This piece originally appeared on Plains of Almería.
The theory of guaranteed returns
British film critic Mark Kermode has a theory that blockbuster movies cannot possibly fail to lose money at the box office if they obey three basic rules.
Firstly, the film must have a newsworthy budget – that is to say that the financial outlay facilitating its creation must be so colossal that it becomes remarkable in its own right. If enough people read that a film cost $250m to make, a significant majority will go to see it in the belief that spending on that level guarantees a certain level of quality.
Secondly, the protagonist should be played by an A-list star; someone recognisable enough to draw the crowds in single-handed. Again, the audience’s assumption is that a film cannot possibly be a waste of two hours if, say, Matt Damon is on screen for seventy per cent of that time. He’s just too good at his job to make a dud.
Thirdly, the film must not be a comedy. Humour is subjective: the definition of what is amusing or even acceptable varies wildly in different markets and regions. It’s no good spending $250m on a film starring Matt Damon if he spends the entire film dressed as a nun and with a dildo glued to his forehead.
Kermode’s theory works. Time and again expensive films of dubious quality – World War Z, After Earth, Pirates of the Caribbean IV – arrive in cinemas, get slaughtered by all who witness them and turn a handsome profit for their creators regardless.
In light of these facts, Kermode asks the obvious question: if financial success is all-but guaranteed, why don’t studios take more artistic risks? Why do they insist on watering down challenging scripts and ideas to pander to the lowest common denominator when success is already guaranteed?
The theory of guaranteed returns is not confined solely to cinema – far from it. It applies to football, too, and Chelsea are proof.
Chelsea: a club of guaranteed returns
The Blues’ budget is nothing if not newsworthy. Through a decade of almost constant upheaval, Roman Abramovich’s ability to consistently spend abstract sums of money on reputable players has ensured that even Chelsea’s so-called failures have been sporting successes.
Whenever Chelsea have been fronted by an A-list manager, good results have followed. José Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti and even Rafa Benítez, much as you may loathe him, had the inherent star quality that turns speculative investment and chaotic levels of disorganisation into gold. Only when the face of the club has been a lesser light has it failed to succeed.
The validity of Kermode’s third point is a little less evident due to comedy not having an obvious parallel in football – setting aside the annual bonanza that is reading through Liverpool fans’ pre-season predictions – but nonetheless, there is an element of transferability in his argument if it’s reduced to a matter of expectation and style.
In the same way that you cannot guarantee a return of half a billion dollars from a big budget slapstick farce, you cannot necessarily expect to win the Premier League using Tony Pulis’s ideas, even if they’re being implemented perfectly. They’re simply too predictable. As long as their tactics are serious and sensible, however, Chelsea will definitely succeed.
With that in mind, it’s an irritation to me that the Blues are not more adventurous tactically. I’m not suggesting that they attempt to reinvent the wheel – though it’d be great if they tried – I’m merely suggesting that watching them adopt the same shape and style as every other top six Premier League team is, well, a bit boring.
I propose that Chelsea’s Plan A for the forthcoming season be a 4-1-2-3 focused on retaining possession, attacking by quickly exploiting small spaces and scoring a metric fucktonne of goals – and accomplishing these aims as beautifully as possible.
Bringing beauty to the Bridge
Many will see the use of Eden Hazard as a false nine as needlessly experimental, pretentious football-hipsterism but it is in fact a pragmatic choice. As Arrigo Sacchi said, the point of having tactics is to achieve “a multiplier effect on players’ abilities.” You do this by fielding your best and most complimentary individual elements in a cohesive unit.
It’s not controversial to state that Chelsea’s best players are Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. There’s even a case to be made for David Luiz, despite his infamous tendency to daydream. The Blues’ primary system must therefore be chosen with a view to getting to best out of them.
They all favour a quick, short-passing game based around fluid movement and combinations with similar players that allows them to exploit space and create shooting opportunities. As there is no number nine at the club currently on the same level as Mata, Hazard and Oscar, it makes no sense to shoehorn one into the team simply to play a conventional system.
The 4-1-2-3 would give the technical trio a platform to play their natural passing game while incorporating defensive solidity via the use of an anchoring midfielder in John Obi Mikel – a player whose future at the club has been called into question this summer but one who would be perfectly suited to the demands of this system.
For a 4-2-3-1 to work defensively it generally needs the duo in the second band to be more dominant and assertive than the opposition’s. There is always space between the first and second bands and if threats aren’t snuffed out at source, the ball will inevitably end up in this area, where the best attackers traditionally look to receive the ball. By placing a player in this space, you close it off.
Mikel has, of course, featured in this position on numerous occasions, and while his displays at Stamford Bridge have often underwhelmed, the licence to pass and create as he is allowed to with the Nigerian national team, albeit still in a deeper role, should be the making of him.
For a frame of reference, see the job that Sergio Busquets does for Barcelona: his job is less to tackle and disrupt but more to dictate and to create. In possession, he often becomes a third man at the back in order to outnumber the opposition forwards and ensure that the ball stays in his side’s control.
This allows Barça to play constructive forward passes into midfield space while letting their full-backs advance, giving their leading lights support higher up the field. With Busquets dropping deep, Gerard Piqué – or David Luiz, in Chelsea’s case – can occasionally join the attack, knowing that he has at least two players covering his forward runs.
In short, by using a 4-1-2-3 Chelsea can consistently manipulate play to ensure that Mikel is their Busquets and trust him to dictate the game, allowing Mata, Hazard and Oscar to focus on finding space and getting the ball closer to the opponent’s goal.
