Chelsea never looked like a side that would struggle to create meaningful goal scoring chances under Roberto Di Matteo. In his 21 competitive games in charge this season, the Blues failed to score just twice. However, their adventurous attacking also left them vulnerable at the other end of the field. In Di Matteo’s final 10 games in charge the Blues failed to register a single clean sheet. His failure to balance defense and offense would ultimately cost him his job (albeit controversially). Di Matteo’s replacement Rafa Benitez has also failed to find a balance in his first two games in charge although his problems are the opposite of his predecessor’s- Chelsea have yet to concede under the Spaniard but have also failed to register a goal themselves. The very different problems the team has faced under the two managers in large part has to do with the differing roles the three attacking midfielders (typically Hazard, Mata and Oscar under Di Matteo) have been asked to fulfill under the two.
Under Di Matteo, Oscar, Mata and Hazard were given the freedom to interchange positions and drift freely into pockets of space where they felt they could be dangerous. It wasn’t abnormal to see Mata drift from his left midfield position to receive a pass on the right wing. The positioning of the midfield three was extremely flexible and this positional freedom going forward allowed them to create awkward overloads for opposition defenses in certain areas of the pitch. Defenders didn’t have a real reference point of where the three would be on the pitch at any given time- their movement was fluid, unpredictable and therefore quite difficult to defend.
The down side to this offensive flexibility was that it often left the defense dangerously exposed, particularly on the counter. While the freedom of Oscar, Mata and Hazard to interchange positions could be a nightmare for opposing defenses, it also meant the three were often out of position defensively when Chelsea conceded possession. With Mata and Hazard frequently tucking inside from wide starting positions and the outside backs pushing forward to provide width, Chelsea were extremely vulnerable to counterattacks down the flanks. Hazard and Mata also rarely tracked the opposition fullbacks when they made runs forward. This often left Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole overloaded defensively on the wings where they were forced to try to defend both the opposition outside midfielder and fullback (Manchester United took advantage of this for their second goal at Stamford in their 3-2 league win). Games under Di Matteo were therefore generally very open affairs.
Life under Rafa Benitez, a manager known for his cautious pragmatism, has looked very different for Chelsea. Two uneventful goalless draws in the Spaniard’s first two games in charge indicate how concerned he was with the team’s defensive positioning. The key tactical change he has introduced is more rigid positioning for the three attacking midfielders. Like Di Matteo, he has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, however the attacking midfield three under Benitez have been asked to retain a more rigid shape- we’ve rarely seen them adjusting positions. Oscar has stayed central with Hazard on his right and Mata (Man City) or Betrand (Fulham) on his left. With the attacking midfielders retaining a rigid offensive shape in this system, it’s easier for them to recover into a proper defensive shape when Chelsea concede possession. The outside midfielders are asked to quickly retreat alongside the two holding midfielders when Chelsea lose possession, creating a deep lying midfield bank of four. The more compact, deeper defensive shape has certainly limited the space Chelsea’s opponents have to play in and made them a more difficult team to break down.
However, the newfound defensive solidity has come at the expense of the fluid attacking play seen under Di Matteo. With the attacking midfield three asked to retain their positions going forward, Chelsea have looked static and predictable. We’re no longer seeing Mata and Hazard drift across the field to create confusing overloads for defenders. The two are at their best when they can get around the edge of the box and combine for short combinations of passes. When asked to retain wider positions they can become isolated and can’t use their vision and creativity to best effect. Under Benitez the Blues have seemed flat and void of ideas.
It was no secret that Roman Abramovich demanded his side play with more attacking flair heading into this season. It’s ironic that Di Matteo’s willingness to acquiesce to Abramovich and play the more adventurous attacking game the owner wanted ultimately created the poor defensive displays that would cost him his job. Benitez will also be under a great deal of pressure to bring an entertaining brand of football to Stamford Bridge. In order to achieve that he’ll need to eventually loosen the shackles on his three creative attacking midfielders.