Chelsea is top of the table after a scrapping to a 1-0 win over a disciplined Stoke side. The 85th minute winner, courtesy of Ashley Cole perhaps papers over the cracks of what was a tactically poor display from Chelsea.
This was Roberto Di Matteo’s first chance to test out the young attacking midfield trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Mata, who supported Fernando Torres in a 4-2-3-1.
Stoke, who came off a 1-all draw to defending champions Manchester City, made one change with Geoff Cameron replacing Andy Wilkinson.
Stoke set out in a deep 4-4-1-1 with Charlie Adam being the slightly more advanced midfielder.
Early Play from Chelsea
To start the match Chelsea had a flurry of corners and looked as if they may produce a dominant display. As the early stages continued Stoke began to get more involved in the contest and had the best chance of the half, with Jon Walters striking the crossbar from a header.
The best chance for Chelsea in the first half fell to Fernando Torres who scuffed his lines after some intricate play from Oscar and Mata. This play perhaps highlighted Chelsea’s lack of width when going forward.
As shown, all of the Chelsea players in the final third where within a zone more narrow than the 18yard box. Also highlighted (red circles) is the Chelsea trio of Mata, Oscar and Hazard all in a similar position. Whilst Stoke’s defensive line wasn’t particularly impressive in this scenario, by the time Torres had taken a touch, Begovic was already on his feet, such was the lack of space provided to Chelsea.
Chelsea’s Lack of Awareness of Space
Whilst Chelsea’s style isn’t as impressive as Barcelona’s, you couldn’t help but feel this tactical encounter wasn’t too dissimilar their display away to Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League Semi-Final. It was very much a case of the away team, here being Stoke, sitting deep with two banks of four looking to stay compact, and the home team playing completely into their hands by trying to intricately break them down through the middle.
As a manager and a player, one of the most important aspects of football is spatial awareness. The basic concept is: when defending, maintain your shape, be compact and reduce the space the opposition has to play with the ball, and when attacking, make the playing field as large as possible to create space to exploit.
Whilst Stoke performed their defensive duties of reducing the space fantastically, Chelsea, whether under managerial orders or poor implementation from the players, showed a real lack of awareness when attacking.
Above is an example of how Chelsea’s attacking combinations played into the hands of Stoke. Stoke was able to maintain their two banks of four without any need to worry about Chelsea stretching the play.
When a team plays with two deep banks of four and tries to minimise space, it doesn’t reduce space all together, it just changes where the space is located. What Di Matteo or the players should have been aware of was the fact that there wasn’t space through the middle or in behind for intricate build-ups; however there was space on the flanks and in deeper positions.
Space could have been created for Chelsea in the attacking third by keeping the fullbacks and wide forwards wide and circulating the ball in front of Stoke. This would have provoked defenders to move towards the ball and open space to exploit in the middle.
Cole’s Late Winner
Chelsea’s winner, whilst coming from a narrow build up, came as a result of creating and exploiting space.
Stoke, through Matt Etherington, broke forward in attack, however the ball was turned over and Chelsea won back possession. From here Etherington was unable to recover into his position in the two deep banks, which left a hole for Chelsea.
As the ball was played to Moses, Huth stepped out to close, again leaving a gap. With quick circulation the ball was moved to Ivanovic who played the ball into the hole left by Huth and Mata and Cole had moved into that space.
Chelsea struggled to break down the defensive minded Stoke, but came away with a 1-0 win thanks to a late winner from Ashley Cole. Whilst the trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar are undoubtedly talented, are they too similar to play together? That is the question Di Matteo will have to answer. Of course they can play together but perhaps they will need more structure in order to become more penetrative and effective when going forward.