Immediately after being appointed the new Chelsea manager, Rafa Benitez had to deal with several problems. Putting aside the ‘off pitch’ problems he encountered (which, quite frankly took the term ‘fan backlash’ to new highs), the Spaniard’s focus was surely casted over the tactical deficiencies repeatedly showed by his new team during the season.
For a team of Chelsea’s calibre (given their spending power, hence the amount of quality players in their squad), perhaps it was uncommon to have different problems in all their lines of play. In defence, the centre-backs were often completely unprotected. The attacking nature of the fullbacks (even Ivanovic was often bursting into the opposition’s half), coupled with the lack of defensive input from the wingers, meant the team was vulnerable against forays down the flanks. The lack of clear midfield shape and responsibilities of the sitting relatively deep midfielders often led to too much space between the lines (and just in front of the centre-backs) being constantly available for the opposition to exploit. As a whole, the team neither pressed from high up the pitch, nor dropped deep into tight defensive lines.
Going forward, the team had problems including an incoherent strategy, the attacking quality of the fullbacks and the band of three playing behind the strikers. Often the fullbacks seemed isolated down the flanks, with their overlapping runs rarely used to produce dangerous team moves in and around the last third. The ‘magical trio’ of Hazard, Mata and Oscar, often ended up too close to each other somewhere around the pitch, hence the lack of diversity and different attacking capabilities expected from them. And on top all of this, the ’50 million pounds’ question of what to do with Torres was still present, far from being answered with any tactical assertiveness.
Some of the problems were basically resolved from day one, given the nature of Benitez’ tactical style and what was expected of him to introduce as playing philosophy, defensive and offensive patterns of play. The fact that he is a ‘structured’ manager meant the previous lack of framework within which the players had to operate defensively and offensively was easily resolved. In defence he introduced the mantra of initially quickly dropping into a solid 4-4-1-1 shape, with the wingers tasked to level with the central midfielders and being closer to the fullbacks in order to help them out. Only when that shape was formed and there was a clear view of how, where and when the opposition was going to attack, were Chelsea told to press. The players were asked to press zonally into units of two or three, depending on which zone the ball is in. The overall defensive coherence was evident as soon as the first home game against Man City.
Offensively, the efforts of the ‘three playmakers’ were divided in order to provide that required diversity, which would aid the team to take maximum advantage when attacking. Surprisingly for many, this was done by often dropping one of them to the bench and using only two of Hazard, Mata and Oscar in the starting XI. This could be easily explained by the obsessive nature of Benitez for rotation on a match by match basis, but there is tactical reasoning behind this decision.
To put it briefly, the three of them – no matter where their starting point is – are always seeking to end up into a central playmaking position in and around the penalty in order to create and/or finish the team’s attacking moves. The three of them do have differences in their style of play, hence the type of players they are. Hazard is the speedy dribbler, seeking to pick up the ball and running at the opposition before either sliding an angled through ball or shoot towards the goal. Mata is the typical modern Spanish ball-player, willing to roam all over the last third in order to create passing triangles and connect with every unit of the team (through the middle or down the flanks) in order to create numerical supremacy somewhere around the last third. His vision and passing skills are making him a machine for assists, whilst his appreciation for space, which he often likes to pop into, adds goals to his repertoire. Finally, the Brazilian Oscar is your typical all-rounder, good at everything but sublime at nothing (at least yet, and given his age is having the time to develop into a certain specialist). Di Matteo often used him into central position to execute specific tactical role – either as a second forward in order to boost his team’s goal-scoring capabilities, or as a personal marker for the opposition’s key midfielder (see his job at marking Pirlo at Stamford Bridge).
Still, with all their differences, the trio were yet to blend together under Di Matteo. Also, from purely a tactical point of view, there was enough to suggest by playing the three of them all the time the team was hindered both offensively (due to the lack of diversity) and defensively (due to the lack of efforts put by them without the ball).
