Chelsea continue their fine start to the season and have now taken maximum points from their opening three league matches.
A strange game in some respects which saw each team attack for one half and defend for the other half. Chelsea were dominant during the first half as Newcastle defended with the roles being largely, although not identically, reversed during the second half. Newcastle could never sustain a high tempo for any length of time and their attacking moves were never concerted. As a consequence, much of the interesting points from a tactical viewpoint occurred during the first half. The key difference being that Chelsea created many more chances when they attacked and took two of them. Chelsea also retained a significant threat on the counter attack when defending during the second half and appeared more comfortable when they were not obliged to take the initiative.
There were three changes from the Chelsea side that defeated Reading in midweek. Lampard and Ramires started on the bench, replaced by Meireles and Bertrand. Terry failed to recover from injury and David Luiz made his first start of the season.
The positioning of Ryan Bertrand was interesting in the Chelsea 4-3-2-1 formation. Bertrand offered support to the midfield duo when necessary, moving infield which also allowed Cole to overlap and provide width. His performance was quiet, unassuming but effective.
Newcastle made two changes following their opening day success over Tottenham with Tiote and Perch making way for Coloccini and Anita.
Newcastle used a 4-4-2 with Ba and Cisse as the strike force.
Anita and Cisse were playing their second game in 48 hours having both started in the away leg of the Europa League tie against Atromitos. The extent to which Newcastle were adversely affected from their European trip is open to debate given that only a few players played a part in both games. It was certainly not a positive experience so close to this important game.
Newcastle began the game with a very deep defence and two compact banks of four. Chelsea were able to move forward crossing the halfway line before Newcastle exerted any pressure on their opponents. Indeed it was the 8th minute of the game before Newcastle were able to push players into the Chelsea half of the pitch and enjoy a brief flirtation with possession.
Newcastle have been successful with this reactive approach over the past season. They are prepared to allow their opponent to secure a greater share of possession whilst they look to exploit gaps on the counter attack normally via Cisse and Ba working the channels. The most glaring example of this strategy was away to Swansea when Newcastle retained their shape and controlled the space to secure a 2-0 away win. The strategy though, is entirely predicated on not conceding the first goal. Once you fall behind, it is necessary to open up.
The approach never really proved successful against Chelsea. Both Cisse and Ba were often isolated and Newcastle resorted to hitting hopeful long balls to reach them. Whilst this provided one or two moments of opportunity within the first half such as the shot from Ba after 43 minutes, it was an unsuccessful strategy. Hatem Ben Arfa is capable of providing creativity for Newcastle but was largely contained within a right-wing role in the opening 45 minutes, unable to have any influence over the game.
The opening goal arrived via a penalty and leaving aside the validity of the decision (did Torres initiate and exaggerate contact as Anita was withdrawing his leg?) the manner in which Torres was able to move forward and break into the penalty area should be the real concern for Alan Pardew. Davide Santon was easily bypassed and failed to offer any resistance.
With Lampard on the bench, Hazard stepped up and dispatched the ball into the bottom corner.
This goal was key. Although Newcastle retained the same formation afterwards, there was space beginning to appear between the lines as the midfield moved just a little higher up the pitch to try and support the front pairing.
It also arrived at a junction when Chelsea, despite their dominance, did not really look like breaking Newcastle down.
If the first goal could be questioned by Newcastle from a defensive perspective, there was little they could complain about regarding the second goal. Some excellent interplay was finished with Hazard rolling a short back heel to Torres who finished with aplomb from the edge of the penalty area.
Eden Hazard scored one and provided one assist in the game further demonstrating his increasing importance to this Chelsea side yet even this early in the season, is there scope to consider if the majority of the creative burden is falling upon his shoulders?
The Creative Battle – Eden Hazard and Hatem Ben Arfa
The main creative outlets for either side had contrasting fortunes in the game. Whilst Hazard was allowed freedom, Ben Arfa was constrained within the right wing role until the second half after which point he was given license to move laterally across the pitch as well as advance. The defensive side of Ben Arfa’s game is not particularly strong and his containment on the right wing, whilst providing balance for the team, curtailed his attacking instincts.
