Willian and Schurrle pressing exceptional as Chelsea breeze past Stoke

Chelsea cruised to a comfortable 3-0 win over Stoke City with goals from Mohamed Salah, Frank Lampard and Willian. The sleepy atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge reflected a contest in which Stoke offered no real threat despite Jose Mourinho's side being far from at their best.

As expected, Stoke defended with deep, compact banks of four. At times this season Chelsea have struggled when they've been forced to be proactive against sides looking to defend deep (although more so away from home than at the Bridge). Their defeats this season have come against Stoke, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Everton and Newcastle. In each of those defeats they had more possession than their opponent, averaging over 60% possession per game. They were scoreless in 4 of those 5 defeats. Contrast that with their two massive wins over Manchester City where they were able to play the more reactive style they're comfortable with sitting deep and breaking quickly on the counter. In those two contests they averaged just 40% possession.

Mourinho has placed much of the blame for Chelsea's struggles to score against deep defending sides on his strikers, suggesting that in those contests when space in the final third is tight you need a striker that can get into good positions in the box and poach goals. With Samuel Eto'o still sidelined with a hamstring injury Mourinho was forced to go with Fernando Torres up front in Chelsea's favored 4-2-3-1 formation. The Spaniard's performance did little to ease Mourinho's concerns about his striking options.

Despite his goal scoring troubles, I'm usually impressed with Torres's work rate, movement and link up play. While those attributes certainly are no substitute for goals from a center forward, they do bring something meaningful to the side. Today however, Torres was unusually lethargic. Perhaps some of this had to do with Mourinho's tactical instruction. Whereas Torres often drifts into the channels to offer a passing option forward, he stayed central today on the shoulders of the Stoke center backs. The reasoning may have been to leave that space between the Stoke defensive and midfield lines for the three attacking midfielders to move into. Whatever the case, he'll have been disappointed to have blown an opportunity to impress his manager after Mourinho opted to forgo playing a striker altogether in Chelsea's 3-1 Champions League defeat at PSG Wednesday.

The star performers for the Blues, as has so often been the case this season, were the attacking midfielders. Salah, Schurrle and Willian (and Hazard after his second half introduction) were brilliant and Chelsea's success stemmed from their defensive pressing. They worked tirelessly to win the ball back high up the pitch in Stoke's defensive half which led to dangerous Chelsea counters. The three combined for 8 tackles and 6 interceptions- 6 of the tackles and 4 of the interceptions occurred in Stoke's defensive half.

Willian's pressing in the middle of the pitch in particular was highly impressive. In the first 5 minutes of the contest he won two tackles high up the pitch to spring dangerous Chelsea counters. He completed 4 tackles and an interception on the afternoon. He's a player capable of putting in a tremendous amount of work on the defensive side of the ball and then sprinting in behind the opposition midfield on the counter as we saw for his expertly taken curling second half strike. Andre Schurrle provided 4 interceptions. The demands Mourinho puts on his attacking midfielders to put in a defensive shift is well known and he'll have few complaints about the performance of Willian, Schurrle and Salah today.


Chelsea's midfield pressing aside this wasn't an especially interesting game tactically. Stoke striker Peter Crouch doesn't offer much of a threat running in behind the defense so Chelsea held a fairly high defensive line, keeping him away from the penalty box where he is a real threat with his height. Their pressure in midfield didn't allow Stoke the time to find an out ball when they won possession deep in their own area. As a result Chelsea won possession back in midfield and then patiently retained possession, looking for gaps in Stoke's crowded defense.

United's defensive lapses result in comfortable Chelsea win

With Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie sidelined with injuries, it was always going to be important Manchester United limited defensive errors in order to have a shot at getting a result at Chelsea. Moyes would have expected goals to be tough to come by on the road against a team led by Jose Mourinho- a manager who is historically cautious in big games. Going behind would force United to open themselves up to get back in the contest against a Chelsea side comfortable defending for long stretches of time and playing on the counter. That Chelsea's second and third goals were the result of criminally poor defending from corner kicks meant the home side never really had to kick into their highest gear and play particularly well.

Moyes' side started brightly, particularly attacking down the channels. The fullbacks Evra and Rafael overlapped Young and Valencia well forcing Chelsea's wide attackers Hazard and Willian to defend deep in their own half. Januzaj drifted towards the left channel from his starting #10 position to create overloads on Ivanovic. Although United were unable to translate their early pressure into genuinely threatening opportunities, they were at least keeping Chelsea's dangerous attacking midfielders pinned into their own half.