Being ‘structured’ doesn’t end up with you enforcing certain defensive frameworks to your team. This also concerns your attitude towards the team’s attacking play. Benitez has always been certain with what he wants from his team offensively. For all the myths that he is pretty much a rigid manager when it comes to attacks, in fact he has always insisted on his team being fluid going forward by presenting several attacking angles and different threats. A typical Benitez team (see Valencia and Liverpool at their peaks) always include players providing width, one or two ball-players and at least two players capable and geared up to provide direct attacking presence within the shape. In short – the typical Benitez side will always include diversity in a purely attacking sense. Which means players overlapping in their duties and behaviour on the pitch would rarely be put together. Arguably, this is the very same tactical reason why the Spaniard started re-building his team’s attacking play by always having one of the trio benched. Often this meant playing Hazard (as dribbling playmaker on one flank) and Mata (as the team’s prime creator and secondary attacker). Then the trio was completed by one of Moses or Ramires playing on the other flank with a specific brief to provide additional attacking width (the former) or combined further defensive solidity and counter-attacking threat (the latter), all depending on the opposition and Benitez’ strategy for each match. It took nine games in the league before we saw Benitez opting to use the three of Hazard, Mata and Oscar together again – in the home game against Southampton. In his debut game against Man City he used them for the first time, perhaps due the small time he had to work with this players before that game. Time he obviously spent drilling his players into the new organization.
The fact that the trio was used together in only home games (Arsenal, WBA and West Ham being the other games) suggests that Chelsea’s manager is aware of their rather too chaotic movement, hence the danger of his team losing the intended specific shape and patterns of play. The fact he played them only against two of the newly promoted teams and a team who is always expected to sit deep and look to hit on the break (WBA) further backs up the theory he is reluctant to use them all the time due to the already mentioned tactical reasons. The game against Arsenal was played on 20 January, meaning Mikel and Moses were still in Africa. Then due to the injury of Romeu and the lack of further options (only Marin and Bertrand were in this moment of time viable alternatives for either of star trio) meant Benitez had little choice but to put them all on the pitch together.
All of this meant the previous lack of balance between the actions of the band of three and the fullbacks were drastically improved. Now, Cole had the player in front of him always looking to cut infield, with no one else suddenly popping up in his position to continue to block the fullback’s way forward. On the other side – where Moses or Ramires played predominantly – the fullback was one asked to provide additional security at the back (Ivanovic). Or someone who will initially stay deep, hence allowing Cole to quickly burst forward and stretch the play on the opposite flank, before later on overlap and aim to create a 2-v-1 advantage down the flank in combination with his wing partner (Azpilicueta).
With these changes it was logical to see the ‘Torres problem’ showing signs of positive development too. Without doubt his initial improved goal-scoring form was thanks to psychological boost he received seeing who is the new manager. Benitez was the manager who brought him to England and made him one of the best strikers in the world during their joint time at Liverpool. But the specific instructions and drills the striker received would have certainly played their key part too. It was evident how Torres would either drop deep to join the build-up before suddenly turn and seek to receive the ball through the pockets of space in behind or around the opposition’s defenders. Or he would drift wider, working the channels before make diagonal runs off the ball, targeting the same space within the opposition’s defence, to receive the ball in good goal-scoring positions. The initial boost came to an end after the first series of unsuccessful matches, full of missing clear chances. The fact he was the only fit striker in the team didn’t help, as he had to play every three days without rest and chance to recharge his mental batteries. Quickly, Torres reverted to the previous type of unhappy and lurking player. Still, recently with the January addition of Ba, and the rotation between them, slowly Torres again shows signs of regaining his initial form when Rafa Benitez took over at Chelsea.
Benitez’ midfield template
To have your overall shape working successfully – ie defensively and offensively – there is one thing you need to use as the ‘blending’ platform – the midfield zone. This zone is crucial to everything that is happening during all phases of play, but especially during the transitioning one. Without that zone working well your team could either be too open in defence or lacking the required platform to move forward and attack assertively; or both.
