I find pre-season games odd. I enjoy seeing the team in action after a LONG summer break and just being back in the football-state-of-mind. But as far as analyzing the team’s performance is concerned, I am not really sure how to react to pre-season games.
In some ways, I feel like a dad who has to deal with his teenage daughter’s boyfriend. You know that the kids are still young and that their relationship is probably not too serious. So you try not to draw too many conclusions but you still can’t help analyzing the kid. What kind of family is he from? Does he have any piercings? Does he smoke? So on and so forth.
So I watched our pre-season game against Portsmouth with interest but I told myself not to over-analyze the performance. The game itself was not very exciting. Chelsea won the game 1-0, thanks to an own goal by former Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim. If I am not mistaken, we only had five shots on target in the whole game (2 in first half and 3 in the second half). Four of those shots were by our players and they were all straight at the goalkeeper. The other shot on target was Tal Ben Haim's own goal in the first half. As far as passing and possession are concerned, we did a better job in the second half than we did in the first. One good news that we can take away from this game, and any pre-season game, is that all the players came out of the game without any injuries. [Note: You can read the full match report here and you can watch the extended highlights here.]
Although we cannot draw any serious conclusions from the game, there are some hints as to what Chelsea is going to look like under Andre Villas-Boas.
|Graphic courtesy of Footballuser.com|
As with most pre-season games, Chelsea played a different set of 11 players for each half. But the formation stayed the same for both halves. 4-3-3. Most of us have speculated that 4-3-3 will be Andre Villas-Boas choice of formation since he used the same formation with Porto. It was also the same formation that Jose Mourinho had used while Villas-Boas was an opposition scout under Mourinho. This speculation is proven to be right. The manager also said after the game that 4-3-3 is the only formation that they have been using in training so far*. He also said that the team will be "forwarding on from that into other structures." But seeing that 4-3-3 is the first formation that the team has been trained in, I think it will be our default formation for the coming season.
Torres vs Drogba
Seeing that Torres and Drogba played in the same position in different halves, it might be tempting to assume that it is going to be only one place in the team for the two strikers. It's Drogba or Torres, not Drogba and Torres. When asked about this very issue, the manager gave a very diplomatic answer.
"I see no problem [with playing Drogba and Torres together]. If players of this dimension cannot play alongside each other then something would be wrong."
"These games are about finding new ideas, new spaces and taking new chances."We will have to wait and see if they can indeed play well together but they didn't do a stellar job of playing without one another in this game. Both strikers had a quiet game. Torres had zero shot on target and Drogba had one long range shot that was tame and straight at the keeper. They both got caught in possession on several occasions and looked far from hitting their top forms. However, Torres did (kind of) provided the assist for the bizarre own goal by Tal Ben Haim.
Daniel Sturridge started on the right side of the attacking three. I have written before that Sturridge's great form with Bolton came from playing a second striker to a physically dominant Kevin Davies in a 4-4-2 formation. I worried that he might struggle to transition into a wider role in a 4-3-3 formation. From what we have seen in this game, it looks as if he is going to have to play in the wing. He didn't look very comfortable in that position. It was partly due to the fact that he had to play with young Billy Clifford on the right side. But I just don't think we can get the best out of him in that setting. Sturridge did a shot on target from a freekick and had some good passing phases with Zhirkov in the middle.
The Essien Role
Billy Clifford and Yossi Benayoun took turns, Clifford in the first half and Benayoun in the second half, playing in the right sided midfield. I called this The Essien Role. Although Essien played in many different position, I believe the right sided midfield in a 4-3-3 is Essien's best position. Since the Ghanaian's knee injury, we needed someone to step into that role or we need to buy a new player to fill the spot. Young Clifford was very shaky in the first half. He struggled to cope with the pressure from strong opponents like Dave Kitson. Benayoun had a good game compared to the rest of the team. His movements and passing were fluid. He connected well with McEachran behind him and Anelka/KalouBenayoun can grow into that position, he is going to be fantastic this season. Again, from the Chelsea manager,
"Today you saw we adapted Yossi Benayoun's position in the middle, and also against Wycombe he was marvellous in that position (meaning Essien's position)."But the Portuguese is keeping his options open.
"We know what the situation is with Luka Modric, it is public. We also understand the situation the club has taken, so at the moment we are scanning the markets for anything, not just certain players.
But that's one of the positions that we are looking to strengthen. But I reinforce that today you saw Yossi adapting to his position in the middle, so it's just a question of finding a solution. If it happens, it happens".The "Fringe" Players
Zhirkov and Anelka are considered to be the "fringe" players who are most likely to move on to other clubs this summer. As far as this game is concerned, both players had a good game.
Zhirkov played in the left sided midfield (where Lampard usually plays) and he was solid. He played well with both Malouda and Sturridge. The Russian was also the creator of most of the attacking chances in the first half. His in-swinging corner from the left was met in the back post by Torres but the Spanish striker couldn't put it on target. Zhirkov created a shooting chance for Sturridge after a couple of slick passes but the young England striker failed to take the shot early. Zhirkov also won a freekick in a dangerous area; Sturridge took the resulting freekick and tested the goalkeeper.
We, Chelsea fans, know that Zhirkov hasn't had a decent season since he moved to Chelsea. However, we have to remember that he is a versatile player who can play left back, left midfield and left wing. If he can impress Villas-Boas and finally break into the starting eleven this season, he could be an important asset to the team.
Anelka also had a good half against Portsmouth. He was lively both on the left and the right side of the attack. He was very calm on the ball and made a lot of smart runs. He took two shots, both on target but straight at the keeper. Both shots were taken from the left after cutting onto his right.
Last week on the BBC World Football Phone-In, European football correspondent Andy Brassell talked about Villas-Boas' 4-3-3 and what kind of "wingers" he liked to use. Brassell said that the likes of Hulk and Valera, the two "wingers" in Porto's 4-3-3 last season, were not out-and-out wingers who hugged the sidelines. According to Brassell, the front 3 in Porto (Falcao, Hulk and Valera) were almost interchangeable and all of them, at one time or another, were able to come into the middle to score goals. Correct me if I am wrong but Anelka can be that kind of player. His natural position is center forward but he can be effective in cutting in to take shots or interchanging position with the central striker to get into the box and be a goal threat.
So, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of both Zhirkov and Anelka sticking around for another season if Villas-Boas find them useful one way or the other. As the manager has said again and again, he is still assessing the current squad and giving everyone a chance to prove their worth.
The Clowns Between The Sticks
Although you can't judge the outfield players for their pre-season performances, I think that is not the case for goalkeepers. Goalies don't have to adapt to formations and tactics the same way outfield players do. They might still be in holiday mode but their performances, good or bad, during the pre-season is not too far from their real abilities. Since Petr Cech was out due to a minor injury, Turnbull and Hilario were in goal for each half. Turnbull made some decent saves in the first half but he didn't look very comfortable at all. He made a couple of poor decisions about coming out to get the ball and he flapped at crosses like a chicken trying to execute Kung Fu moves. Hilario showed both sides of his game, the brilliant and the idiotic, in the second half. He brought down a Portmouth player in a one on one situation to give away a penalty but made an excellent diving save for the resulting penalty. Later he got into two messy situation simply because he came off the line too quickly without communicating it to the defenders. These two goalkeepers command as much authority in the box as two kittens in a lion's den. The only relief for Chelsea fans is that the news that Chelsea has agreed a deal to sign teenage goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois came out during the game.
*All of the Villas-Boas quotes and statements were taken from Chelseafc.com (specifically here).
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