Samuel Eto'o's opener came against the run of play and took a fortunate deflection. It was certainly a blow to the visitors but wasn't reflective of poor play from United. Chelsea asserted a bit more control after taking the lead but United showed attacking endeavor of their own creating a few decent half chances that indicated the contest was far from over. On 28 minutes Evra put a shot just wide of Cech's front post. Moments later Januzaj beat David Luiz to the end line but his cut back just eluded Welbeck lurking in the box. Then in the 38th Januzaj found Welbeck free 8 yards from goal but Azpilicueta did just enough to put him off, the shot rolling tamely into Cech's arms.

The game hinged on United's shockingly poor defending from a 45th minute Chelsea corner. Welbeck dealt with the initial ball in but it fell to Ramires outside the penalty area. United's players stepped forward collectively- as they should- but none actually bothered to check the Chelsea runners. Ramires played an easy ball to an unmarked Gary Cahill on the right edge of the box whose ball across the face of goal was easily poked in by Eto'o. Rafael was in the best position to step towards Cahill but inexplicably drifts into a more central area at the crucial moment.

From there it was game over. Chelsea were able to keep a compact organized shape at the back and attack with their front four, leaving Luiz and Ramires to sit in front of the back four and prevent United from countering. Chelsea under Mourinho have traditionally been excellent at protecting leads. United didn't have the creativity or quality in the attacking third to offer a serious threat. When Chelsea's third came from another display of poor set piece defending, any shred of doubt was lifted as to who the points were going to.

The result will of course increase pressure on Moyes. What he'll find so frustrating is that his thin squad didn't play badly for long stretches. Mistakes meant Chelsea didn't have to work as hard for the points as they probably should have based on the balance of play.

On the other side, Mourinho will be well pleased. He got three goals from a striker and his side were professional and ruthless. This had the hint of a Mourinho game under his first spell in charge at the club and his side are looking increasingly difficult to beat at the right time of the season.

Manchester United lack invention in final third; Mourinho gets subs wrong

Johan Cabaye's second half winner handed Manchester United a second successive home league defeat for the first time since 2002 and earned Newcastle their first win at Old Trafford since 1972. It is David Moyes third home defeat of the season. Manchester United have scored just 8 goals at Old Trafford, fewer home goals than both West Brom and bottom of the table Sunderland.

The problems today against Newcastle were familiar ones. Moyes' side lacked the invention and quality in the final third to break down an organized opponent.

With Wayne Rooney missing due to yellow card accumulation, Moyes opted for a 4-4-2 with a front pairing of Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez. Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones played in the middle of midfield with Nani on the left wing and Adnan Januzaj on the right.

Alan Pardew opted for a 4-2-3-1 giving Newcastle a man advantage in midfield. The visitors were able to use that advantage to control the game in the middle of the park. With Cheikh Tiote and Vurnon Anita protecting the back four, Manchester United's forays into the final third occurred in the channels and mainly throught Januzaj down the right. Newcastle's center backs Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini dealt with balls into the box from wide areas excellently and deserve a credit for their positioning.

Manchester United's inability to link play forward through the middle had plenty to do with the absence of Rooney. Van Persie lacked Rooney's energy and determination to get on the ball in the withdrawn striker role. Van Persie also lacks Rooney's directness dribbling through midfield. He attempted just one take on in the match. Playing Van Persie in the withdrawn role also meant he rarely found himself in the box where he's at his most dangerous. He didn't manage a single attempt on goal, an incredible stat for last season's Premier League leading goal scorer, and completed just 7 passes in the attacking third.


In the middle of midfield Jones and Cleverley didn't have particularly bad games. Indeed Jones was at times excellent with his defensive positioning and ability to protect the back four. However, both players are limited in what they can contribute in the attack and couldn't have been expected to provide the impetus or creativity going forward to create chances. As a result their roles in possession mainly involved funneling the ball into wide areas where the outside backs would look to overlap Nani and Januzaj tucking inside- another factor that contributed to their inability to vary their attacking approach and penetrate Newcastle through the middle of the pitch. You can see in the graphic below the number of horizontal passes into wide areas both Manchester United center midfielders made.


The extra midfielder also allowed Newcastle to control possession. They ended the contest with 54% possession, a slight but significant edge given they were an inferior team in terms of talent playing at the home of the league champions. Their goal was perhaps a bit opportunistic but Pardew's side deserves immense credit for their organization. The three center midfielders Anita, Tiote and Cabaye were all commanding in the middle of the pitch and the back four organized itself with aplomb. The performances of Debuchy and Williamson in particular deserve recognition. Debuchy was a menace getting forward from his right back position but he also had the pace and energy to make recovery runs.

Mourinho's move to 4-4-2 costly again
Stoke City shocked Chelsea with a 3-2 home win after being completely overrun for the first 40 minutes. For the third time this week Jose Mourinho's side allowed an opposition corner to bounce in the box without getting a touch on it and each time they were made to pay with a goal. John O'Shea and Phil Bardsley were able to tuck in from close range Wednesday for Sunderland, today Crouch scored in a similar fashion for Stoke. The inability to deal with set pieces will be a huge concern for Mourinho as it made the Sunderland contest more uncomfortable at the end than it should have been and shifted the momentum today against a Stoke side that was well and truly out of the game.

