Chelsea’s change in defensive system under Roberto Di Matteo

April 16, 2012

Three Chelsea systems without the ball: (a) Villas-Boas' 4-3-3, (b) Villas-Boas' 4-2-1-3, (c) Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1

The major change at Chelsea under Roberto Di Matteo has been the difference in the wide positions, stemming from a combination of the change of style, and the change of formation.

Andre Villas-Boas wanted 4-3-3 and lots of pressing – therefore the job of the wide players was to close down the full-backs, and they defended high up the pitch.

Villas-Boas then started playing with Juan Mata as a central playmaker, but the formation remained more 4-2-1-3 than 4-2-3-1 – a minor difference, but the wide players were still staying high up the pitch, even as Villas-Boas went from a heavy pressing game to something more cautious.

Di Matteo’s formation, on the other hand, is 4-2-3-1 – Chelsea are defending with two banks of four behind the ball, something they haven’t done for a long time.

With their past few coaches, Chelsea have been used to playing 4-3-3, or 4-3-1-2, or 4-3-2-1, all of which defend with either a four and a three, or a four and a five, depending on how cautious they were playing.

Defending with a second line of four is very unusual for Chelsea, and Di Matteo deserves a lot of credit for implementing the system so quickly and successfully. Oddly, Di Matteo’s major problem at West Brom was the lack of defensive organisation, and Roy Hodgson’s job when replacing Di Matteo was all about getting the side structured without the ball.

The major effect of the change in system is the identity of the wide players. Daniel Sturridge, who regards himself very much as a forward pushed out wide, rather than a wide midfielder, could work well within the 4-3-3 as he was playing high up, close to goal, and usually receiving the ball within thirty yards of goal. Now ‘his’ role has changed completely – it involves retreating 30-40 yards when the ball is lost, and defensively Sturridge is not particularly adept.

On the other flank, Juan Mata is also no longer quite right for the wide role. This is a different situation – at Valencia he played that role well enough, and he’s certainly more defensively aware than Sturridge. But a combination of factors – (a) his fitness, which has clearly dropped significantly in recent weeks, (b) the fact he’d been used to pressing high up, and now would be being told to drop deep, and (c) the desire to play him in a central role, perhaps the most important factor – has meant he also no longer plays on the flank.

Therefore, in Sunday’s game against Tottenham, it was Ramires and Saloman Kalou who played in the wide positions. These two are clearly less spectacular players, but both are much more disciplined and underrated in terms of their efficiency with the ball. I’ve written about Ramires for the Guardian, but Kalou was also impressive yesterday, and of all the Chelsea players who could broadly be termed attackers, is probably the most aware tactically.

There is also now a central midfield two, rather than a three. This is less of a departure from the 4-2-1-3 we saw occasionally under Villas-Boas, though Chelsea are still getting used to playing this way. Yesterday it was unusual to see John Obi Mikel often briefly higher up than Frank Lampard when Chelsea didn’t have the ball, and that ‘two’ is now functioning as a unit rather than with one given the primary defensive responsibilities.

There was a little bit of confusion about how to pick up Rafael van der Vaart – in the old 4-3-3, he would clearly have been tracked by Mikel, the only holder. Now, there has to be more communication and improvisation as the opposition number ten varies his position.

How Chelsea will cope with Lionel Messi this week Messi remains to be seen, and it’s difficult to work out whether it’s better to play with two holders or one holder against him. The only time Messi looks relatively infffective is when he has to come deeper than both men in a double pivot to pick up the ball – as was the case for Argentina in the Copa America, and for Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey defeat to Real Madrid last season.

That is probably what Chelsea will be hoping for, which means Di Matteo will ask his double pivot to play very deep, probably allowing Barcelona’s midfielders a lot of time on the ball.

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