The table below shows some key stats from the game:-
Given Newcastle’s game plan, Ben Arfa was always going to struggle to receive the same share of the ball as Hazard. The major disappointment must surely be the lack of passes within the final third. That is not just an issue for Ben Arfa however. The entire Newcastle team were unable to push sufficiently high up the pitch for any period of time as the team heat map demonstrated.
Yet only three dribbles were attempted within the final third. Not only was Ben Arfa passing in a much deeper area of the pitch, he was also undertaking dribbles much deeper too.
For Chelsea, Hazard now has four assists and one goal from Chelsea’s total of eight league goals so far this season. His impact has been immediate not just for Chelsea but for the Premiership as a whole. His interplay with both Mata and Torres was exquisite at times and his movement off the ball, finding space between the lines was very impressive.
Newcastle losing the opening goal altered the course of the game and it would have been interesting if the game continued scoreless to see how Chelsea would have adapted against such a defensive approach.
There is a school of thought which contends that the present Chelsea team, whilst still a work in progress under Di Matteo, is effectively broken into two distinct units. A defensive unit comprising six players and an attacking unit comprising four players. This could in theory move to a seven – three split dependent upon how you consider Ramires / Bertrand to function within the side.
What was noticeable against Newcastle was that Mata was dropping much deeper to collect the ball and provide the platform for Chelsea to launch attacks. In the 3-3 draw with Manchester United last season, the withdrawal of Mata was the catalyst for Manchester United to drag themselves back into the game. Mata was dictating the tempo.
What is also interesting is that only one pass into the penalty area was successful with six failed passes perhaps indicative of the approach from Newcastle with a number of players back defending. Perhaps also highlighting an issue for Chelsea in attack too which is touched upon later.
Mata could be moving deeper as the midfield pairing of Mikel and Meireles were too slow recycling possession and moving forward. There is not enough dynamism to their game and it creates this feeling of disconnection. The attack is fluid and mobile whilst the remainder of the team operates below this level.
The removal of Mata after 66 minutes to be replaced by Ramires was a clear indication that Di Matteo was content to defend and counter attack. Ramires provided additional support for the midfield area whilst being the most vertical member of the squad, was ideally placed to offer assistance for counter attack.
Ramires can help bridge part of this gap with his vertical style but Chelsea perhaps need a more gifted passer within midfield to fully connect the team and link the components. Azpilicueta at right back will offer the sort of thrusting runs which Cole is capable of and offer a greater degree of balance.
Torres is not a penalty box striker. His best work occurs outside of the box when he can move off the shoulder of the defender and use his pace. There are doubts surrounding whether Torres still has that explosive burst. For so long a fan of Torres, it’s hard to avoid falling back onto the cliché of form being temporary and class being permanent. This season is crucial for El Niño. Whilst his link up play is developing, there is still room for improvement.
His movement will cause defences problems but conversely, his lack of presence within the box could provide issues for Chelsea. For although Torres provides a reference point in attack, it is substantially deeper than Chelsea have been used to when using the likes of Drogba.
When Chelsea are under significant pressure, there is no immediate out-ball.
So far, so good for Chelsea. Whilst there are teething problems with the switch in style and the introduction of new players, there is much cautious optimism for the season ahead.
It must be considered whether Chelsea would prefer teams to attack them due to their counter attacking ability. Despite not scoring in the second half, Chelsea often looked much more threatening when breaking with the pace and movement of Mata, Hazard and Torres. It may be that against more defensive teams, a moment of individual brilliance is needed to provide the initial breakthrough.
Pardew may not be overly worried by a loss to Chelsea. The performance level rose in the second half although a certain level of lethargy, understandably, was always evident. The possible repetition of such performances following Europa League games will provide food for thought. With the transfer window closing in under one week, Pardew may be tempted to see if he can bring in one or two additions to provide the necessary squad numbers to be competitive on all fronts.
All heat maps and graphics are taken from the excellent www.squawka.com