a playmaker -- in fairness his pass to Lampard near the close of the half was excellent), this particular routine will lose its teeth, fast.
Another hallmark of the first half was the ferocious press which Chelsea employed. While Hull set their pressing trigger almost inside their own half, leaving John Terry and Gary Cahill to their own devices when the Blues were in possession, the visitors were allowed absolutely no time on the ball.
As Adam Bate at Sky Sports points out, this resulted in Hull being forced into rushed, risky plays in their own half -- they gave the ball away in their territory 33 times, more than anyone else during the opening weekend. Pressing isn't always about tackling, and in this case the play of Oscar, Hazard, de Bruyne, Lampard and especially Ramires induced panic whenever one of them closed a Hull player down.
A heavy press isn't always wise. Getting as close to the opposition as Chelsea did on Sunday means that it's easier for a confident player to bypass you if they have the skill, and once that happens it's very easy to exploit the resultant holes in a team's defence. It's a tool to be deployed when appropriate, rather than 100 percent of the time.
Against a side like Hull, though, the downsides are reduced to the energy one has to expend. The Tigers don't have the technical ability to break out of a determined press, and conversely they couldn't seriously put pressure on Chelsea's midfield for fear that the likes of Ramires and Oscar would be able to run straight through them. Indeed, whenever they were forced to make challenges, the Blues would typically find a way to move past them.
The combination of the interchange and the heavy pressing game ensured that Chelsea controlled the first half of the match, and the use of Torres as a false nine created weak points in Hull's defence. Said weaknesses were not ruthlessly exploited by any means, but enough chances were created to ensure that the Blues went into halftime with a healthy lead.
Chelsea were significantly less aggressive after the interval. There are several potential reasons for this, but Jose Mourinho was quick to pin it on a lack of match fitness:
In the second half when I saw it going in another direction I was a bit frustrated because I wanted more, but after five or 10 minutes I was thinking that we didn't because we couldn't, you can't play that way for 90 minutes.
In the second half we had no physical energy or mental availability to play that way. The three boys behind Fernando in the first half were fantastic but in the second half they disappeared. All of them played national team matches [in midweek]. Kevin played 85 minutes against France, Oscar played 80 minutes against Switzerland and Eden played 70 minutes against France.
When the creativity disappeared we lost the danger in our game. I tried to make a couple of changes but at that time the game was bad, we sat back but our defensive block was very comfortable.
Mourinho is probably correct. He clearly wasn't happy with the way the team was playing, which rules out the idea that he wanted to shut up shop with the points secured or rest his players in preparation for Aston Villa.
It's easy to see fatigue as slowing players down or forcing them to make fewer runs, but one of the first actual signs of tiredness is a loss of technique. Chelsea's attacking strategy was based around using clever short passing in the centre to secure possession before using Torres to open up gaps in the defence, but they found it increasingly hard to get the ball to stick, and Hull were able to get a foothold in the game.
They were not, however, seriously able to threaten Cech's goal from open play. The Tigers' best period came immediately after the introduction of Huddlestone and Livermore, but even then the only chances came from a botched clearance on a corner and Curtis Davies fouling Branislav Ivanovic on a free kick (sadly ignored by Jonathan Moss).
We've been exposed to strong starts followed up by weak, stressful finishes for the better part of two years now, and it's tempting to compare this game to, say, last season's opener against Wigan Athletic, in which we went up 2-0 and then fell asleep. But the major difference here is that a lack of attacking football didn't immediately correspond to a defensive panic. The defence was very well organised, and despite the pivot players being allowed to go forward, they always returned in time to form an effective screen. It was a far cry from the meltdowns we've seen in previous seasons.