Of course, the better the players you have – the easier will it be to achieve that successful platform in the middle of the pitch. But a players’ relative quality (as subjective as this term is) would be for nothing if the midfield unit (be it the double pivot within 4-2-3-1, the midfield triumvirate of 4-1-2-3, or the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1’s traditional midfield four) was not working coherently. All of this is measured up by how the general tactical balance looks in that particular zone of the pitch. One could look no further than Florentino Perez’ first try with the ‘Galacticos’ project. Even if you have the luxury to play some of the world’s best players in all positions on a weekly basis, this doesn’t automatically mean everything is tactically right and balanced.
One sphere where Benitez is indeed rigid is in his requirements to his midfield duo. Although on paper the formation that the Spaniard is using – the 4-2-3-1 – the third midfielder player (ie the player in the hole, playing between the lines), is a player that is deemed part of the attacking, not the midfield line (be it with the role of a second forward or the main creator).
At Valencia, Inter and now Chelsea Benitez used players between the lines with the profile of traditional playmakers, increasing the onus on possession based football. Something that goes to defy the myth the Spaniard is defensive manager, counting on counter-attacks and generally rigid and a boring way of attacking. To compensate for the lack of direct attacking input of the player between the lines, whose brief was to primary create from that zone, not break forward and head into the box to finish off the team moves, Benitez always had his wide players pushed higher. At Valencia Kily Gonzalez and Angulo, despite being natural wingers (and not wide forwards), played with added attacking verve. Often they would be seen driving infield to get on the end of the attacking move. This was due to the playmaking presence of Aimar between the lines, who’s main aim was to roam all over the third to create for his teammates.
Once Benitez started to use the 4-2-3-1 shape at Liverpool (between 2007 and 2010) Gerrard was the player playing between the lines but with the brief to act as a second forward. This enforced change in the wide men’s roles. They were asked to start deeper and push higher up only when the play heads forward.
By the time Benitez took over at Inter, Wesley Sneijder has already completed his metamorphosis from a natural number 10 to the so called ‘false 10’ player. With his behaviour on the pitch he indirectly demanded to be considered as a direct attacking player heading into the box in order to finish off goal scoring chances, and not a ball-player who is happy to sit behind the play and thread passes for someone else to consume and score. Hence Benitez’ 4-2-3-1 at Inter included Eto’o as the spearheading striker and Sneijder as the second forward behind him. To compensate the Spanish manager had his wide players (generally Coutinho and Biabiany) closer to the midfield duo and not to the forward (as was the case at Valencia). In short – Benitez continuously tried to repeat the format he had at Liverpool. Coutinho – as Benayon – moved infield between the lines to join the build up, while Biabiany (as Kuyt) started deeper and wider then progressed down the flank before heading into the box later on as the attacking move developed.
Now at Chelsea Benitez has a player like Mata who in his first season in the Premier League was considered more of a creator, than attacker. From his Valencia days he was used to playing on the left flank with the aim to move between the lines and create from there. In Spain he did that within Emery’s 4-2-3-1 formation, while in his first Premier League season Mata was playing tucked in from the left in AVB’s 4-1-2-3 shape (before briefly being moved central within 4-2-3-1 soon before the Portuguese was sacked). Under Di Matteo Mata spent as much time on the pitch as on the bench.
Under Benitez, Mata is quickly evolving into more of an all-rounder. In essence he became what could be seen as cross between Aimar (Benitez’ most successful central creator) and Gerrard (Benitez’s most successful second forward). Mata is predominantly used in the centre of the attacking band of three, and although his vision, passing skills and technique mean he will always create plenty of chances for his teammates, he started to add goals to his play. With Hazard staying relatively higher up the pitch on the flank, and either Moses or Ramires dropping deeper and closer to the midfielders (both in and out of possession) Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 often seem lopsided. This effect is mainly due to Mata being half number 10, half false 10.
His role, and the need of diversity explained at the start, mean that the attacking band of three is not the usual Benitez format. If Mata was either the number 10 or the second forward the two wide men would have been instructed to act accordingly (drop deep if Mata is a second forward, push higher if he is a creator). The matter of fact is that Benitez (as usually during his career) made the player playing between the lines the main player, tactically speaking. Hence it’s whom the team is adapted and built around. With Mata’s quasi role, the wide men often includes one staying higher up (Hazard) and one compensating by staying deeper (Moses/Ramires).
