"Chelsea is not made to play football. We're good on the counter, a little bit like Real against Bayern. Often, I'm asked to do it all by myself and it's not easy. " Stinging words from Eden Hazard criticising Blues' boss Jose Mourinho’s style of play in the wake of Chelsea's 3-1 Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid.
Whether lost in translation or just the sign of frustration, the underlying sentiment from Hazard painted an accurate picture of a side built to play a certain way. That system worked against Liverpool and in the first-leg against Atletico, and was far from deserving of the public sneering about the supposed “right way to play.” But it all came to a grinding halt last night, with a lack of a plan B glaringly evident.
Mourinho is right to argue that he is playing to his player’s strengths, although it should be noted that he paid big money to sign many of the attacking players in the first place and clearly had such a side in mind, but for a man with a reputation for meticulous planning his lack of a plan B was surprising against Atletico.
At 1-1, with the Spanish side progressing through away goals, Chelsea had to dictate the play and chase the game but looked incapable of doing so. Inviting teams onto you in order to counter-attack can be an effective tactic – just look at Mourinho’s record against the Premier League’s top four – but Chelsea are currently lacking in ideas when the onus is on them to attack.
Taking 16 points from a possible 18 against the top four but still being third favourites for the title tells its own story and Chelsea are still missing the cutting edge in games in which they should be in the ascendency.
Last night saw Mourinho simply chucking on strikers in which he has little confidence in - as a plan B, as he tried to get a side that is fundamentally built for the counter-attack to function as a dominant force. He failed. While he has been publicly pining for a new striker, that alone will not solve Mourinho’s problems.
Chelsea & At. Madrid Key Passes Last Night
Chelsea made just six key passes last night, setting up the rest of their chances from crosses. For a side that were going out of the tie with over half of the game remaining, this is a small amount and shows a lack of invention.
Mourinho’s side are great at running past players – Eden Hazard did so five times last night – but against teams camped in their own half driving into space is difficult when teams close it off. Willian, Hazard, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah are all similar types of player: direct runners, albeit great ones. On the break against backpedalling defenders they are lethal, but when that first wave of attack is over they lack a degree of invention.
Willian played in the central role of the 4-2-3-1 formation last night, but failed to create a single chance through his passing, creating just twice from crossing situations.
The Blues lacked the craft to break down Atletico, as they have all too often in the Premier League. While selling a benchwarmer for mega-bucks made good financial sense, games such as last night and those against Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Aston Villa make the decision to sell Juan Mata look a strange one.
It is, admittedly, simplistic to point to Mata’s departure as a factor, but without the central player to open up the space for his teammates to run into, Chelsea’s attacking trio’s are all too often running into traffic. Direct players need space to surge into and at the moment there is no one to create it when Chelsea are attacking, or to sustain attacks when the initial burst forward is over.
In his scraps of game time for Chelsea this season, Mata created more chances per 90 minutes than Oscar, Hazard and Schurrle, while assisting the second highest total per 90 of the quintet.
Crucially, he also has a far higher number of passes per 90 minutes. He may not have the Mourinho approved work ethic or directness, but he can put his foot on the ball and keep a cool head in a central position that has yet to be filled on a consistent basis since he left.
A quick look at David Luiz's pass map in central areas last night shows the extent to which Chelsea had one plan, with a number of failed long balls to add to his potshots from range, but when it became clear that that was not working there was no plan B of keeping the ball and manipulating space. Trying to break down a door with a hammer wasn’t working, so Mourinho went and got a bigger hammer rather than a key.
When Mata left, Oscar was meant to be the man that ensured his absence would not be keenly felt. However, for whatever reason, he has failed to do this. Since the New Year’s Day win over Southampton, Oscar has provided no assists and has just two goals; both thanks to the charity of the appalling Arsenal side that surrendered so meekly at Stamford Bridge last month.
Chelsea have drawn criticism for their style of play this week, but to merely criticise their style is too simple. Defensive football worked in the previous two matches, but Mourinho was held back by a lack of a plan B last night. His absence of a second manner of play may be because he only has the players to play one way, but had he kept or replaced Mata rather than gamble on Oscar sustaining his bright start to the season, Mourinho may have had that second option up his sleeve.
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