Newcastle 0-3 Chelsea: Blues take their chances
The scoreline makes it look convincing, but Chelsea had to work extremely hard to get the three points.
Alan Pardew was without the suspended Jonas Gutierrez and the injured Cheick Toite, so Peter Lovenkrands started on the left, and Danny Guthrie in the middle. Fabricio Coloccini only lasted half an hour before being replaced by James Perch.
Andre Villas-Boas continued with Oriel Romeu at the base of midfield, and again Didier Drogba started over Fernando Torres upfront.
The game was an interesting tactical battle that could be separated into various categories, although it was so open and saw so many shots (many hitting the woodwork) that the game could have taken a very different course had various non-tactical features gone slightly differently.
Chelsea defensive line
The obvious place to start is with Chelsea’s high line, without question the most frequently discussed part of Villas-Boas gameplan this year. It didn’t take long before Newcastle very nearly prospered with a simple ball in beyond the defence for Demba Ba – David Luiz fouled him, and might have expected a red card. It was a similar incident – if closer to the goal – to Jose Bosingwa’s red card at Queens Park Rangers.
However, after that initial setback, Chelsea defended much deeper. They didn’t press a great deal later in the game, only won two offsides in the match, and were rarely troubled by pace in behind. It was more like the Chelsea approach under Carlo Ancelotti, of sitting deep and bringing the wide players back level with the two deeper midfielder. In fact, for much of the first half, Frank Lampard was higher up than Juan Mata and Sturridge when Chelsea didn’t have the ball.
Maybe Villas-Boas is slowly changing his mind and telling his side to be more conservative without the ball. It seemed that way here, although it’s debatable whether it was the correct choice against Ba and later Shola Ameobi, who were both physical threats. Luiz was as vulnerable in the air as he was on the ground, being beaten by Ba to a header which hit the post in the first half, and more comfortable late on when Ivanovic played narrower.
Newcastle’s use of Hatem Ben Arfa behind Ba meant they were 4-4-1-1 rather than 4-4-2, and there wasn’t an obvious numerical disadvantage in midfield – Ben Arfa dropped onto Romeu.
The problem in midfield was more the way Newcastle’s central midfielders tried to win the ball back. Yohan Cabaye was to the right and was more energetic in closing down – Danny Guthrie was sitting a little deeper. Frank Lampard had no space to work in because he was shut out by Cabaye, and was substituted, much to his disappointment, after an hour
But the positioning midfield created two issues – first, Ramires got time on the ball as no-one looked to close him down. He got space to pick up speed on the ball and breezed past Guthrie after three minutes. Second, it created a perfect pocket of space for Juan Mata, in behind Cabaye and in a position away from Guthrie. Mata was the key player in the first half, orchestrating the game between the lines.
The other issue for Newcastle was Daniel Sturridge, who was always going to be an important player in the game for two reasons. First, he had scored in his two previous appearances. Second, Chelsea attempt a higher proportion of their shots from the right – 25% – than any other side in the league. Third, Newcastle were without Jonas Gutierrez, who does a brilliant job in protecting Ryan Taylor and making Newcastle secure on that side of the pitch.
Sturridge had eight shots in the game, more than any other player, and shouldn’t have needed until his final attempt to score. The balance between Chelsea’s two wide players was perfect – one came into the centre of the pitch to retain the ball and create, the other went in behind the defence to add a goal threat.
Newcastle played quite a basic and direct style of football, but it resulted in chances and they were unfortunate not to score. They were probably more threatening early on when Chelsea weren’t sitting so deep – Ba was a force in the air, and with Peter Lovenkrands and Gabriel Obertan stretching the play, plus good support from the full-backs to push Chelsea’s wide players back, a goal following a cross looked likely.
Pardew saw that this approach looked promising, and at half-time he withdrew Ben Arfa and brought on Shola Ameobi for double the physical threat. Newcastle started going longer, with diagonal balls forward from the right of the pitch towards Ba or Ameobi up against Luiz. There’s an argument that they became too predictable and could have done with more invention in central positions to vary the threat – but having hit the woodwork three times, they can consider themselves highly unlucky, and Pardew should be given credit for bravely using his second substitution at half-time having identified where he thought Chelsea were weak.
Defensively, Newcastle simply missed important players. Gutierrez’s value has already been outlined, but Tiote would have patrolled the zone Mata worked in, and Coloccini wouldn’t have been beaten so easily for Didier Drogba’s opener – James Perch isn’t a centre-back, let alone a commanding one.
Newcastle’s success has come mainly from consistency of selection, particularly at the back, and although they have some decent squad players, many are in wide positions. They can’t afford to be without many of their excellent spine – Tim Krul, Coloccini, Cabaye, Tiote and Ba – and that contributed to them losing their record of the best defence in the league.
Credit to both sides and both managers. Villas-Boas’ selection of Romeu was a good move deep in midfield – he protected the defence, nullified Ben Arfa and allowed Ramires to move forward. His passing was solid, only giving the ball away when trying to prompt counter-attacks, and did a passable Lucas Leiva impression with his tackling across a horizontal line.
The use of Mata and Sturridge, unquestionably Villas-Boas’ first choices in a team with many selection issues, also worked well – those two and Ramires combined very nicely throughout.
Newcastle put up a great fight, as they did against the two Manchester clubs – but fell short. They need their unavailable trio to return soon – and a fully fit Ben Arfa to provide another creative link would also be welcome, to become more of an all-round force.