Chelsea's 2014/15 campaign began with a comfortable 3-1 win at Burnley. It was the most impressive display produced by any Premier League side on opening weekend, and has the Blues sitting atop the table: there was plenty to like about Chelsea's display. The response to going behind was excellent, Diego Costa broke his duck 17 minutes into his Premier League career and Andre Schurrle capped off a fantastic team move with an excellent goal that also turned out to be the winner.
The emphatic superiority that the Blues demonstrated between Burnley going ahead and halftime underlines their credentials as serious title challengers, but the media reaction has been predictably overblown. Chelsea are by no means going to walk away with the title on the strength of this performance, no matter how much we're told they are. For one, it's Burnley, a team Chelsea should be beating comfortably, home or away. And for two, the scoreline and attacking flair glosses over some very real holes in the play.
Let's try to cut through the hype and look at this for what it is -- a good, but not awe-inspiring win that promises happy things to come but also contains some worrying flaws. Time to dig in properly.
#1: Tom Heaton (GK), #2 Keiran Trippier (RB), #4 Mike Duff (CB), #5 Jason Shackell (CB), #6 Benjamin Mee (LB), #8 Dean Marney (CM), #10 Danny Ings (CF), #14 David Jones (CM), #15 Matthew Taylor (LM), #19 Lukas Jutkiewicz (CF), #37 Scott Arfield (RM).
#2 Branislav Ivanovic (RB), #4 Cesc Fabregas (CM), #8 Oscar (CM/CAM), #10 Eden Hazard (LF), #13 Thibaut Courtois (GK), #14 Andre Schurrle (RF), #19 Diego Costa (CF), #21 Nemanja Matic (CM), #24 Gary Cahill (CB), #26 John Terry (CB), #28 Cesar Azpilicueta (LB)
Chelsea were ostensibly lined up in 4-2-3-1, but they refused to stick to a rigid formation for much of the match, mostly thanks to a fascinating interchange in midfield. Oscar started as a traditional no. 10, but as the match progressed it soon became apparent that he was nothing of the sort — he had significant responsibilities in maintaining possession during buildup play, with Cesc Fabregas taking a more advanced position and Chelsea’s defensive shape tended towards 4-3-3.
This was most obvious in the first half, when the Blues were actually playing — more on that later — but it’s clear that Oscar’s contributions to this team probably shouldn’t be judged by his place on the team sheet. He had, as indeed all footballers do, a more complex role than that.
Let’s circle back to an interesting Jose Mourinho quote from last week:
"People talk about tactics and systems, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, but in a simple way to analyse football everything depends on space and time. In certain matches, when you don’t have space and time to play, you need more quality. We are working in that direction, to play against teams with low blocks and who are very compact, to play against teams with 10 players behind the ball."
The obsession with systems makes for interesting reading but doesn’t necessarily tell us what a player is meant to be doing. Granted, what a player actually does doesn’t necessarily tell us what a player is meant to be doing either, but given the lack of screaming from Mourinho at Oscar during the game we can tell he was more or less sticking to the plan. Which, therefore, looked something like this:
Chelsea in non-transition possession: Drop back into midfield and circulate the ball with Fabregas and Matic. Pulling away from Burnley’s central midfield gave Chelsea an overload in the middle of the pitch in which to hold the ball; if Burnley’s players tried to chase them down that opened up space in the centre for the wide forwards to attack. If they didn’t, there was no threat to the attack.
Chelsea in transition possession: Immediately engage Burnley’s central midfielders, exchange passes with wide players or Diego Costa to break through the first line of the Claret’s defense. Baiting challenges opens up space to hit on the counterattack.
Chelsea committed to attack: Free role whenever Chelsea are encamped in final third. Find and exploit space as appropriate.
Burnley in possession: Drop back into midfield with Matic and Fabregas, attack ball if feasible but deny space in centre if not.
The first two aspects are the most interesting, because combined they meant that Oscar wasn’t really pulling the strings of this Chelsea side, a job that instead belonged to Fabregas. Instead, Oscar was in charge of the transition game — and with Burnley being Burnley he didn’t get a chance to spring the counterattack too often.
He will be judged, of course, on goals and assists, and it’s true that Chelsea weren’t good enough on the attack, managing just three shots on target at Turf Moor. But Oscar’s presence allowed the team to flip between modes of play fairly seamlessly, and there are few No. 10s who can have been as important across the pitch as Oscar was on Monday.
One worrying sign that won’t have escaped the attention of astute viewers is that Burnley were on the attack far more often than a team of their limited calibre ‘should’ have been against a Chelsea side playing well in midfield. Sean Dyche set up his side to play a little like Pulis’ Stoke, deliberately bypassing the central zones and bombarding Chelsea with high balls.
This is not something that has tended to work very well against the Blues, particularly not Jose Mourinho’s version of them. Chelsea fielded the tallest team of the Premier League’s opening weekend; out of the back six four (John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic) are known for their ability in the air. But, curiously, Burnley had by far the better of the Blues whenever the ball was above head-height.
Within the first fifteen seconds, Lukas Jutkiewicz beat Terry in the air, setting up a snapshot that went well wide of Thibaut Courtois’ right-hand post. The Burnley goal also stemmed from Terry being beaten in the air, this time leading to a free kick that went for the fatal corner. And although that goal wasn’t an obvious problem with aerial play, it was certainly a defensive issue — Terry didn’t follow Matic’s clearance out of the box, leaving three players onside. The consequences were inevitable.
Chelsea’s inability to deal with anything over shoulder-height (Courtois, who was excellent on crosses, is excluded) wasn’t just a defensive problem. It also led to issues retaining possession: long balls out of the box from Courtois, which were normally aimed at Ivanovic and Diego Costa, were routinely turning into possession for Burnley. Naturally, this changed after Didier Drogba came in, but by then the game had been long-since dead.
The fact that Burnley were able to do so much damage in the first half probably informed Mourinho’s decision to kill the game after the break. Chelsea, who had been fluid and adventurous before halftime, did essentially nothing that they didn’t have to following the restart, keeping their shape as compact as possible to ensure that knockdowns weren’t being chased down by Burnley’s midfielders.
Chelsea’s issues on this front is probably the most important takeaway from the match. That a fluid, Fabregas-centric attack carved open a not-particularly-defensive newly-promoted side is entirely unsurprising, and without any surprises it’s impossible to learn much about our attacking play. This team is what we thought they were going forward, and we won’t know how well that actually works until we face sterner tests (Leicester City might park the bus at Stamford Bridge, and Everton away after that is definitely going to be more problematic).
That the defense struggled in the air throughout the match is a surprise, and an unpleasant one. With Chelsea not looking particularly defensively sound throughout preseason, there should be serious concerns — and Mourinho didn't look that happy at full time — about how we deal with more potent teams in the future. Please don’t be broken, defence.