All of this is done by Benitez with the single aim of his team to remain compact. That compactness allows the team to offer solidity both when attacking and defending. Depending on the nature of the player between the lines the wide men are instructed accordingly in order to compensate. As such the team’s shape could be labelled more like a 4-4-1-1 morphing into 4-2-3-1 during the attacking phase when the main player is a second forward (Liverpool, Inter). If he is more of a creator (Valencia) the shape changes to being principally 4-2-3-1 into 4-4-1-1 when defending. The exception is Chelsea, where the shape is more fluid and depending on the situation morphs between 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 due to the un-typical players’ roles in the attacking band of three.
Back to the deep-lying midfielders and Benitez’ rigid attitude towards that particular duo. As the 4-2-3-1 formation origins from the 4-4-2 framework, it’s much more binary and less triangular than, to say, the 4-1-2-3 shape. To clarify: ‘binary’ means the shape is based on pairs all over the pitch (the centre-backs, the wide pairs, the central midfielders and the split forwards); while ‘triangular’ means it’s based on creating triangles throughout the pitch to pass and move within the shape.
The binary nature of the 4-2-3-1 nature suits Benitez and his explicit requirements for his team to remain compact all the time, with tight lines in and out of possession. It’s easier to remain structured when you are playing within pairs and the team is related to each pair. In the meantime the required fluidity for the triangular formations to move within smooth triangles makes the structure rather loose. However, that 4-2-3-1 is based on pairs allows for diversity throughout the pitch as you can assemble each pair with different types of players. You can have split centre-backs (ball-player partnered by more of a stopper); down the flanks you can have natural wingers supported with rather defensive fullbacks, or alternatively you can have attacking fullbacks paired with inverted wingers or proper wide forwards; through the middle you can have a few variants including the three types of central midfielders: destroyer, passer, attacker (for example: destroyer + passer, passer + attacker, destroyer + attacker); then up front you could have another batch of options (for example: creator + number 9, false 10 + number 9, false 10 + false 9, creator + false 9 but only if the flanks are boosting proper wide forwards to compensate for the lack of direct attacking presence within the forward duo). Meantime the triangular-based formations are, due to their increased possession fluency and position fluidity, requiring players able to do a bit from everything in all positions.
It’s that diversity and ability of the shape to remain structured (in and out of possession) that has always attracted Benitez to use the 4-2-3-1 formation. It allows for his explicit will to include diversity all over the pitch, but especially through the middle and in particular the midfield duo. Although it may sound counter-productive or illogical, the fact you can select several types of players on the pitch freely to play within the overall framework is what helps you to balance the team. This is so because the different types of players allows for ‘plugging’ any holes or deficiencies that each player may have, without the main aim of balance and diversity to be ruined. Anyone who follows Rafael Benitez closely would know that for him the effect ‘balance’ is the single most important thing tactically speaking. That’s why he is predominantly basing his teams on the players’ ‘attributes’ and not on ‘type of players’ per se. The single aim is the balance – meaning not having any apparent holes or deficiencies throughout the team.
All of this is backed up by the way he managed his teams throughout his career. And one of the best examples of a unit following that script is the duo of deep-lying midfielders. The nature of the 4-2-3-1 is such that one of the ‘2’ should always provide diversity to his midfield partner. The aim is simple – ability to link up the playing lines in all phases of play. If the midfield duo is constrained of similar players as attributes, abilities and style of play the team will quickly become ‘broken’ and the balance (allowing for the correct functioning of the team in and out of possession) easily ruined. The team will be divided in 6×4, with the former group defending and the latter group attacking with a huge gap between them.
To prevent this Benitez always (of course when not constrained of injuries, bans, explicit need of rotation for certain players to be rested etc) selects players, to play in that unit, who could provide something different to each other and by doing this to keep up the diversity, but also the balance. A player tasked to provide the diversity and the required link-up play could do that in two ways. First is to have the vision and range of passing to ‘connect’ the team via passing from deep. This will allow him to remain deeper (especially if he lacks the mobility to move up and down through the midfield area) and have his partner either focused on providing the ‘move’ effect or sitting deeper and focused on breaking up the opposition’s play. Or to use some terms – a deep-lying playmaker (a regista) could be partnered by either a midfield runner, who would do the run or by a proper ball-winner who would do the dirty work. In both case the effect of diversity and balance will remain.