Ahead of Mikel, Ramires’ physicality, intelligence and relative verticality would provide balance in a side focused on technical play and consequently prone to horizontal or diagonal passing. In the quite likely event that Mata, Hazard and Oscar have the opposition penned in but can’t quite find a way through, a simple layoff to the onrushing Ramires would allow him to burst through the lines and in on goal.
In lieu of an out-and-out striker, André Schürrle is the closest thing contained in the team to a direct option. Although the German’s record is not exactly prolific, his clever movement around the box and powerful shooting make him the perfect supplement to Mata, Hazard and Oscar’s more considered, artful play in the central areas.
Played in this system and served by players as skilful as these teammates, it’s not unreasonable to expect his goal tally to rise significantly. In fact, the only way Mata, Hazard, Oscar and Schürrle can fail to score more goals in such a system is if the opposition decides to park the bus and play for a 0-0. Thankfully, parking the bus and playing for a 0-0 rarely works.
False nines at Chelsea? Haven’t we been here before?
The obvious criticism of playing a false nine is that Roberto Di Matteo tried it away to Juventus and ended up losing his job immediately after a 3-0 defeat left Chelsea all-but out of the Champions League. However, it’s misleading to suggest that Di Matteo’s deployment of Eden Hazard was a critical factor in Chelsea’s collapse in Turin.
As Michael Cox’s ZonalMarking.net write-up of the game repeatedly makes clear, it was the failure to cope with runners from deep that cost the Blues that game more than any shortfall of their attacking strategy. It was a comprehensive loss not because they couldn’t score but because they couldn’t defend.
In any case, this system is considerably more cohesive and proactive than that used by Di Matteo in Turin. His unrehearsed take on Hazard-as-false-nine saw the Belgian fielded in a 4-2-3-1 and supported by Azpilicueta on the right with Oscar primarily marking Andrea Pirlo and Juan Mata neutered and subsequently destroyed by Stephan Lichtsteiner on the left.
To dismiss the idea on the basis that a variant of it once failed, having been implemented in a slapdash and improvised fashion – and away to Juventus, at that – is simply unreasonable.
For starters, Chelsea will play fourteen home league games against sides so much weaker than them that experimentation with a strikerless system will not endanger the result. The opening two games against Hull and Aston Villa present the perfect risk-free environment for the players to work on it.
With the right amount of practice and understanding, the 4-1-2-3 above would produce a similar set of results to those that Chelsea would expect using any other system this season. It’s perhaps worth reiterating that success is already all but guaranteed. The goal is now to win as beautifully as possible.
In any case, substitutions exist and it’s possible to switch to another set of ideas at any time. If things aren’t going Chelsea’s way or the 4-1-2-3 appears too gung-ho to use in a particularly difficult match, a striker can always come in and provide an alternative – but it shouldn’t be Fernando Torres.
Addressing the Torres problem
Primarily favouring a strikerless system can appear politically impossible given that the club’s record signing and highest earner is actively excluded by it. Of course, the Plan A is not absolute. Football hasn’t worked that way for a long time. There will always be room for rotation, match-specific innovation and the inclusion of all-round forwards.
However, there comes a time where you just have to admit that some things are a lost cause: Fernando Torres is finished. There is no way to simultaneously restore his confidence and repair his body and, regardless of his cost and the club’s failure to move him on over the summer, it’s futile to even try.
At this point it’s considerably more sensible to focus on players who can maximise their immense potential at the club, both now and in the future. To that end, the club must put its trust in Romelu Lukaku as the long-term number nine, even if he remains on the bench for the most part of this season.
Of course, his potential will not be reached as quickly as it could be if he is limited to twenty minute cameos here and there but I would suggest that, despite his size and billing, Lukaku is a cultured player and more than capable of slotting into a fluid system like this and adapting.
Furthermore, it seems impossible to rule out the possibility of Wayne Rooney arriving before the end of the transfer window. If he arrives then there is surely even less point in persisting with the inclusion of Torres or Ba, especially when Rooney’s scoring record as a well-supported roaming forward in 2009/10 was so impressive.
How the rest of the squad fits in
Having a good rotation system is arguably the key to winning the Premier League. It was said of Sir Alex Ferguson that when choosing his eleven for an upcoming fixture he was also keeping in mind his preferred eleven eight or nine games down the line.
In that sense, scheduling is as important a part of guaranteeing success as investment, A-list star power and style. In the film industry scheduling a blockbuster to enter cinemas at the right time is a point so obvious as to be moot and so it does not feature in Mark Kermode’s hypothesis. However, many in football still haven’t realised that value of scheduling team selections.
Consequently, fatigue is still an issue for many overworked players and clubs without Chelsea’s resources often fade at any point from the end of March onward. For Chelsea, however, it shouldn’t be a problem. As Rafa Benítez’s handling of the squad last season showed, even a sixty-nine game season doesn’t impact too much on the Blues’ squad.
In short, everyone will feature and in a planned role. Barring an outbreak of the bubonic plague, there will be no selection headaches or injury crises. Therefore, the final and most important strength of the prospective 4-1-2-3 is that it allows everyone in Chelsea’s squad to feature over the course of the season and in something akin to their preferred role.
So there we have it: Chelsea’s plan to go forward and conquer the Premier League and Europe, spelled out in its sprawling entirety. Now I just need someone with access to José Mourinho to pass it on…