Chelsea 3-0 Valencia: Chelsea drop deep and progress to the second round
Chelsea are into the knockout stages after a surprisingly comfortable win over Valencia.
Andre Villas-Boas went for his usual 4-3-3, but sprung a surprise with the use of Raul Meireles on the left of the midfield triangle, meaning Frank Lampard dropped to the bench. Didier Drogba was in over Fernando Torres again upfront,
Unai Emery’s expected 4-2-3-1 featured Jonas as the central attacker, Sofiane Feghouli on the right, and Antonio Barragan at right-back. Ever Banega was out injured.
Chelsea were ahead after five minutes, and had the game sealed by half-time.
Andre Villas-Boas pretty much abandoned his approach of pressing in midfield and a high defensive line, completely switching strategy to the type of approach Chelsea were used to under Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti. The wingers dropped deep, level with the central midfielders to make a 4-5-1. The side didn’t close down Valencia’s centre-backs, nor the holding midfielders when they moved into deep positions, and the defence sat near the edge of the penalty area, not allowing balls to be played in behind.
The approach worked well – Valencia had the majority of the ball (69% is an incredible high figure) but rarely got it to Jonas or Roberto Soldado in space. Their best two efforts came from David Albelda – who unleashed a fine long-range strike as he wasn’t being closed down – and Jordi Alba, who got past Daniel Sturridge when the winger switched off, and hit the post.
It meant that the game was completely different from the previous meeting between the sides, which was extremely open. In that game, the fluidity meant that individual positioning was vital to the outcome of the game – here, with a 10-man barrier to try to break down, Valencia looked lost and the Alba-Mathieu combination was their only promising avenue early on. Even then, that was largely because of Alba’s skill rather than any real tactical brilliance, and Mathieu couldn’t get the better of Branislav Ivanovic.
Like in the second half against Newcastle at the weekend, Chelsea countered brilliantly. Juan Mata came infield with Sturridge staying wide and Ramires breaking from the centre – the Brazilian’s run resulted in the second goal. Drogba scored the other two and epitomised Chelsea’s approach, both in terms of the individual game and on a wider level – almost every Chelsea manager has, at some point, tried to build a side without him, yet every manager returns to him when the going gets tough. The balls played towards him were like the Chelsea of old – long balls from deep, rather than the shorter passes he’s been used to this season.
Another beneficiary of Chelsea’s change in approach was, oddly, Petr Cech. A goalkeeper isn’t usually considered to be directly affected by tactics, but Cech’s strengths don’t lie in saving one-on-ones (the Arsenal game showed that) which often occur when a side plays a high defensive line. Instead, with Chelsea sitting deep and Valencia having space to fire in a few long-range efforts, he was able to use his height to make some impressive full-length stops.
Emery went for a big change early in the second half – Alba surprisingly came off, Mathieu dropped to left-back (though the two had spent much of the second half switched anyway), Jonas moved to the left and Aduriz went upfront. Presumably, Emery thought that Valencia would dominate possession even with two strikers on the pitch, and wanted some extra poaching quality in the box. Aduriz isn’t tall, but has a good spring and is a good header of the ball.
It didn’t really work. If there are broadly three stages of turning possession into goals: (1) Having possession, (2) Turning the possession into chances, and (3) converting the chances, Valencia’s problem was (2) rather than (3) – they didn’t need another striker at that moment, they needed someone who could open up the defence and manufacture goalscoring opportunities. Pablo Piatti remained on the bench. Pablo Hernandez was introduced on the right, but came inside and struggled to find room.
Villas-Boas replaced Ramires with Jon Obi Mikel, meaning fewer counter-attacks and breaks from midfield, but more of a solid defensive base in midfield. Mikel sat alongside Romeu and helped close the game out.
Villas-Boas triumphed with a completely unVillas-Boas approach. Having insisted upon his philosophy for big Chelsea games so far this season – away at Old Trafford, at home to Arsenal – he suddenly reverted to the old Chelsea. If you’d been away for the past week and saw this performance, you’d have thought Villas-Boas had been sacked and replaced by Guus Hiddink or Ancelotti. The contrast in positions of interceptions between this game and the recent home defeat to Liverpool tells the story – they took place so much deeper tonight.
It’s irrefutable that these were the correct tactics for tonight, especially against a technically proficient Valencia side who would have thrived in spaces between the lines and in behind, but it probably provides more questions than answers. How often will Villas-Boas completely change his style? Why now, rather than in previous games when his strategy looked highly risky? Will they play this way in future, or just when Villas-Boas’ job was (allegedly) under threat?
And, most importantly, how much will displays like this harm the intention to play a proactive, high energy, attacking game in future?
Chelsea’s approach tonight was roughly equivalent to Arsenal’s Champions League run in 2005/06; a side whose manager insists on beauty and entertainment playing an uncharacteristically defensive style of football. For Arsenal it worked brilliantly in Europe – they made the final – but they couldn’t transfer to their old style of play for league matches, ending with the lowest number of points in Arsene Wenger’s 15-year spell, and the closest he’s come to not qualifying for the Champions League.
Wenger had already been at Arsenal for a decade, and had clearly put his stamp on the club, but this is a different situation. For a new manager trying to drastically change the style of football, there’s only so many times you can take a detour before you forget where you were trying to get to.