The second way of providing the required is to have a player within the double pivot ‘connecting’ the team via sheer movement up and down the pitch. By starting deeper he would join the build-up play and help his team’s capability to construct passing moves. Then by pushing vertically he would be closer to the attacking quartet and in position to link the team through the middle with the 2-1 midfield shape becoming a vertically split unit of 1-1-1, hence covering all the space in the midfield area. Such a ‘midfield runner’ could be partnered by either a regista type of passer or proper enforcing defensive midfielder.
It’s important to remember that Benitez is pairing his players based on ‘attributes’. This means if the ‘passer’ is slower, then his partner would be a player mobile enough and with the abilities to either win the ball back or run up and down the pitch. Then depending on the type of ‘passer’, meaning the range and style of his passes, his partner would differ too. If the ‘passer’ is more of a recycler (who will sit deep, hence able to provide the defensive cover in terms of positioning, and would be focused to just keep the ball around with short and calm passes) then his partner should be more of a midfield runner capable to link the team via his constant movement. If the ‘passer’ is more of a regista (player who will look to spray more creative passes all over the pitch), then his partner would usually be more of a mobile ball-winner as this type of passer is often lacking both mobility and pure defensive ball retrieving skills.
Delving deeper into Benitez’ career and it’s quite obvious how he constructed his deep-lying midfield units based on that template requiring both tactical diversity and balance simultaneously. At Valencia he usually had Albelda (the sitting deep retriever who calmly distributed the ball via short passes) paired with Baraja (the mobile runner who covered all the space up and down the midfield zone). At Liverpool (once he opted to introduce the 4-2-3-1 shape) he had the mobility and pure defensive bite of Mascherano alongside the creative force of the deep-sitting Alonso who linked the team initially via pinpoint passes and then arriving late into opposition’s defensive third. Once Alonso left, and with Aquilani still injured, Benitez was left with no other options but to pair Mascherano and Lucas. As a result – the effect of diversity and balance was largely ruined duo to both players sitting deep and unable to link the team via passing nor via sheer vertically roaming movement. Benitez attempted to fix the problem by sometimes using Gerrard alongside each of them, but then the hole he left between the lines was unable to be properly fulfilled by someone else. The fact Aquilani and Gerrard played too few games together (due to injuries to both players both players featured in 16 PL matches; but they managed to play approximately 700 minutes of football, the equal of seven full matches or around 43 minutes in each of these 16) or the Spaniard would have the chance to pair each of them alongside one of Mascherano or Lucas with the other playing in the hole. In the few cases this was actually done the effect on balance and diversity was obvious.
At Inter Benitez quickly formed a duo of Cambiasso (the ball-winner) and Stankovic (the playmaking midfield runner). The problems occurred when the Serbian was injured and the Argentinian had to be paired with Thiago Motta. As a result Benitez encountered the same problem that was in his last season at Liverpool when neither Cambiasso nor Motta provided that vital link-up play and diversity within the double pivot.
Chelsea’s midfield under Benitez
At the start of this article the tactical problems Benitez faced at his new team and how he opted to improve all of them were discussed. Back there it was hinted the key thing for this to happen was his work in the midfield area. But before delving deeper into it lets first briefly profile the midfielders he has at his disposal in order to give a detailed context to the tactical decisions he took.
By the time Benitez took over Chelsea he had the following midfielders:
- Mikel: a typical recycling retriever, capable to offer short and reliable passing from deep. Given his lack of mobility and pure ball-winning skills on paper he is more suited to the role of the deepest midfielder within a 1-2 midfield triangle than as part of a double pivot.