Not for the first time this season Mourinho was guilty of making questionable substitutions chasing a win with the game level. At 2-2 he brought on Frank Lampard for John Obi Mikel and Samuel Eto'o for Andre Schurrle and switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. He made a similar switch to 4-4-2 at home to West Brom with the score level at 1-1. As was the case in that earlier contest, the switch was meant to be a positive one but had adverse effects. By taking a man out of midfield Chelsea lost some of the possession dominance they'd been enjoying and found it more difficult to link play into the strikers. It also left them stretched on the break when they lost possession and were hit with a sucker punch just as they were in the West Brom game. The decision to remove Schurrle was particularly strange. He'd scored twice and hit the woodwork and generally seemed to be making a nuisance of himself whereas Juan Mata had had a quiet afternoon. This time around they didn't the Blues didn't have a suspect penalty to bail them out.

Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 3-4 Chelsea

Chelsea rode a world class performance from Eden Hazard to a 4-3 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. This was a highly entertaining but strange contest. That it produced 7 goals is more a reflection of Hazard's individual class and some poor defending from both sides than of a frantic end to end game. The 7 total goals game from just 8 total shots on target.

Jose Mourinho set Chelsea out in a 4-2-3-1 with Ramires and Lampard anchoring midfield. Hazard was on the left of the attacking midfield three while Willian and Juan Mata rotated between the right side and the #10 spot. Cesar Azpilicueta was again given the nod over Ashley Cole at left back.

Gus Poyet opted for a 4-3-3. Ki sat just in front of the back four in midfield while Jack Colback and Craig Gardner played the midfield shuttling roles. Fabio Borini was on the left side of the front three, Emanuele Giaccherini was on the right and Jozy Altidore was given the nod as the lone striker.

The 4-2-3-1 vs. 4-3-3 matchup meant that each side's center midfielders had a direct opponent. Gardner was matched up against Lampard, Colback against Ramires and Ki against Mata or Willian depending on who was playing as the center attacking midfielder at the time. Both sides stuck to these matchups defensively. When Chelsea were in possession Gardner and Colback stepped out to press Lampard and Ramires respectively while Ki sat in behind picking up the attacking center midfielder, giving Sunderland a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape.

Sunderland defend 4-1-4-1
 Defensively, the triangle was flipped for Chelsea so that their shape off the ball was 4-4-1-1. Ramires and Lampard picked up the more advanced Colback and Gardner while Willian stayed tight to the deeper lying Ki.

Chelsea defend 4-4-1-1.
The formations meant neither side had a spare holding midfielder. Ki was 1 v. 1 with Willian, Lampard and Ramires were 2 v. 2 with Gardner and Colback. With both sets of holding midfielders occupied marking an opponent, this opened up space for both teams' wide attacking players to tuck inside in the space between the outside backs and the holding midfielders. The figure below shows the danger areas where Borini and Giaccherini could drift into to find space in front of Chelsea's back four. By drifting into these areas, they forced Chelsea's outside backs into a difficult decision. If Ivanovic and Azpilicueta allowed them to drift in field unmarked, they'd have space to receive the ball in an incredibly dangerous area between Chelsea's defensive lines. If instead Ivanovic and Azpilicueta followed them in to the center of the pitch, it opened up space down the flank for overlapping runs from Sunderland's own outside backs.

Space between the lines for Sunderland wide forwards.
Sunderland's goal to make it 2-2 was a great example of Azpilicueta being forced into making the latter decision. Giaccherini drifted in to a dangerous position in field between the defensive lines and Azpilicueta was dragged inside to mark him. Bardsley made an overlapping run down the wing into the now vacant space forcing Hazard into a tackle that went out of play for a corner Sunderland would subsequently score from. Below is a screen grab of the build up leading to the corner.

Build up to Sunderland's second goal.
Similarly, Sunderland's lack of a spare holding midfielder created opportunities for Chelsea's wide men to be dangerous drifting from the channels into more narrow positions. With Ki matched up directly with Willian, Hazard and Mata could drift inside to create 1 v. 3 overloads on Ki as shown in the graphic below.

Chelsea look to overload key.
The key then for Sunderland was to keep their midfield triangle and the two center backs very compact so that the space in the middle of the pitch was too congested for Chelsea to be dangerous. They did a decent job of this task. Aside from Chelsea's goal that stemmed from a corner, the visitors managed 5 other shots, none of which were on target and 4 of which were speculative efforts outside the 18.

