CHELSEA BEAT BLACKBURN with a Frank Lampard header goal, assisted by Branislav Ivanovic who crossed the ball from the right. Both should be applauded for the goal but it was John Obi Mikel's vertical pass from midfield that set Ivanovic free on the right flank. A player who is known for his horizontal passes comes up with a vertical ball that started the attack. We will look at how this particular instance happened and what it means in the bigger picture as far as what Villas-Boas wants from his defensive midfielder.
|Picture 1.2 Mikel's Pass to Ivanovic|
This was at the beginning of the second half. Mikel (red triangle) finds himself with a little bit of time and space in the midfield. Ivanovic (red star), starting the game in place of Jose Bosingwa, makes a run down the right, the side of Blackburn that bolsters attacking options but lacks defensive solidarity. Mikel lobs a beautiful ball over the Blackburn defense, into the path of Ivanovic's run. Goal scorer Lampard (red square), meanwhile, prepares to make one of his signature late runs into the box.
|Picture 1.2 Ivanovic's Pass to Lampard|
Ivanovic, then, does well to cut back and dribble in towards the goal before whipping in a curving cross with his right foot. Lampard gets low to put the ball into the back of the net with his head.
As I've said, both Lampard and Ivanovic did very well for the goal. But I'm interested in that initial pass from Mikel because he is usually known, at least in the Chelsea outfit, for playing the simple, horizontal passes.
|Chart 1. Mikel's Passes: First Half (left) vs Second Half (right) | Source ||
As you can see in Chart 1, Mikel was mostly making the usual short horizontal passes in the first half. But he changed it up in the break. There were two long balls, both successful, that stood out. One (red star) was the pass to Ivanovic for the goal. Another was for Sturridge on the left flank (which actually came at the 44th minutes in the first half). Both of these vertical passes created good attacking plays for Chelsea. This ability to pulls out accurate vertical passes is exactly what Villas-Boas wants from his defensive midfielder.
Back in 2009 when he was still working under Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, Andre Villas-Boas revealed his footballing philosophy in a detailed tactical interview by Daniel Sousa, now the head opposition scout at Chelsea. He said a lot of interesting stuff in that conversation, but his thoughts on what a holding midfielder should offer to the game have stuck with me.
Sousa asked, "And in that concept of match control, are there any sectors of the team more important than others?" And this was Villas-Boas's answer:
Well, that depends on the mechanisms you want to use defensively and offensively. Let me give you an example.
Top teams nowadays don’t look to vertical penetration from their midfielders because the coach prefers them to stand in position (horizontally) and then use the movement of the wingers as the main source to create chances. ^
So, you, as a coach, have to know exactly what kind of players you have and analyse the squad to decide how you want to organise your team offensively. And then, there are maybe some players more important than others.
For instance, many teams play with defensive pivots, small defensive midfielders. ^
And, except Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, and maybe Esteban Cambiasso and one or two more, they are players that are limited to the horizontal part of the game: they keep passing the ball from one side to another, left or right, without any kind of vertical penetration.
Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration? (Source)Villas-Boas wants his defensive midfielder to not only shield the defense and make horizontal passes from left to right, but also make vertical passes from time to time to catch opposition by surprise. In lines marked with ^, Villas-Boas almost seems to be describing Claude Makelele style defensive midfielder. But, as the italicized paragraph suggests, he wants more than that.
At times, we have seen Raul Meireles offering that kind of service from the holding position, which makes us (or at least me) think that Meireles is Villas-Boas's preferred defensive midfielder, especially against weaker oppositions. But I think his performance in this game puts Mikel back into the equation. We know he has more attacking duty when he plays for Nigeria and now he is showing glimpses of his ability to start attack from the deep position. I only hope this will become more of a routine.
Carefree, wherever you may be...