- Romeu: very similar player to Mikel. Following his years spent schooling the art of tiki-taka at Barcelona’s La Masia, the Spaniard is arguably even more suited to the role of ‘1’ in a 1-2 midfield. Not surprised he impressed in that role during last season under AVB’s 4-1-2-3 shape. As the Nigerian, his lack of pure defensive bite and sheer dynamism makes him less suitable for a role within 2-1 midfield triangle. Unfortunately for him he injured badly his knee at the start of December and gone to miss the rest of the season.
- Ramires: the Brazilian is a pure midfield dynamo, capable to run all day long. His sheer movement dynamism enables him to play as the ‘midfield runner’. This, and his general discipline nature, makes him a perfect candidate as a covering midfielder within a double pivot (if he is to partner with someone who would occupy the role of a midfield runner). His attributes are well suited to a role of a defensive winger too.
- Lampard: due to his age, and recent injury troubles in the past couple of years, his already lacking mobility movement decreased even more. But due to his all-round intelligence and brilliant timing of his runs he is still capable to execute the role of a late runner heading into the box from deep. The lack of dynamism means he needs to be partnered with someone who will carry the water for him, so to speak. Given his advanced footballing age he already started to put increased onus on his probing passing from deep and decision-making when to mix his short and reliable passes with more of direct, penetrative balls into the last third.
Based on these profiles and the already explained Benitez’ methods and preferences it’s quite easy to guess which were going to be his preferred midfielder pairs. The two pairs that seem most suitable are Mikel (as a deep-lying recycler) + Ramires (as a powerful midfield runner) and Ramires (as a covering midfielder) + Lampard (as a pushing vertically ball-player). In theory, given their similarities, Romeu would have been able to do Mikel’s job if it wasn’t for his season ending injury. The less suitable pair seem to be Mikel and Lampard as neither having the mobility or the pure defensive bite to be a proper defensive shield.
Looking at the actual games and it’s obvious the theory was put in practice by Benitez. In terms of numbers the pairs have assembled in the following way (PL games only):
– Ramires + Lampard = seven times
– David Luiz + Lampard = four times
– Mikel + Ramires = three times
– Mikel + Lampard = twice
– Romeu + Ramires = twice
– Mikel + David Luiz = once
In the other competitions the template is more or less the same. In the last CL group game against Nordsjaelland the midfield duo was Romeu and Ramires. In the Europa games the pairs were as follows: against Sparta Prague – Ramires and Lampard (A) with Mikel and Ramires (H). In the next round against Steaua: Mikel + Lampard (A) with Mikel + Ramires (H). In the recent round against Rubin: Ramires and Lampard (H) with Ake and Ramires (A).
In the domestic Cups the case is similar too. In the Capital One Cup there were three games with Lampard and surprisingly Oscar playing at Leeds then David Luiz and Ramires in the home leg against Swansea with Ramires and Lampard played in the return leg.
In the FA Cup Ramires and Lampard faced Brentford away from home with the replay of this match played by David Luiz and Lampard. The next round – against Middlesbrough – Ake and Ramires featured. Away at Man United Ramires and Lampard were the duo with the replay at Stamford Bridge played by Mikel and Ramires.
It’s interesting how Benitez opted to deal with the blow of losing one of his four midfielders to the rest of the season – Romeu. This meant decreased opportunity for the manager to rotate his team. Something that is not only notoriously one of Benitez’ strongest traits but with the potential record numbers of games for his team yet to play was always going to be even more of a problem. To compensate the Spanish manager opted to use one of his centre-backs into a midfield position. David Luiz has the mobility and the pure defensive skills to play either as the covering midfielder alongside a midfield runner (Lampard or Ramires). But due to his ball-playing skills and habits to surge forward with and without the ball from deep he could be also used as a midfield runner alongside a deep-sitting recycler like Mikel. And the above statistic backed-up that theory too. David Luiz played predominantly alongside Lampard, effectively rotating with Ramires who either was used on the flank (as away at Everton) or rested on the bench (as at home vs Aston Villa). Alternatively he was once used alongside Mikel in that more advanced role, where he quite excelled (away at Norwich). In that game both Lampard and Ramires were rested. The former due to just coming back from injury the latter due to playing in several matches in quick succession.
