If Chelsea's season-opening win against Hull City was comfortable and routine, the 2-1 triumph against Paul Lambert's Aston Villa on Wednesday was anything but. The Blues had to rely on a late, dubious winner from Branislav Ivanovic to secure the three points, and even after re-taking the lead were still rather shaky as they looked to hold on to the victory.
At times, the Blues looked utterly toothless despite racing out to an early lead. What went wrong and what went right in this match?
#1: Petr Cech (GK), #2: Branislav Ivanovic (RB), #3: Ashley Cole (LB), #7: Ramires (CM), #8: Frank Lampard (CM), #10: Juan Mata (RM), #11: Oscar (CAM), #19: Demba Ba (CF), #17: Eden Hazard (LM), #24: Gary Cahill (CB), #26: John Terry (CB)
#1: Brad Guzan (GK), #4: Ron Vlaar (CB), #6: Ciaran Clark (CB), #8: Karim El Ahmadi (CM), #10: Andreas Weimann (RM), #11: Gabby Agbonlahor (LM), #14: Antonio Luna (LB), #15: Ashley Westwood (CM), #16: Fabian Delph (CM), #20: Christian Benteke (CF), #34: Matthew Lowton (RB)
Jose Mourinho stuck to the same shape and by and large the same personnel as started the Hull game. Juan Mata came in for Kevin de Bruyne and Demba Ba replaced Fernando Torres, but it was a fairly similar Chelsea setup, at least on paper. Frank Lampard and Ramires comprised the double pivot, while the defence was almost exactly as we might have expected while David Luiz-less: Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gary Cahill and then Branislav Ivanovic.
Aston Villa were unchanged from their surprise 3-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday. Although they're normally listed as 4-3-3, they've actually began most matches in a 4-5-1 shape, leaving Christian Benteke alone up top and having the nominal wide forwards, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, tracking back deep. Meanwhile, the back line was extremely narrow, with fullbacks Antonio Luna and Matthew Lowton tucked in very tight and leaving the wide defending to others.
Presumably, this was at least in part a response to how Chelsea overwhelmed Hull. Against the Tigers, Eden Hazard and De Bruyne overloaded the centre with movement from wide before pulling out individual defenders and attacking the vacated space. Packing more bodies in the centre was a shrewd move from Paul Lambert, as it made both elements of the routine the Blues used on Sunday more difficult to execute.
The midfield was also a key zone for Villa. Hull failed with a 1-2 system designed to press Chelsea's central trio, but having out-worked Arsenal in the centre of the pitch the weekend prior, Lambert would have been confident in his midfielders' ability to harry Oscar, Lampard and Ramires. Ashley Westwood was tasked with marshalling Oscar, while Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph picked up the pivot pair.
As the match wore on, Villa became more expansive. Over the course of the first half, Weimann and Agbonlahor were pushed further and further up the pitch as the visitors chased a goal, and by the second, when a result seemed within Villa's grasp, they had settled into their standard 4-3-3 shape.
Jose Mourinho ended up making the same set of substitutions he did against Hull. Romelu Lukaku and Andre Schurrle came on in the 65th minute, and Marco van Ginkel switched in for Oscar in the 84th minute. All were like for like, although by the point Van Ginkel came on, Chelsea had switched to a 4-3-3 and Oscar was playing far deeper than he was to begin the match.
Villa's only non-enforced substitution was Aleksander Tonev for El Ahmadi with ten minutes to go. Tonev is ostensibly a winger, but he seemed to play a rotating role in the attacking midfield band, with his introduction more or less coinciding with the visitors' switch to a loose 4-2-3-1 — again matching Chelsea's now-inverted midfield triangle.
Against Hull, Chelsea used the false nine routine to generate chances. The plan was completely different this time around. The main tactical feature of Villa's game is their ability to hit teams on the counterattack — in Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor they have a trio that can craft good chances without much support from the rest of the team, and this is the key element to work around when devising a means of playing against them.