With Sunderland doing well to keep the space compact through the middle, Hazard made a subtle change to his positioning. Rather than tucking inside to receive the ball, he stayed in wide areas and looked to take on Bardsley and dribble in field when he got the ball in the channels and shoot with his stronger right foot. This was the key tactical feature of the game. Again, the fact Sunderland did not have a spare holding midfielder was important. Because Ki had his own man marking responsibility he could not slide over to the right to offer Bardsley support when Hazard began making his move inside. Twice Hazard scored by running past Bardsley inside and getting the space to take on a shot. For the first goal he was able to beat the Sunderland right back with the dribble, for the second he performed a 1-2 with Lampard.



The other key feature of the contest was Chelsea's surprising inability to clear their lines from set pieces. All three of Sunderland's goals stemmed from dead ball scenarios. Altidore's opener came when the Blues failed to clear a Dossena free kick. More troubling, the Black Cats second and third goals resulted when Chelsea allowed cornersto bounce inside of 12 yards.

Mourinho gets tactical decisions wrong in fortunate West Brom draw

Jose Mourinho escaped with his Premier League home unbeaten record in tact thanks to a controversial penalty deep in the final seconds of stoppage time that gave Chelsea a 2-2 draw with West Brom. Ramires went to ground after minimal contact from Steven Reid but referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot for a Chelsea penalty to the dismay of West Brom's players. Eden Hazard coolly slotted the ensuing spot kick to earn Chelsea the point.

Following last weekend's 2-0 defeat at Newcastle, Mourinho expressed frustration with his players saying he "made 11 mistakes" in selecting the squad. The players deserve their share of criticism for a flat performance this afternoon but Mourinho should also come under scrutiny for a questionable squad selection and a second half change to 4-4-2 that left Chelsea stretched in midfield and was largely responsible for West Brom's go ahead goal.

Steve Clarke's side were incredibly well organized, defending in compact, narrow banks of four. Claudio Yakob and Youssouf Mulumbu did an excellent job shielding the back four in their defensive midfield roles and Chelsea's attacking midfield trio of Hazard, Oscar and Willian found little space between the lines to receive passes.

With West Brom defending narrow to limit the ability of Chelsea's attacking midfielders to play quick passing combinations through the middle, the space for Chelsea was on the wings. Hazard and Willian tucked inside from their outside attacking midfield roles, opening space for the fullbacks to advance down the touchline. Cesar Azpilicueta retained a deep position at left back but right back Branislav Ivanovic was encouraged to push forward and was always free on the right wing in the attacking half. Chelsea needed a right back capable of playing dangerous balls into the penalty area. Time and again Ivanovic got the ball in advanced areas on the right only to hit weak crosses into the penalty area that failed to get past the first defender. Mourinho's insistence on using Ivanovic at right back in league games seems curious. He's no doubt a solid defensive full back and his aerial ability is useful on both attacking and defensive set pieces but he's poor going forward. Azpilicueta is a more mobile right back with a better delivery from wide areas. This was a contest built for a solid attacking full back and Ivanovic simply didn't offer enough going forward. Perhaps Mourinho consistently selects Ivanovic so he can easily transition to a three center back formation if Chelsea go behind (which he did today) but Azpilicueta would have been the better right back choice today.

Mourinho's decision to once again leave Juan Mata on the bench was a curious one as well. It's no secret that under Clarke West Brom defend deep and are compact and very well organized. It requires creativity and clever movement into little pockets of space to break them down, two areas where Mata is excellent. Hazard and Willian are both fine players but they are at their best when they have open space to run into. Mata is built for games when space in the attacking third is at a premium and a special final ball is required to unlock the opposition defense.

Mourinho was most disappointing in his ill-advised decision to replace Frank Lampard with Demba Ba with the score even at 1-1 and move from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. The change was meant to be a proactive one to get Chelsea a game winner but ultimately cost them a goal. Lampard had been poor and needed to come off but the formation change left Chelsea far too stretched in the middle of midfield. Oscar dropped in alongside Ramires in the middle of the pitch and both players moved forward in possession to help in the attacking third. This meant that when Chelsea gave away possession there was no one sitting deep in midfield to protect the center backs and West Brom had plenty of space to break into quickly. For West Brom's second, Ivanovic gave the ball away too cheaply. Oscar and Ramires were in advanced positions at the time and were forced to make recovery runs. West Brom broke forward quickly. Oscar was forced wide to the left to pick up Shane Long. Ramires was unable to recover in the middle which left Sessegnon unmarked 22 yards from goal. Petr Cech should have parried away Sessegnon's rather tame effort but the goal likely would never have happened had Chelsea still had three center midfielders on the pitch.

For me, Oscar and Ramires are too fluid a midfield pairing in a 4-4-2 system and can therefore cause Chelsea to get too stretched. I think if you're going to move to that formation you have to choose one of them to do the box to box running and be paired alongside John Obi Mikel, a true holding midfielder that will protect the back four.