The rather unsuitable duo of Mikel and Lampard were twice used in the PL. Both cases were games following international breaks when players like Ramires travelled more than anyone else and needed extra time to recuperate. Interestingly in both games (ie away at both Man City and Southampton) Benitez tried to compensate with a strategy involving his team sitting extremely deep and trying to compensate for the lack of mobility within the midfield duo with increased compactness. At the end the aim backfired in both games as the opposition had the players to open Chelsea using a technical possession-based style with lots of position fluidity and possession fluency. The only time this strategy was sort of successful was in the other game it was used at all – in the first, away, leg at Steaua. Although Chelsea lost that game too, the duo of Mikel and Lampard at least did their job reasonably well in stifling the opposition and limiting their chance to outplay Chelsea as soundly as especially Man City did. Of course, the decreased quality in the Steaua’s players in comparisons to the Citizens’ should be taken into account and if Steaua had better players it could be expected the same effect to follow too. Still, it’s quite obvious Benitez is really reluctant to use that particular duo, which suggest he is aware of the shortcomings of these two players and the negative effect they are causing playing as a duo in that crucial for Benitez’ whole formation zone.
Back to the more suitable – and crucially the most used – midfield pairs. What Ramirez/David Luiz and Lampard (featuring in 11 of the 19 league games up to this moment of time) are providing as a duo proved to be key for how the Benitez’ methods improved the Chelsea’s tactical state.
To start with how the general framework is behaving during the phases. With Mata and Hazard staying higher up the pitch and the opposite of the Belgian’s flank boosted by a player who is more included to drop back and move up and down the pitch, the shape quite often became lopsided. This somehow defies Benitez’ idea about having his side compact during all the phases, which ultimately make the need of at least pretty mobile player through the centre imperative. With Ramires or David Luiz being the player the team had that player who could cover the ground quickly and plug any gap opening up when the team is defending or even more importantly – transitioning between the phases. Benitez has always been obsessive with how his teams are going to transition. His aim is to have enough players pushing forward or initially being capable to hit on the break, but in the meantime have enough players staying relatively deeper and in position to face any resulted counter-attack if the team’s attacking moves breaks down. This could be done either if one of the double pivot is almost always sitting deeper and provides that shield (see Albelda, Mascherano and Cambiasso) or is mobile enough to cover any gaps, especially if his partner is someone who will actively look to break the midfield lines and support the attacks (see Ramires and David Luiz).
With Lampard featuring in 11 of the 19 leagues game up to now the need for someone mobile to provide that cover was crucial, hence the usage of Ramires or David Luiz. All of this enabled the centre to boost supporting player who could pull the strings from deep and channel the team’s attack but then join the attacking moves as a late runner heading into the last third. With the mobile player alongside him the team had enough cover to be sure any potential counter-attack could be at least initially slowed down. Not a surprise that Lampard, under Benitez, has enjoyed a goal-scoring form. Not only he had that freedom to burst forward, knowing Ramires or David Luiz will be there for him to cover, but with the front quartet occupying the majority of the opposition’s defensive attention there were always gaps left for Lampard to exploit using his intelligent forward runs and calm finishing. That particular pair is even more suitable as the majority of Chelsea’ opponents would predominantly sit deep and aim to defend against the team. So the Blues needs additional attacking input but also enough cover to deal with any resulting counter-attacks.
The less used pairs of Mikel with Ramires and Romeu with Ramires were predominantly exploited at the start of Benitez’ tenure when Lampard was still injured. The first four games included each pair used twice. It was until the last game against Sunderland at home when Lampard didn’t featured with Mikel and Ramires playing in midfield. Here it was Mikel or Romeu as the deep-lying recycler with Ramires urged to link the team via his energetic runs on and off the ball. Mikel played once alongside David Luiz when Lampard had to be eased back from his injury and after starting at home against Aston Villa he had to be benched away at Norwich. But there, as mentioned earlier, the Brazilian took over his brief and successfully provided the required attacking input as a ‘runner’ all over the midfield area and often enough into the last third.
