Chelsea 2-0 PSG: Mourinho takes risks late on

April 9, 2014

The starting line-ups

Chelsea recorded the 2-0 victory they required to progress on away goals.

Jose Mourinho welcomed back Samuel Eto’o upfront, although was without Nemanja Matic and Ramires in the centre of midfield. Eden Hazard started on the left, but lasted only a quarter of the game before being replaced by Andre Schurrle.

Laurent Blanc was without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so moved Edinson Cavani upfront and brought on Lucas Moura down the right, which promised more counter-attacking thrust.

This was a tense but poor quality game for this level, and the major tactical interest was how Chelsea became more attacking late on.

Chelsea slow in possession

Chelsea’s major problem for the first hour was their inability to lift the tempo of the game. They started very slowly, seemingly surprised at being pressed high up the pitch by PSG, and therefore took a while to settle down and control the game. Even when they did manage to assert their possession dominance, the passing tempo was extremely slow in the midfield, with PSG able to shuffle back into a deep defensive block easily.

Once Chelsea found themselves trying to break down the opposition, a secondary problem was how few genuine attacking threats the home side possessed. The front four were all dangerous, of course, but were being denied space. In that kind of situation, you need players from deep capable of bring the ball forward, ‘provoking’ the opposition forward and out of their deep position towards the ball, creating space for a player higher up the pitch.

This never really happened. Gary Cahill and John Terry are competent passers but not genuinely playmaking centre-backs. The full-backs didn’t overlap sufficiently, partly because Cesar Azpilicueta is on the ‘wrong’ flank and Branislav Ivanovic is a centre-back who’s been shoved out wide in his Chelsea career – they rarely got into the final third, as the diagram below shows. Lampard and Luiz are good players technically, but neither is a proper playmaker. PSG could concentrate on denying the front four space – even Cavani sat back, very deep, with no need to press the centre-backs.

Chelsea’s opener came from an Ivanovic throw and a Schurrle finish, a very simple goal. Schurrle’s forced introduction, however, lifted the home side because he collected the ball in deep positions and ran powerfully at the PSG defence. He prefers playing on the left flank, but has been denied opportunities there because of Hazard’s fine form. It was extremely surprising Mourinho switched Schurrle and Wilian in the second half – this didn’t seem to have any great effect on Chelsea’s attacking play.

PSG counters

In truth, PSG weren’t much better. They pressed high in the early stages but then sat deep and played on the counter-attack. The breaks themselves weren’t particularly impressive, with only a couple of decent moments from Lavezzi and Lucas. The positive aspect of Chelsea’s defensive players offering so little going forward, of course, was that they were in a position to get back and defend against these breaks.

A more peculiar feature of PSG’s play was the lack of urgency when the midfielders found themselves in space, with the Chelsea defence unprotected. At times in the first half there were huge gaps in midfield, and opportunities for Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi to run at the defence – or feed attackers – but they turned back and played square passes. They wanted to slow the tempo of the game, certainly, but there were genuine gaps for them to break into.

Mourinho changes

The line-ups as Chelsea chased their second goal - Chelsea with three strikers, PSG with an additional centre-half

The game’s key feature was Mourinho’s attack-minded substitutions. He steadily increased the pressure by introducing two strikers for two midfielders. On 66 minutes he brought on Demba Ba for Frank Lampard, and moved Oscar a little deeper – although it was basically a 4-1-3-2, with David Luiz protecting the defence solo. Chelsea immediately hit longer passes to Ba.

On 81 minutes he went further, bringing on a third striker, Fernando Torres. Oscar made way, with Schurrle behind the three strikers, and Torres playing from the right flank.

Clearly, you can’t increase numbers in one part of the pitch without taking them away from another part, and therefore Mourinho’s strategy was a calculated risk. He decided to leave all four defenders on the pitch, probably as he was scared of PSG counter-attacks – whereas he often removes a full-back in these situations, and moves to a back three.

PSG chances

Chelsea’s area of weakness was now in midfield, and therefore Luiz was completely overrun. He battled manfully, charging after opponents to attempt to win possession, but the fact remains that Matuidi plus substitutes Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye were all getting space in front of the Chelsea defence, and in the period after Mourinho’s attacking shift, PSG had their best two opportunities, created from this zone.

Matuidi chipped the ball over the defence for Cavani to blast over from the left channel, then Cabaye played an even better ball, for an even better Cavani chance – he failed to take advantage of the game’s best opportunity.

Chelsea plan B & C

That was the risk. But, clearly, Chelsea now had more attacking firepower. As ever, the impressive thing with Mourinho isn’t the substitutions he made in themselves (any manager can chuck on a striker or two), but the fact nothing is left to chance in terms of organisation.

As he said after the game, Mourinho had worked on the alternative shapes in training – the variation with two strikers, and the variation with three strikers. This was obvious, in the way Chelsea retained balance despite three strikers on the pitch – they weren’t fighting for the same balls.

“We trained yesterday with the three different systems we used, the one we started with, the one without Lampard and finally the one with Demba and Fernando in, and the players knew what to do.” The key wasn’t the changes, it was the preparation he’d made for the changes.

When Ba hit the winner, Mourinho darted down the touchline ‘in celebration’, but afterwards he claimed he was primarily running to tell Torres and Ba their positional instructions for the remaining six minutes of the contest, which is backed up by the pictures. Ba’s job was to sit in front of the defence and mark Alex if he ventured forward, Torres’ to man-mark Maxwell.

PSG

It’s also worth saying a word about PSG, who retreated into a very deep defensive shape in the final 10 minutes, introducing an extra centre-back, Marquinhos, to play just ahead of the other four defenders. Lavezzi and Lucas had also been removed.

Blanc will be criticised for being too defensive and reactive, but in the situation his strategy wasn’t wrong, as such, it was just poorly executed at both ends. Cavani missed the game’s best chance, while the PSG defence looked surprisingly uncomfortable playing very deep, probably because they’re completely unaccustomed to playing this way in Ligue 1. They completely failed to deal with the pressure.

Conclusion

Anyone can make attacking changes by introducing two extra strikers, but Mourinho’s “brilliance” wasn’t the changes he made, but the fact his side were prepared for them, and understood their new roles clearly.

Managers are often criticised for not having a Plan B, but equally unforgivable is a Plan B which is sprung on the players midway through a match, with strikers on top of each other fighting for the same balls. This was a controlled, pre-determined Plan B and, indeed, Plan C.

It’s the preparation, attention to detail and communication that makes Mourinho such an effective tactician, rather than the tactical decisions themselves.


Chelsea 2-0 PSG: Mourinho takes risks late on

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