This article originally appeared on Plains Of Almeria.
It now goes beyond cliché to talk about Chelsea’s move towards a holistic model in which the first-team, U21 and youth squads play using the same system, with the same general strategies and similar types of players occupying the same roles to allow seamless rotation and simultaneous assaults on multiple competitions.
It is well-known that the club’s grand plan is a proactive, high-line 4-2-3-1, the kind favoured by Jupp Heynckes’ all-conquering Bayern Munich and long-used by the Brazil national team. The club is working on educating its youngsters so as to emulate the level of comfort shown by Barcelona in their 4-3-3/3-4-3 hybrid, assuring a consistent level of quality regardless of team selection and opposition.
In Chelsea’s academy, central defenders have been chosen due to their on-ball comfort and their mobility and are taught the positional and passing skills to make them comfortable high up the pitch; midfielders are taught to play in all three midfield roles – as deep-lying playmaker, box-to-box runner and a more creative, incisive ten so as to maximise their flexibility; strikers are encouraged to take on responsibilities outside the box as well as doing the business inside it and consequently become all-rounders capable of adapting to the demands of the moment.
What is perhaps overlooked is that the system demands the wide-men in both defence and midfield to be supermen – or, to put it more accurately, for the relationship between the two to make them appear to be supermen. The wing-back – and it must be a wing-back, not a full-back – has to be prepared to support the wide-forward in attacking phases, while the wide-forward must put the yards in to get back and make sure the wing-back is not outnumbered or easily exposed.
It was a breakdown in this relationship that cost Chelsea the title in 2013-14. The club’s wide-forwards have taken the majority of the flak, at least in the press, for supposedly failing to hold their end of the bargain, but it was in fact the wing-backs who cost the club. This has gone almost totally under the radar.
Much has been made of the struggles of the Chelsea’s flair players under José Mourinho. Juan Mata and David Luiz have been sold, while Eden Hazard and Oscar have both faced pointed criticism over the quality of their contribution in offensive and defensive phases. Even more has been written about the trials and travails of the Blues’ strikers and their unreliability, both in front of goal and when trusted with the ball at their feet in midfield.
Almost nothing has been said about the poverty of the club’s wing-back situation. While Branislav Ivanović was his usual monstrous self in defence and, despite being on the wrong flank, César Azpilicueta did not put a foot wrong until conceding the title-challenge-ending penalty against Sunderland, the two offered almost nothing going forward and their impotence was ultimately decisive.
Chelsea’s strength in the big domestic games was that they could easily nullify the opposition’s attacks before springing through on the break. In these games, the attacking wide-men, so widely maligned by the press for their defensive contribution, did more than their bit. The system was perfectly conceived and flawlessly executed. If everyone had attacked Chelsea the way Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal tried to, then they would be champions.
However, as we all know, the title was lost in games against the division’s supposedly less-threatening sides. In what should have been routine matches against Newcastle, Stoke, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, as well as the aforementioned Sunderland debacle, Chelsea could not find a way through to goal. In their desperation, they committed too much forward and gave away goals that proved pivotal. The build-up play was deliberate, snail-paced and ultimately very predictable.
When sides refused to attack Chelsea, the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian found themselves denied space with which to work and unable to influence the match. The ball invariably went wide to Ivanović or Azpilicueta, who promptly wasted it.
Indeed, opposition sides often left Ivanović and Azpilicueta free, safe in the knowledge that their end product was reliably terrible. The figures speak for themselves: in the five games mentioned above, Ivanović attempted 27 crosses – only 4 found their target; Ashley Cole played in the Newcastle game and attempted 2 crosses, of which 1 was successful; Azpilicueta was far more conservative, trying only 7 and completing 1.
Of course, crossing is not the best policy when you have one of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba in the box, even with Oscar, Frank Lampard or one of the wide-men arriving in support. They prefer the ball to be worked to the byline and drilled low across the goalmouth, or cut back towards the penalty spot, for a tap-in.
However, neither Ivanović nor Azpilicueta, at least when Azpi is fielded on the left, is a natural wing-back inclined to make such bursts. Neither is comfortable when they must nimbly combine with their wide-forward before driving towards goal. With them in the side, the opposition knew that their task to avoid defeat was relatively simple, if not easy: double-mark Chelsea’s wide-forwards – job done. Eden Hazard is an amazing footballer but he cannot reliably beat two or three men every time he touches the ball and score all by himself.
Had Chelsea possessed a Philipp Lahm or a Dani Alves or a Jordi Alba, an auxiliary attacker to either deliver the ball with genuine quality or hurtle through the opponents’ lines and create space for Hazard or Willian, then things would probably have turned out very differently in those matches and consequently in the history books.
