Chelsea’s attacking flair leaves
them vulnerable in defence
Football is a game of balance. Chelsea may finally be creating the flowing passing moves their owner Roman Abramovich craves, but it has come at a cost. Last season’s Champions League win was rooted in defensive solidity, but there was little of that in evidence in Wednesday’s 4-2 win over Reading. Chelsea probably deserved the win, but had it not been for a goalkeeping error and an offside goal, it could easily have been a defeat. Defensive flaws mean a side can never be fully in control, no matter how much they may seem to dominate.
The warning signs were there against Wigan on Sunday, but they were disguised by the fact Chelsea were 2-0 up inside seven minutes; that was a game that felt like it was over almost before it had begun. There could have been a similar masking process against Reading as Chelsea began playing intricate, clever and incisive football, with Eden Hazard (pictured, with Reading’s Jobi McAnuff) to the fore.
One early move encapsulated what the new philosophy is supposed to be about, as Hazard gathered the ball deep in his own half, ran and slipped a pass to Juan Mata, who found Branislav Ivanovic on the overlap. He laid in Ramires, who checked on to his left foot and drew a smart save from Adam Federici.
The third goal, although it was offside, came from a similar rapid pinball of passes: Oscar to Fernando Torres to Mata to Ashley Cole, and then to Torres again. This is the sort of football Chelsea’s summer spending was aimed towards – lots of technically gifted attacking midfielders, capable of spinning together rapid flurries of passing. It was the quick feet of Hazard, who has four assists already, that won the penalty from which Chelsea took the lead. That, you suspect, will be a common method of scoring for Chelsea this season; no player in Europe’s big five leagues won more penalties than the eight Hazard earned for Lille last season.
Those are the positives, but the endlessly shifting and interchanging trident in Roberto Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1 formation, while effective in an attacking sense, causes defensive problems. Most obviously, it leaves Chelsea’s full-backs with space in front of them on the flanks. Again, that can be a plus: even if Ivanovic’s goal against Reading was slightly freakish – a cavalry charge to take advantage of Federici’s decision to go up for a late corner – it’s no coincidence that he scored the first at Wigan and that Cole laid on the Torres goal. “There was some good football, a lot of rotation between our players,” Di Matteo said. “We attacked in numbers and created several chances. We really enjoyed ourselves.”
The negative is that opposing wide players have space as well. Wigan put in an astonishing 29 crosses on Sunday but couldn’t take advantage. Both Reading goals came from wide: the first from a Garath McCleary cross that Pavel Pogrebnyak converted superbly, the second from a free-kick brought about by McAnuff darting inside and isolating John Terry.
Chelsea may have got away with that against a newly promoted team and a side that finished 15th last season – it may even be that, in a perverse way, the thrill of a 4-2 is preferable to the predictable 4-0s Chelsea used to grind out under José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti – but better teams will punish them. This is the opposite of the policy of control pursued by Spain at the Euros: that was predicated on the theory that if you don’t concede a chance, you can’t lose. Chelsea, at the moment, are in a giddy phase of just looking to outscore the opposition. It may be fun but, as Di Matteo acknowledged, the defensive aspect can’t be forgotten. “It’s going to be paramount to keep a good balance,” he said. “Everybody wants to see flair players but to win games you’ve got to have balance.”
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