Instead of building through the centre, Chelsea initially focused on long passes to get in behind the Villa defence
The other feature Mourinho would have been planning for is Lambert's habit of playing an extremely narrow defence against high-level teams, especially those whose attack relies on creativity through the centre. There was no way Chelsea could have played the same way as they did on Sunday and meet with any success. Fortunately, the manager changed things up in a big way.
The solution to the counterattacking problem was to bypass the midfield entirely. Three long, penetrating passes were played in the first ninety seconds — two to Demba Ba down the middle and one to Hazard wide left. The wide players (Oscar, Mata and Hazard all interchanged, as they are wont to do) spent more time on the flanks than usual, clearly looking to stretch the defence while Ba ran down the middle.
Ba has drawn some heavy criticism for his play against Villa, and it's mostly fair. He was caught offside an astonishing five times in his 65 minutes of play, and that's completely unacceptable for a player of his quality and experience. His runs were regularly mis-timed, and that made it very difficult for Chelsea to build anything through the centre of the pitch — when they tried on the ground they were crowded out by a mass of claret shirts.
There was more luck on the wings, especially early on. With Villa's defence so narrow, any Chelsea attack down the flank would have to be covered by one of Weimann and Agbonlahor, which meant that the visitors were defending the likes of Hazard and Mata with players better suited to attack and they were ensuring that Benteke's natural support was having to stay very deep, isolating the striker. Even Ba looked good when he stayed wide.
It wasn't pretty football, but it's impossible to say it didn't work. The opening goal came from Ramires hitting a diagonal to Hazard on the left; Weimann's lack of strength allowed Hazard to retrieve, and although Villa briefly won possession and tried to counter, they were playing so deep that when it was broken up Chelsea didn't have far to push forward before they could create a scoring situation.
The Blues continued to look dominant after scoring the opener, and for a little while it seemed as though we might see a repeat of the 8-0 drubbing that Rafa Benitez's unit handed out to these same opponents last season. But as the first half wore on, Chelsea became increasingly toothless, despite having plenty of possession and shutting down most of Villa's attacking play.
Why? It seemed to me that there were two main factors. The first was Ba's inability to trouble the defence. A lack of immediate threat from your striker is fine in certain situations (see Fernando Torres against Hull, where his movement was key in drawing defenders out of position), but Chelsea were playing far more direct football this time around and needed much, much more from Ba than he gave.
The second is that the players selected for the third band are disinclined to play as pure wingers. Hazard has the speed and the trickery but has been cutting inside to overload the centre for more or less his whole Chelsea career, and Mata will always drift to the centre no matter where you stick him. Although they would have been instructed to stay as wide as reasonable early on, over time it looked like their instincts kicked in, resulting in an overload in the centre that Villa were preparing for.
Compounding the problem was that all three attacking midfielders were somewhat below their best from a technical standpoint. Against Hull, Mourinho said that his creative trio 'went missing' after the first half. Here they went missing somewhat earlier. Flicks weren't coming off as regularly as expected, passes were a little bit sloppy, and the control, while occasionally brilliant, wasn't as reliable as usual. On top of that, their movement was constrained by the sheer number of bodies in the centre.
Mata in particular had a rough game, and although it's convenient to blame that on the fact that he was 'out of position' wide right, it's hard to pin his below-par technique on positioning issues, especially when he's recovering from an injury and not yet fit enough to play a full match. Mata's conditioning wasn't good enough, and that showed in every aspect of his game.
It wasn't just Mata who looked fatigued, however. Hazard seemed slower than usual, and Oscar's passing and movement weren't up to his usual standards. Fitness is always going to be an issue when you're forced to play multiple games in the opening week of the season, but Mourinho probably compounded the problem by only making two changes from his starting lineup against Hull. In the end, thanks to Benteke's equaliser, he was forced to switch things up.
Although Aston Villa looked intermittently dangerous in the second half, the main issue Mourinho had to resolve was Chelsea's lack of spark in the attack. In order to secure a position at the top of the table going into Monday's match at Old Trafford, his side had to break the 1-1 deadlock and earn all three points.
The primary concern was in alleviating the congestion in the centre. With so many bodies from both teams packing the middle, it was impossible to get any penetration in that zone despite the presence of four attacking players plus runs from deep by both Frank Lampard and Ramires. Mourinho acted to resolve the problem in the 65th minute.