Down 2-1 Mourinho was forced into moving into an attacking 3-5-2, bringing on Mikel for Azpilicueta and replacing Oscar with Mata. Chelsea would ultimately get their equalizer but had Mourinho made better tactical decisions they'd have never been in a position where they needed the fortuitous penalty to salvage a point.

Mourinho could accommodate both Oscar and Mata centrally in 4-3-3

There's been no shortage of controversy surrounding Jose Mourinho's decision to use Chelsea's back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata so sparingly at the start of this season. Mata has started just two of five league games. In Chelsea's three biggest fixtures to date- the league game away to Manchester United, the UEFA Super Cup with Bayern Munich and the home Champions League fixture with FC Basel- Mata has made just one substitute appearance. He didn't even feature on the substitutes bench in the weekend win over Fulham.

On the face of it, Mourinho's decision seems bemusing. Mata led the Premier League last season with 12 assists and also chipped in an impressive 12 goals. His ability to find pockets of space in the opposition defense and play a decisive final pass is unmatched in English football.

However, Mourinho has stated publicly that Oscar will be his first choice number 10 and has also hinted that until Mata adapts his game and is willing to do more yeoman's work tracking opposition fullbacks, he won't see much time wide on the right either. Throughout his managerial career, Mourinho has primarily built his sides'  around a solid, compact defensive shape and the ability to break quickly into space on the counter.

This is a style of play more suited to Oscar in the number 10 role. The young Brazilian's work rate and tackling ability enable him to drop in and relentlessly press the opposition holding midfielders when Chelsea are defending. His pace then allows him to sprint into space behind the holding midfielders to spring counters when Chelsea win the ball back. It's unique for a number 10 to do the kind of defensive work typically seen from Oscar. In the 2-0 win Saturday over Fulham he had 7 successful tackles, more than any other player. Incredibly, 5 of those were in the opposition's defensive half. It is that willingness and ability to win the ball back high up the pitch that Mourinho so highly values.


While Oscar doesn't possess Mata's vision and creativity on the ball, his off the ball movements are exceptional. His opening day goal against Hull City sums up his incredible energy and intelligent movement. He starts the move checking towards John Terry 45 yards from goal. Terry plays a long ball into the left channel for Eden Hazard to run into. Oscar turns and sprints 25 yards to the corner of the 18 yard box to provide an option for Hazard. Hazard cuts inside and finds Kevin De Bruyne at the top of the 18. The instant Hazard plays the pass to De Bruyne, Oscar makes a diagonal run to get on the shoulder of the last defender. The timing of the run is perfect and he's able to easily tap in De Bruyne's pass in behind. In the matter of a few seconds he provides a passing option three separate times despite the ball moving half the length of the pitch in that time.


However, for all of Oscar's fine defensive work and tireless movement, in the absence of Mata Chelsea have often lacked the type of incisive penetrating passes in the final third he is known for, particularly against teams that defend deep against them and force them to patiently pick their way through. Chelsea's performance against Basel and first half against Fulham are prime examples. With both of those sides sitting deep in banks of four, Chelsea saw plenty of the ball but didn't have anyone with the creativity to penetrate the lines with a pass.

It's important to note Oscar scored in both of those games. I wouldn't advocate replacing Oscar with Mata in the middle- he's too valuable on both sides of the ball. However, against teams likely to sit deep and force Chelsea to unlock a crowded defense, Mourinho could viably use both of them in a central role to accommodate both the movement and energy of Oscar and the creativity of Mata. The shape would be 4-3-3 with Mata and Oscar playing in advance of a single holding midfielder. I'd probably use John Obi Mikel over Ramires as the holder for his positional discipline and ability to break up counters. Ramires is a wonderful talent but his biggest attribute is his athleticism and ability to break through the opposition midfield into space with his pace and energy. Against teams that defend deep there isn't that space to burst into and too often he makes rash challenges to operate as a lone holder. In possession Oscar would play more of a box-to-box role with Mata positioning himself closer to the striker and getting into pockets of space between the lines. The shape would still accommodate two more of Chelsea's talented attacking midfielders on the two wings. Defensively, Oscar would drop in alongside Mikel to form a bank of four with the outside midfielders. Mata would defend higher up the field with the main striker. Oscar is more than capable of doing the necessary defensive work slightly further back in midfield. The shape provides defensive cover in midfield in Mikel, pace and energy in Oscar and creativity and vision in Mata without sacrificing a whole lot defensively.

If Mourinho is as special as he claims, he should be able to find a way to adjust his style of play to accommodate a player of Mata's ability rather than the other way around. A creative presence in the middle of the park is important against deep lying defenses and until Mourinho finds a way to include his most gifted creative player in these matches, Chelsea will continue to struggle.