If you think of a side that has been successful when using an attacking 4-2-3-1, there is always at least one wing-back contributing goals and assists when it really matters: Bayern have Lahm and David Alaba, Dortmund have Łukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer, Spain have Jordi Alba. José Mourinho should know this better than anyone, having got the best out of Maicon at Inter and Marcelo at Real Madrid.
It can be reduced to simple numbers: in 2013-14 Chelsea’s wing-backs created 59 chances, of which only 3 were converted; Manchester City – a useful comparison not only because they won the title but also because they are one of the few Premier League sides who also regularly faced a parked bus – fared significantly better: Pablo Zabaleta, Aleks Kolarov and Gaël Clichy created 81 chances and racked up 13 assists in the process.
Again, one has to stress that it is one thing sending balls into the box for Eto’o, Torres and Ba and another thing entirely when your targets are Edin Džeko, Álvaro Negredo and Sergio Agüero. Another mitigating factor is that Kolarov’s figures are slightly inflated by the fact that he takes corners and set-pieces and as such has more opportunities to create shots on goal. Nonetheless, the point stands and the lesson is there to be learned. The fluidity of City’s attack compared to Chelsea’s is obvious on the eye if you place little faith in the statistics.
José Mourinho knew this all along, which is why he spoke of his side as an emerging force, as a project that was yet to be completed. The constituent parts did not yet add up to an overpowering whole. Of course, things should change this summer.
If and when Diego Costa completes his much anticipated move from Atlético Madrid, many observers will write that Chelsea’s problems have been solved – that their failure to bully their way past the Premier League’s also-rans will be a thing of the past now that they have a great striker. They will be wrong. Unless Chelsea also upgrade in the wing-back positions, the problems they faced this season will remain and the major silverware will go elsewhere again.
The solutions are within Chelsea’s grasp. Azpilicueta may not have a great record of productivity – just the 11 assists since 2009 – but his positional aggression is an asset when he is played on the right flank. He can provide the well-timed overlap required to unlock a defence, whether or not the pass is played to him when he makes it. All he really needs to do is give Willian the extra half-second or bit of space that he needs to make the right decision and do maximum damage.
With Azpilicueta first choice on the right flank, more creativity will be needed on the left. Eden Hazard, more than any other player at Chelsea, needs a really explosive wing-back to arrive. The Belgian cannot achieve his stated aim of reaching the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo without also having the conditions that they have benefitted from.
When Messi burst onto the scene it was as an inside-out winger with Dani Alves overlapping; at Real Madrid Ronaldo has a fantastic relationship with Marcelo. If Hazard has someone of that calibre with whom to combine, he can win the title by himself.
The in-house options at Chelsea are some way off of that level. Now that Ashley Cole has departed, Ryan Bertrand, Patrick Van Aanholt and potentially Nathan Aké are the only left-backs at the club. The former two have probably reached their potential but have not reached the required level to break into the Chelsea first team. Aké is too young to make a call on just yet – a loan spell or two will tell us more. Unless Mourinho is willing to place an extraordinary level of trust in Bertrand, it seems almost certain that the left-wing-back next season will be a new arrival.
Boyhood Blue Luke Shaw seems to be the top target, although talks are believed to be ongoing for Atlético Madrid’s Filipe Luis. The logic behind signing both is obvious: although 18-year-old Shaw would cost £30m, he could conceivably be the starting left-wing-back for fifteen years; Filipe Luis can run all day and never puts a foot wrong without the ball. However, these would both be auxiliary Azpilicuetas rather than Marcelos.
Ricardo Rodriguez of Wolfsburg would be a better option – the 21-year-old Swiss international scored five goals and made nine assists from left-back for the Bundesliga outfit last season, and though his figures are slightly inflated by his status as a set-piece and penalty taker, they are still far more impressive than the average numbers produced by Shaw or Filipe Luis. Besides, Chelsea have needed a good left-footed set-piece taker for years – that should count for him, not against him.
Rodriguez is positionally adventurous and though he probably slightly lacks the intimidating physical power that the others have, he has much more in the way of vision and technical ability. He can provide the telling cross that Chelsea so desperately lacked last season – the sort of ball into the box that Diego Costa craves.
With two years left on his contract, Rodriguez is widely expected to move this summer and would be a far better buy than Filipe Luis if not Shaw. He would not only post better individual figures, he would also be more likely to have the desired multiplier effect on Hazard’s. He ticks all the boxes.
It may be hard to believe that signing the right wing-back could be the difference between first and third place, but the lessons of 2013-14 must be heeded, the weaknesses of the squad turned into strengths. The rest of the squad is as good as it possibly could be and, assuming Diego Costa arrives promptly, the addition of a Rodriguez type would be the final piece of the jigsaw.