West Brom 2-1 Chelsea: Morrison and Long drift wide, then stop Chelsea passing through middle

November 19, 2012

The starting line-ups

West Brom’s mobile duo of Shane Long and James Morrison provided an assist apiece.

Ben Foster is injured, so Steve Clarke used Boaz Myhill in goal. Gabriel Tamas replaced Gareth McAuley, and Zoltan Gera started on the left.

Roberto Di Matteo shuffled his pack, leaving Oscar, Ramires, Juan Mata, Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole on the bench.

For such a surprise victory, the strangest thing is that West Brom didn’t have to play particularly well. This isn’t an attempt to take anything away from their victory, of course (if you were being charitable you could say it was a compliment – they beat the European champions without having to reach their peak), and there were good individual performances. But West Brom have played better football this season, and this arguably wasn’t a typical representation of their football.

Di Matteo’s over-rotation was another talking point. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but he took a big risk against his former club – the defence was weakened, the absence of Ramires meant the flat Mikel-Romeu partnership was used in the centre of the pitch, and both Juan Mata and Oscar were left on the bench. Clearly, Di Matteo wants to keep his players fresh ahead of the crucial trip to Juventus in midweek, but this was an unnecessary risk against a side with an excellent home record this season.

Chelsea weak on wings

The key to this game was how West Brom exploited Chelsea’s weakness on the flanks. This point has been covered many times before, but with Chelsea playing a 4-2-3-1 featuring three rotating playmakers behind Torres, the full-backs receive little protection from the wide midfielders. The left-back zone, from where Chelsea conceded two early goals against Manchester United, and another goal against Arsenal, for example, is a particular issue – Eden Hazard stays very high up and leaves Ashley Cole (or Ryan Bertrand) exposed. Here, Hazard started behind Torres in a central position, before Di Matteo shifted him to the left midway through the first half.

Despite Chelsea’s weakness, West Brom’s wide players weren’t particularly involved in the attacking play – in fact, their best work was in a defensive sense, as both made plenty of tackles as part of Clarke’s second bank of four. Peter Odemwingie was more successful with his challenges than Zoltan Gera, but both were committed and disciplined in deep, defensive-minded roles. There was arguably more of a threat from Billy Jones, the overlapping right-back. If Gera and Odemwingie played a key role in the attacking phase of the play, it was to attract the Chelsea full-backs out from the back.

Morrison and Long

But West Brom did manage to cause Chelsea’s problems on the flanks – the unusual thing was that it was the two central attackers who did the damage. In this sense, West Brom were perfectly set up to cause Chelsea difficulties – James Morrison is fielded as the central playmaker but is equally at home on the flank, capable of drifting from flank to flank. He’s something of a ‘central winger’, and the presence of two Chelsea holding midfielders encouraged him to venture towards the touchlines to find space – the full-backs getting attracted to Gera and Odemwingie created the space.

Then there’s Shane Long, fielded as a centre-forward yet almost always moving to the channels on the outside of one of the centre-backs, trying to pick up direct passes on the run. Usually, Clarke likes to start with Long and then replace him with Romelu Lukaku later on – but with Lukaku unavailable to play because he’s on loan from Chelsea, Long had to play for a longer period – 81 minutes was his joint-longest Premier League appearance this season – it was highly impressive that he continued running into the channels for so long.

It was those two players, Long and Morrison, that provided the crosses for West Brom’s two goals.

Chelsea were without John Terry, and while the Chelsea captain is more prone to good movement and tricky forwards, he remains better than David Luiz and Gary Cahill in the air. Branislav Ivanovic is another fine header of the ball, yet remained on the bench – in all, it was a perfect recipe for a West Brom to score from crosses.

Without the ball

The other interesting thing about West Brom’s approach also came from Long and Morrison – they acted as a duo without the ball, dropping off and allowing Luis and Cahill time on the ball, instead denying passes into the feet of Mikel and Romeu. Chelsea’s build-up play was far too slow, with no link – though passing or Ramires’ dynamism – between attack and defence, and although West Brom didn’t play their best football, Chelsea didn’t get close to their peak, either.

Conclusion

An unlikely comparison, granted, but West Brom’s play here was reminiscent of Marseille recently – using their front two in a 4-2-3-1 to roam the channels and find space in wide areas, against a side keeping it tight in the centre of the pitch.

Whether it was intentional or accidental remains unknown – this is basically Morrison and Long’s natural style – but against a side who have defended crosses poorly this season, it proved crucial.


West Brom 2-1 Chelsea: Morrison and Long drift wide, then stop Chelsea passing through middle

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