Stoke 0-0 Chelsea: Villas Boas starts with draw
A decent game, but a 0-0 draw in Andre Villas Boas’ first game in charge of Chelsea.
Tony Pulis gave a a debut to Jonathan Woodgate at the back, and started with Stoke’s usual 4-4-1-1 from last season – two wingers, plus Jon Walters just off Kenwyne Jones.
Villas Boas kept Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka on the bench, using two wide players either side of Fernando Torres.
Chelsea struggled to get going and spent most of the first half dealing with Rory Delap’s long throws into the penalty area, but got better as the game went on.
This was, as expected, a game with some strong challenges and lots of set-pieces. Stoke fielded four centre-backs and based their game around dead ball situations, though Chelsea generally dealt with them well – Petr Cech was keen to come out and try and punch the ball clear amongst the crowd.
It was also very high tempo at the start. Jones and Walters closed down Chelsea’s centre-backs quickly which prevented John Terry and Alex playing the ball into the midfield zone – they had to go back to Petr Cech, who then thumped the ball downfield where Torres had little chance of winning aerial duels. Walters kept an eye on John Obi Mikel to try to stop him dictating play, though the Nigerian still had more touches than any other player in the first half.
Chelsea high line
Villas Boas always instructed his Porto side to play high up the pitch and keep an aggressive defensive line, and that was immediately clear at the back today. Indeed, it was especially useful here because Chelsea wanted to keep Jones as far from goal as possible to negate his aerial threat, so Terry and Alex played high up.
This is usually combined with pressing higher up the pitch, but it was impossible to assess how Chelsea will play under Villas Boas in this respect. Kicks from Asmir Begovic were always long, and the defenders looked to bypass midfield and hit Jones, so there was often no opportunity to press. The Chelsea midfield instead dropped off and kept it tight between the defensive and midfield lines – not that there was a particular threat from Stoke in that area.
The roles of the wide players will be one of the more interesting aspects of Chelsea’s play this season. They’ve almost always played 4-3-3 since the Jose Mourinho days, but he, Ancelotti and Villas Boas demand different things of their wingers. Mourinho wanted fairly classic wingers like Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Shaun Wright-Phillips (Joe Cole being a slight exception) who would stretch the play, and drop off into midfield to form a 4-5-1 without the ball. Ancelotti, on the other hand, used players like Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka who would come inside to the midfield and make the side look more like a 4-3-2-1 with the ball – most obviously, in the title-winning 2-1 win at Manchester United.
Judging by his time at Porto and his use of Malouda and Kalou here, Villas Boas wants something different. He wants wide forwards who can provide initial width, then come inside and provide a goal threat. In Portugal he used Hulk as a second striker to the right, and Silvestre Varela providing width on the left. Both stayed high up the pitch and sprinted towards the far post when the ball was on the opposite flank.
It wasn’t entirely obvious what Kalou and Malouda were asked to do here – Kalou was quiet on the right, but Malouda played wider than he generally did under Ancelotti, although a couple of times his delivery was very poor when he received a pass.
Meanwhile, Pulis switched Stoke’s wingers to provide different angles for crosses, but they weren’t at all threatening in open play, forced too far from the opposition goal. What they really needed was pace, and Walters was unable to provide runs in behind Jones, whilst also asked to drop off onto Mikel.
Chelsea grew in stature in the second half, partly because Stoke pressured less from the front. The passing of Terry and Mikel was more incisive, and a couple of decent moments from Torres looked dangerous. Their combination play was decent, but only really when Lampard and Ramires made forward runs – the wide players exerted little influence on the game and were both removed. When those two midfielders did get forward, it was notable that Chelsea’s players overlapped a lot, to drag defenders away from goal and allow the man on the ball inside. The closest Chelsea came to scoring was one of these instances, when Anelka curled the ball onto the bar.
Villas Boas’ strategy late on seemed confused – Anelka and Drogba replaced Malouda and Kalou, and Chelsea then looked like a narrow 4-3-1-2ish shape, with Anelka behind the other two forwards, similar to how Ancelotti experimented immediately after Torres’ arrival. The man who many think would be best for that role, Benayoun, only got a couple of minutes on the pitch – and that was at the expense of Torres, rather than to combine with him.
Some promising signs for Chelsea, but not yet a clear departure from the way they played last season. With practically the same squad and with Villas Boas favouring the same base formation, any’ changes will be slightly more subtle – the way they use the ball in deep positions, and the way they try and regain possession.
This a difficult first outing – not only did Chelsea not look 100% fit (a theme of the opening weekend of the Premier League) they were also against tough, physical opponents. In no other game this season will the ball spend less time on the ground, and as Villas Boas wants a positive, attacking style of football, this might not be typical of Chelsea’s performances this season.
For Stoke, it was more of the same – almost no difference in style from last season, and they should be comfortably midtable in 2011/12.