Reading will offer Chelsea different challenge than Wigan

Chelsea's rather comfortable 2-0 win in their opening fixture at Wigan offered a display of the pragmatic efficiency the club has become associated with in the years since Jose Mourinho's arrival. After snatching both goals in the opening 7 minutes, the Blues were content to sit deep, absorb pressure with a compact defense and very cautiously move forward. Wigan had 52 percent of the possession, controlled 58 percent of the territory, and completed 113 passes in the final third to Chelsea's 44. Frank Lampard led Chelsea with 8 passes in the final third--7 Wigan players had as many or more passes in the final third. Despite dominating many of the offensive statistics, the Latics rarely looked like threatening Petr Cech's goal, and throughout the 90 minutes the result never appeared to be in doubt. It was hardly the kind of Barcelona-esque, stylish possession-based performance Roman Abramovich wants from Chelsea but the win was as easy they come.

In many ways the possession-based attacking philosophy of Wigan under Roberto Martinez plays directly into what proved to be Chelsea's strengths late last season--sitting deep and drawing opposition midfielders and full backs forward, then regaining possession and countering into the space they left vacated. Chelsea were much less comfortable when forced to unlock compact defenses with tidy possession and clever buildup play. Even against superior opposition Wigan are not a team that sits back and defends in banks of four with ten men behind the ball. Indeed, they used the same brave 3-4-3 formation Sunday that they used during their terrific late season run last year. They like to get on the ball and get numbers into the opposition half (evidenced by their dominance of passes in the final third). Inevitably that leaves them vulnerable to quick counter attacks which proved to be Wigan's undoing Sunday.

In the second minute Wigan advanced the ball into the attacking third through an impressive interchange of passes between right wing back Anderson Boyce and right forward Victor Moses down the sideline. Boyce then played the ball to Franco Di Santo about 24 yards from goal in the middle of the pitch. Shaun Maloney had drifted centrally from his left forward position, forcing right back Branislav Ivanovic to track his run for Chelsea. Maloney's clever movement left acres of space down the left flank for Maynor Figueroa to run into from his left wing back position. The movement was impressive from the Latics, but Di Santo was caught in possession before he could find Figueroa, leaving both wing backs high up the field and out of defensive position. Ivanovic collected the ball at Chelsea's 18, played a short pass to Juan Mata and took off into the space left vacated by Figeueroa. Two passes later and Eden Hazard had turned away from Ivan Ramis brilliantly, leaving Wigan's other two center backs hopelessly exposed. He found Ivanovic to his right who tucked the finish away coolly. Wigan had been undone in the blink of an eye by four quick passes. The buildup that led to Hazard winning the penalty that made it 2-0 was similar. Figueroa advanced to the touchline before hitting a poor cross directly to Cech. Cech quickly rolled the ball to Lampard who was left with acres of space down the middle to dribble into. Hazard drifted right into the space left empty by Figueroa's attacking run. He received a pass from Lampard, advanced the ball into the box and was ultimately hacked down by Ramis. Two quick counter attacks had effectively killed the game off inside 10 minutes.

Reading at Stamford Bridge will likely offer Chelsea a very different kind of challenge. Whereas Wigan bravely attacked with numbers and left themselves susceptible to the counter, Reading is expected to get bodies behind the ball and get into a compact defensive shape before looking to spring counterattacks of their own. Under Brian McDermott, Reading are an extremely organized outfit and conceded the fewest goals in the Championship last season. Chelsea will be forced to patiently keep possession and provide the creativity to unlock a crowded defense, something they struggled with at times last season. The addition of Hazard should certainly help in this regard. Last season Chelsea's wide outside forward and attacking midfield options were mainly Mata, Daniel Sturridge, Salomon Kalou and Ramires. Of those four, only Mata is known for his creative passing ability. Kalou, Ramires, and Sturridge are known for their pace and ability to advance the ball with the dribble but aren't especially technical players. Their skill sets mean they are more suited to playing a counter attacking style where they can run at defenders with pace rather than one centered around patient buildup play. Hazard is a player with good technique who brings both the ability to beat opponents off the dribble and to unlock them with a clever pass. Having two technical players behind Torres should make Chelsea a more threatening and unpredictable side when they come up against crowded defenses. The positioning and movement of those two today should be one of the more intriguing tactical elements of the match.

It will be interesting to see if Roberto Di Matteo's team sheet is influenced by the fact that Chelsea play three games in the opening seven days of the season. They face a strong Newcastle side at the Bridge Saturday. It's possible Di Matteo could opt to rest a usual starter or two in the hopes they'll be able to defeat an inferior Reading side today without a first choice 11. Look for Reading to try to frustrate Chelsea by limiting their space to move the ball in the attacking third and crowding the box. If Chelsea get an early goal they should cruise.