Romelu Lukaku and Andre Schurrle were swapped on in place of the ineffective Demba Ba and the clearly exhausted Juan Mata respectively. Stylistically, that pair couldn't be further apart — Lukaku can be not unfairly described as a walking battering ram with surprising speed, while Schurrle is a classy winger who can be counted on to keep wide when the play requires it.
Adding Schurrle to the mix gave the team another pair of fresh legs, pulled a body out of the central zone and provided Chelsea with an attacking outlet that was more than happy to pop up on either flank as required. There wasn't much sexy football from the German, but that wasn't the point — he needed to open up the game and he did so.
Schurrle's introduction also tied up the Aston Villa fullbacks, who were by that point looking to support the wide forwards on the overlap. With the Villans transitioning to a fully-fledged 4-3-3, Schurrle's ability to pin back their supporting cast while chipping in defensively when required was hugely important.
Lukaku helped in a completely different way. First and foremost, he wasn't Demba Ba, which meant Villa actually had to worry about him hurting them in a non-kicking-them-in-the-face sort of way. Turning your centre forward into someone that could actually provide a threat is a fairly standard way of scoring goals. Indeed, Chelsea's winner came when Ron Vlaar was forced to foul the Belgian in the right channel as the Blues looked to counterattack.
Secondly, Lukaku's size and strength actually cleared room in the middle just because he could drag defenders out of the way with minimal effort. Seeing him manhandle Jores Okore, an impressive physical specimen himself, was awesome, and his disruption of Villa's back line very nearly resulted in a goal from a loose ball. His shot hit the side netting, but it's difficult to imagine that chance manifesting itself had any of our other strikers been on the pitch.
Frankly, Lukaku and Schurrle should both have started this game. With Chelsea looking to play long balls over the top of Villa's defence, Ba, whose movement is good but pace and power don't match Lukaku's, was the lesser choice. There was no focal point for the attack with Ba on the pitch, and that allowed Villa to push out of their defensive zone. Had Lukaku been there the whole time, there's a good chance that the game would have been out of sight by the time the visitors found their feet just before halftime.
Schurrle would also have fit into Mourinho's plan more neatly than a not-quite ready Mata. I'm not entirely sure as to why Mata started — it's possible it was simply to make him feel like he was part of the team — but he's far less effective than Schurrle as a pure wide forward (rather than one expected to cross inside). With Chelsea looking to play with as much width as possible, the German international would have been a better, if less popular, option.
Even though I've taken issue with the lineup, it's extraordinarily refreshing to have a manager who adapts quickly to events on the field, determines exactly where the problems are, and makes changes to address them. Mourinho's substitutions turned the situation back in Chelsea's favour when it looked as though the game might have ended in a loss.
While Romelu Lukaku was warming the bench for Chelsea, another Belgian international striker was showing his stuff on the field. Although he went missing for much of the early going, neutralised by the fact that neither Agbonlahor or Weimann were allowed anywhere near him, Benteke was Villa's star man as they reestablished themselves in the match on the brink of halftime.
Indeed, Benteke drew high — if slightly backhanded — praise from Mourinho himself after the match:
Villa have a special player with special qualities and they use him. The goalkeeper has a great kick and Benteke is fantastic in the first ball and they play from this. They have this and they have the counter-attack and we handled the counter-attack fantastically because we played with great balance. But the situation with Benteke it is difficult to control because you can't press the goalkeeper - he kicks the ball and after that everything is born from Benteke
Targetting Branislav Ivanovic as Benteke's direct opponent on long balls forward seems to have come from luck more than anything else. Until the third minute of first-half stoppage time, he'd been kept very quiet, and was found more often on the Villa right than their left.
That changed in a flash for the equalising goal as Villa found out that playing an overload on Ivanovic using Benteke and Agbonlahor was immensely profitable. This was due to the fact that Mata was a little slow to track back when Ivanovic stepped up to challenge for the first ball — normally what we would expect to happen when a fullback goes up against the centre forward is for the wide midfielders to take over from the full back's usual mark, but Mata was never going to be effective against Agbonlahor, and couldn't manage to do much against the speedy winger.