Second half width key in Chelsea win over Fulham

In the opening 45 minutes of Chelsea's 2-0 home win Saturday over Fulham, Jose Mourinho's side looked predictable and short on ideas. Under Martin Jol, Fulham set out to defend deep in compact banks of four and play on the counter, a strategy that will be taken by the bulk of opposing sides that will visit Stamford Bridge this season.

Jol's side deserves credit for their first half performance. Center midfielders Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell were disciplined and stayed tight to their center backs, allowing little space in between the lines where Chelsea's gifted attacking midfielders thrive.

However, Chelsea's overreliance on cutting back in towards the middle of the pitch when they got the ball in wide areas made Fulham's defensive duties too easy. Time and again Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle received the ball in wide positions and looked to cut inside rather than beat their defender to the end line and hit a ball across the face of goal. Mourinho has always liked his wide players to be able to cut into the middle and shoot which is why he tends to to use right footed players on the left wing and left footed players on the right wing. In the first half on Saturday Hazard, Schurrle and Oscar rotated between the three attacking midfield positions but all three looked to bring the ball inside when they received it on the flanks.

While having players that can cut inside and either have a shot or combine for short passing combinations is often quite useful, it tends to be a more effective strategy when the game is open and there is space in the middle of the pitch for wide players to cut into. With Fulham defending deep and quite narrow, there simply wasn't this space for Hazard and particularly Schurrle to drift into. Every time they attempted to cut inside Parker and Sidwell were there to meet them and force a speculative short pass in a very tight area. 

In the second half Chelsea didn't rotate the attacking midfield three. Schurrle played on the left, Hazard the right and Oscar through the middle. Both Schurrle and Hazard maintained much wider positions than they had in the first half. Schurrle in particular hugged the left touch line throughout the second half. By stretching the play laterally, Chelsea forced Fulham to defend the width of the pitch and created wider gaps in their defensive and midfield lines of four.

Schurrle's wide positioning forced Fulham right back Sascha Reither into a decision- if he drifted wide towards Schurrle he became disconnected from his center back Brede Hangeland and left space in behind him for Samuel Eto'o to drift into. If he stayed tight with Hangeland it meant leaving Schurrle with space in the channel. On Chelsea's opening goal, Reither opted for the second option, staying tight with Hangeland to help out on Eto'o. As a result, Hazard was able to play a simple pass to an unmarked Schurrle on the left channel (shown below). For the first time in the game Schurrle gets to the end line rather than cutting inside and strikes a ball towards the front post. Fulham keeper David Stockdale should have dealt with it before Oscar was able to tuck it home. Still, Chelsea's use of width had left Fulham more stretched defensively than they'd been at any point in the first half.

Reither helps with Eto'o, allowing Schurrle space down the channel
A few minutes later Reither was again forced into a decision on where to position himself when Schurrle drifted to the touch line. This time he moved into a wider position to get tighter to the German winger. As a result, Eto'o (just to the right of the screen grab shown below) was able to run into the space behind Reither down the left channel and collect a long pass from Mikel. The move only resulted in a scuffed Chelsea shot but the Blues were suddenly finding more pockets of space in the final third as they began stretching Fulham laterally.

This time Reither stays tighter to Schurrle on touchline, allows Eto'o space to drift in behind and receive long pass from Mikel
 I don't mean to advocate that wide midfielders should always stay in the channels and look to get to the end line to hit crosses into the box. Yesterday I posted on how Manchester United's use of two out and out wingers in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia made them far too predictable and unable to create chances through the middle in their heavy derby defeat Sunday to Manchester City. Rather I'm suggesting that variety and balance are the keys to creating scoring chances. Manchester City provide a good example of attacking balance in their derby win. Nasri tucked inside to provide 3 v. 2 overloads for City in central areas while Jesus Navas stayed wide on the right to provide width. Chelsea seemed closer to finding that balance in the second half against Fulham but still clearly have work to do.

Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea: Spoils shared in cagey affair; Rooney speculation put to bed?

Chelsea and Manchester United played out a cautious 0-0 draw in David Moyes' first league game at Old Trafford. Moyes' side had the better of the chances but with both teams reluctant to leave themselves exposed on the break, a draw seemed an inevitability.

In truth, the most intriguing part of the contest was probably the team sheets. With Wayne Rooney's future still uncertain, Moyes made a major statement by giving the England international the start against a Chelsea team he'd asked to be transferred to. Moyes appears to have every intention of keeping his wantaway forward and that Rooney looked United's brightest player will only add to the likelihood he stays at United.