It’s interesting to compare all of this with how Di Matteo previously used the players at his disposal to construct the midfield area. His most used PL pairs were: Mikel and Ramires (5), Mikel and Lampard (4), with Mikel partnered twice with Romeu and once with Meireles. In the CL the case was similar with Mikel featuring twice with each of Ramires and Lampard and once Ramires playing with Lampard (the only time Di Matteo used that pair in all compeitions). Generally speaking the usage of Mikel and Lampard didn’t lead to poor results under the Italian as the four games were all against teams expected to sit deep with three of the games being at home (Reading, Stoke and Norwich and the only away game being against Wigan at the start of the season. The problems under Di Matteo were more general – as explained at the start of the article – and spread throughout the team in terms of structure, transitioning between the phases, offensive and defensive failings and unclear patterns of play with and without the ball. And these problems were evident right from the start and no matter the exact midfield pair (but unsurprisingly underlined when Mikel was partnered by Lampard or Romeu).
Obviously, the current midfield options at his disposal are far from the ‘perfect’ pairs Benitez already assembled during his career to date (notably at Valencia and Liverpool). Every pair has some problems that prevents the team’s balance and cohesion to be further perfected on the training ground.
In the Ramires – Lampard duo the problem is the former is lacking those pure defensive abilities to be trusted completely hold the fort. His main defensive attribute is the ability to use his mobility as a covering the lateral width midfielder. Lampard for all his attacking skills is lacking the mobility to quickly drop back in his intended position, which leads to the risk Ramires being completely overrun or isolated 2-v-1 from the opposition in the space between the lines. The Mikel – Ramires pair is lacking the mobility of the Nigerian to accompany his decent defensive anticipation and positioning. Then although the Brazilian has the mobility to quickly recover and drop back in position to help out, as mentioned, he lacks the pure defensive reflexes.
The effect is similar to the above – the deep-lying midfielder (here Mikel) could easily get isolated and then bypassed. With at least one of these players in these two pairs lacking mobility the team couldn’t keep up the required compact lines to defend from the front by pressing from higher up, which too often invites the opposition onto them. In that scenario the lack of pure defensive abilities in one of the players creates different set of problems and the risk of the team leaving gaps between the lines for the opposition to exploit (especially if they are having the technical and tactical abilities to play successful possession-based football).
On paper David Luiz – Lampard seems the most suitable duo. The Brazilian has the mobility and the defensive reflexes to hold the fort on his own and at least partly (and better than Ramires) compensate for Lampard’s lack of mobility and defensive nous. But if Benitez opts to use permanently Luiz in midfield this creates problems at the back as neither of the three centre-backs (Terry, Cahill and Ivanovic) possess his mobility. This would surely impact negatively on the ability of the centre-backs to split and cover both the horizontal and vertical depth in and around the penalty area. If Benitez opts for deeper line and more passive defensive behaviour (to suit the centre-backs) there is the problem that the opposition would be invited and have too much space into Chelsea’s half. If the team is told to push up the lack of pace in the centre-backs would be horribly exposed.
Hence it was going to be tactically fascinating to observe how Benitez would have decided to deal with these tactical puzzles during the summer. Without doubt he would have need new players but how he would have opt to incorporate them and with what specific tactical aims would have been exciting to follow. But as he already clarified he is going to leave his interim post at the end of the season.
Still, although far from perfect and without any downsides, it’s hard to deny Benitez has managed to improve Chelsea’s tactical failings. He did so by creating the detailed and specific structure coupled with explicit tactical duties for the players to behave during the phases and when transitioning. The platform was laid with the way he dealt with the midfield conundrum and the assertiveness with which he used the current resources to squeeze every tactical potential in the most suitable way for the current tactical needs of the team. Although not firing in all cylinders and still having some obvious flaws, the current results of this Chelsea team under the Spaniard are testimony to the tactical work he did in the period of less than half of year at the helm of it. And who knows, during the next month the London club might participate in a final or two – something that surely will top and justify all the tactical progress achieved under the Spaniard’s watch.
(Note this article was written before the FA Cup semi-final).