In the second half, it was clear that Villa were going to keep trying to go down the same route in search of a second goal, which led to some of the game's key moments. Neither of Benteke or Ivanovic is easy to beat in the air, and both resorted to some fairly tasty fouls in order to get the slightest edge. One of those fouls could have changed the entire match: Ivanovic was lucky not to have been sent off for a flailing arm against Benteke's neck, and the striker came very close to scoring on the set piece before Lampard saved the day with some heroic defending.
Both Benteke and Ivanovic came close to losing their tempers on several occasions, and it appeared as though Ivanovic's annoyance was having an adverse affect on his defensive positioning as the game wore on — at one point he tried to challenge Benteke in the six-yard box while Cahill doing the same thing, and the ball broke loose into the area Ivanovic should have been covering. Fortunately, Petr Cech was able to save Weimann's shot.
Ivanovic, of course, more than made up for any defensive mishaps by heading home the winner in the 73rd minute. That's one way of coming out on top in an intense, personal battle.
Could there have been a better option for dealing with Benteke? Probably. Perversely, the situation might have been less dangerous if Cesar Azpilicueta had been on the pitch. Azpilicueta would have had no chance in the air against Benteke, but he wouldn't have been drawn into aerial challenges with the big man and would therefore have held his position more faithfully than Ivanovic did. For the most part, Chelsea should have been happy to let Benteke bring the ball down in wide positions — it was only when he moved to the centre that there was any real danger.
One of the more fascinating developments in the early season has been the role of Ramires. Instead of the slightly wild player we've seen under the past four managers, Jose Mourinho appears to have instilled a sense of discipline into the Brazilian, which means he's far less of a liability in the double pivot. Seeing him with 105 attempted passes in a single game — not to mention a an accuracy rate of 94 percent — would have caused most Chelsea supporters to do a spit-take last season.
But although Ramires has taken to the midfield holding role very well, there are still plenty of weaknesses in his game. The lack of penetrative passing is probably overstated (remember that his diagonal to Hazard started the set of moves that led to Chelsea's only goal from open play), but he still has problems with technique, and as the game wore on, he began to try to do too much.
Most of his passes were short and conservative, which is perfectly acceptable while trying to hold possession. Ramires was, in effect, playing in the John Obi Mikel role (and that he can do an impression of him is testament to his adaptability), but he demonstrated two key shortcomings there.
The first is that he wasn't able to deal with the press as effectively as Mikel does. Instead of shielding the ball and spinning away into open space, which would be Mikel's calling card had 'passes just behind the intended target' not already established itself as his signature trick, Ramires' response to pressure from the opposition (Fabian Delph was the one assigned to dole it out) was to play it extremely safe and return the ball to the centre backs. Obviously, losing possession in such a position would be bad, but being overly cautious there means it's impossible to build attacks.
The second was his habit of breaking ranks and trying too hard to win the ball back. It's not like we're not used to seeing this, since we've watched David Luiz play football, but it's still suboptimal for the more defensive player in the double pivot to be caught out of position thanks to an overaggressive attempt to grab possession.
Ramires' exuberance caused Chelsea some real problems in the second half. While most of the threat was via long balls aimed at Benteke, Aston Villa were still cutting through the midfield with alarming regularity, and two of their best chances came when Delph drew Ramires into an ill-advised challenge and then immediately exploited the vacated space.
Villa's midfield — especially Delph and Westwood — played very well, and on top of that we need to remember that Ramires is still fundamentally miscast as a defensive midfielder and deserves praise for being willing to play a role that doesn't suit him for the benefit of the team. But at the same time, his game had some very real flaws, and it's important to acknowledge them.
This was the first real test of Mourinho's second spell with Chelsea. It was a frustrating and occasionally brutal match, one which some of the players selected didn't appear ready for. But the team ground out the points regardless. In similar situations over the last two seasons we'd have had problems regaining our composure and seeing the match out, but the substitutions made were enough to change the game.
The team can, should and needs to play far better. But enough was done for the win, and the Blues are now top of the table, with six points from six.