Perhaps Jose Mourinho was trying to send a message of his own to Rooney with his team selection. The Chelsea manager opted to play without a true striker and instead employed Andre Schurrle furthest up the pitch with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin De Bruyne as the three attacking midfielders. It seems unlikely the Chelsea boss would use such a big fixture as an opportunity to signal to Rooney that he'd be the first choice striker at Chelsea but with Mourinho you can't rule out the possibility.

In his post match interview he said the decision was a tactical one and that he had thought the mobility of playing four attacking midfielders would cause United more problems than playing with a point man up top. Whatever his reasoning, he appears resigned to Rooney staying put after telling reporters he can't see the forward leaving after the outpouring of support he got from United fans this evening.

I had written a post late last week suggesting the arrival of Willian could have serious implications for Juan Mata's playing time and there will be further speculation today about the Spaniard's future under Mourinho after he couldn't get a starting position in a starting lineup that featured four attacking midfielders. Mourinho did rubbish questions speculating on the future of Mata after the game, telling reporters he's suffering from a knock and wasn't going anywhere. However, he started against Aston Villa midweek and didn't appear to be suffering from any injury.

Quick thoughts on tactics
  • Chelsea defended fairly deep and appeared to be looking to break quickly on the counter with their four pacey, energetic attacking midfielders De Bruyne, Hazard, Oscar and Schurrle. However, without a target striker they lacked a focal point in attack and an outlet forward when they won the ball back in midfield. They were also hurt by some untidy passing when they had chances to advance the ball forward quickly.
  • United haven't changed much about their style under Moyes. They still play 4-4-1-1 and use plenty of width. Today, with Chelsea defending compact and narrow, United's best route into the final third was through the channels. Phil Jones and Patrice Evra overlapped Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck. The final ball was often lacking however and Moyes introduced Ashley Young to provide a better delivery in from wide areas. 
  • Chelsea were well set up to deal with crosses sent in from the channels. Centerbacks John Terry and Gary Cahill are far more comfortable sitting deep and heading away balls whipped into the box than when opposition players are running in behind them. Chelsea were forced into making a few important blocks but overall they weren't really troubled.


Pending Willian purchase could be ominous sign for Mata

Chelsea have agreed to a £30 million deal for Willian pending a work permit hearing. The Brazilian ads to a roster already filled with a wealth of attacking midfield options. The Brazilian played on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation at Shakhtar Donetsk, who advanced from the group stages of last season's Champions League at Chelsea's expense, before moving in January to Anzhi Makhachkala. If the deal goes through he joins Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Victor Moses in competing for the three attacking midfield spots Mourinho will generally play in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation.

So what would Willian's arrival mean for the attacking midfielders already on the books at Chelsea? In a preseason press conference Mourinho stated how important it was for him to have depth in the attacking midfield spots.
"We will have Schurrle, De Bruyne, Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Moses for these three positions and so we have more options than Chelsea had in the last year. These are crucial positions for me. I like these players to play with high intensity so to have five players for three positions is, I think brilliant for me."
He actually named six players, Willian will be the seventh. With Chelsea once again competing on several fronts this season and Mourinho's desire for depth in those positions, there will be plenty of squad rotation so most of those seven will likely play significant minutes.

If there is an odd man out it is almost certainly Victor Moses. He's the only one of the seven that can't also play centrally in behind the striker. Although he's the only true out and out winger of the bunch, Hazard and Schurrle both have the pace to beat opponents 1 v 1 in the channels and get balls into the box if Chelsea need to play with more width and they're also more dynamic coming inside. Mourinho prefers his wide attackers to have the versatility to come inside and combine short passes with the central attacker and forward. Oscar, Schrurrle, Hazard, Mata, De Bruyne and Willian are all more suited to pinching inside from the wings than Moses. I'd be surprised if the Nigerian wasn't sold or loaned out before the end of the transfer window.

Based on the first two games of the season, it appears Mourinho prefers Oscar in the central role, although Chelsea are very fluid and at different times against Aston Villa Hazard played off the forward in the middle. Interestingly, Mata was the third attacking midfield starter that game and spent all his time on the left or right flank. Mata has been Chelsea's best player by some distance the last two seasons playing in the #10 role. For all Mourinho's assurances Mata is part of his plans, it does not appear those plans include playing Mata in his favored position just off the striker. The diminutive Spaniard looked out of sorts in his wide role against Villa and as a big fan of his, I fear he is not suited for Mourinho's style and won't have near the impact he did the previous two seasons. He was subbed off for Schurrle in the 65th minute and my suspicion is that Mourinho prefers De Bruyne and Schurrle to partner with Oscar and Hazard over Mata.

It'll be also be interesting to see how the move impacts Hazard given both his and Willian's main position is on the left side of a front 3. I'd expect Hazard and Oscar to finish the season with the most appearances of the seven but it's difficult to predict where exactly everyone will play. Regardless, Mourinho has an enviable array of attacking midfielders and his most difficult task may be keeping them all happy.

