Chelsea 0-0 Manchester City: early caution from Benitez results in a dull game

November 26, 2012

The starting line-ups

Rafael Benitez started his Chelsea reign with a goalless draw against the champions.

Benitez kept Roberto Di Matteo’s front six intact, although played Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz together at centre-back, a combination his predecessor never selected.

Roberto Mancini played four at the back, and continued with Edin Dzeko upfront, rather than Carlos Tevez – maybe after seeing how Chelsea were vulnerable to crosses last weekend. Vincent Kompany was fit to start at centre-back.

City dominated in terms of possession and shots, but neither side did enough to win the game.

Benitez caution

There was one overriding feeling from watching the game – Benitez’s defensive-minded approach managed to stop City from playing their best football, but also stifled his own attackers’ creative potential.

Previous games between ‘big’ clubs this season have been end-to-end goalfests, but this was a return to the type of big match we saw during the period Benitez was in charge of Liverpool (not simply in matches involving Liverpool, and not solely because of Benitez’s strategy, just because that period of football was a less attacking period of football than now).

Benitez’s love of structure was evident in three main ways. First, and most notably, the wide players were given stricter instructions in terms of positioning with and without the ball. For a start, there was no sporadic rotation of positions between Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, as happened under Di Matteo (sometimes, very effectively). This meant Mata and Hazard had sole responsibility for protecting their respective full-backs – they retreated into a second bank of four, and although City tried to work overloads down the flank against Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta, City rarely found space to deliver good crosses towards Dzeko.

Compare the positions Mata and Hazard received the ball in during this match, compared to in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United a month ago:

Second, Ramires played a more reserved role than under Di Matteo. A couple of times he made his trademark bursts forward into the attacking third, but generally he sat alongside Jon Obi Mikel and protected the zone in front of the defence. This was important – with Sergio Aguero floating around in that zone and David Silva drifting in from the right, City could have been vulnerable between the lines, but Ramires helped them keep that area of the pitch occupied.

His passing was actually more vertical under Benitez, because he was staying deep and trying to pass the ball into the final third, rather than motoring into the final third himself:

Third, Benitez’s obsession with remaining compact without the ball meant Fernando Torres dropped deep alongside Oscar, making Chelsea 4-4-2 without the ball. This was something Benitez favoured at Liverpool, particularly towards the end of his tenure, and it successfully prevented Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure from both receiving and playing simple forward passes. Again, however, it harmed Chelsea’s attacking capabilities, with Torres a long way from City’s defensive line.

Chelsea’s positions of interceptions and tackles were much deeper than against Manchester United:

Tactical battle

As for the overall tactical battle – well, it was difficult to find an area either side were dominating. There was no thrust or movement from either midfield duo, and the central playmakers struggled to become involved; Oscar played deep as Chelsea spent long periods without the ball, while Aguero found his zone packed and couldn’t get space.

On the flanks, James Milner protected Aleksandar Kolarov effectively but offered little going forward aside from boundless energy, while on the other side Pablo Zabaleta’s stamina combined with Silva’s narrowness had early promise, but City could never quite find the final ball, with Chelsea having so many men in defensive positions.


There were only two significant changes – Benitez asked Oscar and Hazard to switch at the start of the second half, which was a surprise – if anything, you’d think he’d want Mata to be more central, in order to combine with Torres.

Mancini brought on Tevez for Dzeko – who was again less impressive from the start – which meant Aguero moving forward to become the primary striker. His pace is often a threat with his pace in that position, but Chelsea defended very deep and prevented space in behind.


Chelsea’s first clean sheet in seven league games, and their first scoreless game for eight – Benitez’s emphasis upon structure and discipline clearly has had an impact at both ends of the pitch.

Chelsea won’t be this defensive for the duration of his tenure – however long that is – but it’s in keeping with what we expected from Benitez – he’ll emphasise caution at the start, before gradually becoming more adventurous as he trusts his players within the system. That will apply, in particular, to the positioning of the wide players, the freedom given to the full-backs, and the positioning of the defensive line.

Apart from Benitez’s debut, the match was forgettable.

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