Tactical Analysis: Real Madrid 2-1 Manchester United (3-2 ag)

Sir Alex Ferguson's controversial decisions to start Ryan Giggs and Nani at right and left midfield respectively and bench Wayne Rooney looked to be paying dividends as Manchester United went into the locker room level with Real Madrid at 0-0 and looking the more dangerous of the two sides.

Madrid had created little in the opening 45 minutes. Ronaldo was uncharacteristically quiet and United looked dangerous every time they broke forward on the counter.

Ferguson opted for a 4-4-2, employing Danny Welbeck alongside Robin Van Persie up top. It was expected Tom Cleverley would replace the injured Phil Jones and play on the right side of center midfield to provide Rafael with defensive help on Ronaldo. However, it was Carrick who was fielded more towards the right with Cleverley on the left side of central midfield. Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra lined up across the back.

Jose Mourinho's side lined up just as they had in the first leg with the exception of Higuain in for Benzema at forward.

United defended fairly deep with two banks of four. Welbeck dropped in behind Van Persie and tracked Xabi Alonso, denying him from receiving passes from Verane and Sergio Ramos. United's defensive lines of four were compact but it was still surprising that Ozil, usually fantastic at finding pockets of space in between the seams, was having so much trouble receiving the ball in behind Cleverley and Carrick.

With Welbeck denying Xabi Alonso the opportunity to get on the ball and pick out forward passes from deep in midfield, Madrid's more advanced attackers dropped deeper and deeper to get on the ball. On separate occasions Ozil, Di Maria and Higuain dropped well behind United's midfield four to get on the ball. It was a testament to Ferguson's tactics and United's organization that those three gifted attackers were collecting the ball 45 yards from goal where they are obviously far less dangerous.

On the right side of the United defense, Giggs played deep and dropped in to help Rafael on Ronaldo whenever he could. Every time Rafael advanced forward when United were in possession, either Giggs or one of the center midfielders dropped in to fill the defensive hole in an effort to deny Ronaldo the space to counter.

Offensively, United looked to counter rapidly. Once they regained possession, Welbeck would sprint past Xabi Alonso and into the channels to spring counters. They looked to create overloads in wide areas and send crosses into the box.

Second Half
Although United's opener was largely due to an individual error from Varane, it highlighted their ability to make dangerous runs in behind the Madrid midfield and advance the ball forward at pace. Rafael broke forward down the right before finding Welbeck's late surging run into the box. Eventually the ball broke for Nani whose low cross was deflected by Ramos into his own net.

Nani's 56th minute red card turned the game on its head. United were forced to switch to a 4-4-1. Welbeck went wide left and Van Persie played alone up top. Recognizing he didn't need four at the back to deal only with Van Persie, Mourinho replaced right back Arbeloa with Luka Modric and switched to a 3-4-3. Madrid therefore had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. Welbeck and Giggs tucked narrow to the inside to offer help in the central areas, conceding the left channel entirely to Coentrao.

Ferguson's men continued to defend in banks of four but, crucially, they no longer had Welbeck in the middle of the pitch to defend Madrid's deepest midfielder. Modric dropped deep alongside Xabi Alonso and both were given the time and space to pick out forward passes between gaps in the United midfield four. This allowed the likes of Kaka (who had replaced the injured Di Maria in the first half), Ozil, Ronaldo and Higuain to stay in more advanced areas and create overloads with the United back four.

The introduction of Modric was a smart if not obvious substitution for Mourinho to make after gaining a man advantage. With United's midfield retreating deeper and deeper the Croatian found the space just outside the 18 to unleash a fine strike for the equalizer. For the winner, he bisected the United midfield line with a ball through to Higuain. The Argentine would play a 1-2 with Ozil before driving a low ball across the face of goal for Ronaldo to tuck home.

Knowing United needed to score two goals to win the tie, Mourinho replaced Ozil with Pepe who slid in at right back. Higuain moved out to the right when Madrid were defending and Ronaldo stayed high up the pitch at center forward, knowing he'd have the space to run at Ferdinand and Vidic with United chasing the game. Mourinho's side began to defend quite deep and failed to control possession with their man advantage. They were on the back foot for most of the final 15 minutes and were only able to maintain their goal advantage due to a handful of fine saves from Diego Lopez.

Conclusion
Ferguson deserves credit for United's approach in this game. They were organized, compact and countered effectively. That United would have hung on and won were it not for Nani's red card was hardly a foregone conclusion but up to that point they had been the better side.

After the game Mourinho suggested the better team had lost. While he may well have simply been buttering up a club many expect him to manage when Ferguson retires, he doubtlessly would have been disappointed with his side's inability to create many genuine chances when the game was still 11 v. 11. Still, they deserve credit for getting the job done in a hostile atmosphere at Old Trafford.