CHELSEA GOT THEIR second win in two games under Roberto di Matteo as the Blues dominated Stoke City and grabbed all three points through Drogba's 100th league goal. Although the 1-0 scoreline suggests a narrow victory, the home team were very comfortable for the majority of the game; the sending off of Stoke forward Fuller in the 25th minutes also made the Blues' task simpler. Match analysis after the jump.
Selections and Formations
Roberto di Matteo recalled Terry, Cole, Lampard and Drogba into the starting eleven as his team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As in the Birmingham game, Mikel and Meireles stayed in the double pivot while Lampard was preferred over Mata in the attacking midfield role behind the central striker -- Drogba. In defense, Bertrand and Luiz made way for Cole and Terry, both back from injury.
There are a couple of points to make about this selection. First, Ramires started again right wing which meant that Sturridge sat on the bench once again. Does Di Matteo see Ramires as the first choice winger now or is he saving Sturridge for Napoli? It is hard to tell but he has stressed that finishing 4th is Chelsea's priority, so he must believe that Ramires could do the job (after all, the Brazilian did play very well against Birmingham). Second, Mikel and Meireles retained his position in midfield as Essien was left on the bench. Of the two, I think Mikel is a bigger part of Di Matteo's game plan than Meireles is. Part of the reason behind Meireles's inclusion is probably because the Portuguese is banned for the Napoli game. Additionally, Meireles was the first to be sacrificed when the manager brought Mata on at 38th minute to really go after 10 men Stoke.
The away team lined up in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Fuller slightly behind the target man Jones. Their game plan was to defend deep with two solid defensive blocks. The Fuller sending off was a blow to Stoke but as far as the strategy was concerned, they didn't not have to change much. Fuller's trickery and speed was missed in Stoke's rare chances through counter attacks, especially in the second half.
The Opening Stages
|Picture 1. Chelsea's Build-Up Play in the First Half|
The home side were on the top from the start, forcing Stoke to defend deep with 10 men behind the ball. This early dominance resulted in a couple of long distance shots and Chelsea corners. Mikel's shot from outside the box caused a lot of problems to Stoke defense as one of the backward header clearances nearly ended up as an own goal. Later, Cahill, also from distance, forced a smart save from Begovic. From Lampard's well-taken corners, Ivanovic got a free header, which he should have done better to put it on target, and Terry forced a downward header that clipped off of the crossbar. In other words, Chelsea were making the best of their dominance despite not looking spectacular in the build-ups.
After the Fuller Red Card
|Picture 2. Chelsea's Build-Up after Mata Substitution|
With only 25 minutes on the clock, Stoke's task of keeping out Chelsea got even harder when Fuller foolishly stamped on Ivanovic after the Serbian made a clearance that made contact with the Jamaican. As I said earlier, this doesn't change Stoke's game plan much but Di Matteo responded to this advantage with a decisive move bringing on Mata for Meireles at the 38th minute. This was an excellent substitution which allowed Chelsea's attack to move into a higher gear and ultimately made a difference in terms of the outcome of the game. Roberto Di Matteo deserves a lot of credit for this.
On paper, Chelsea probably kept the 4-2-3-1 shape with Lampard dropping back into central midfield as Mata played in the hole. But Stoke never really got out of their half which meant that Lampard could still pushed on as he did in the first half with Mikel holding things together in central midfield. Mata and Lampard took turns sneaking into the space between the two Stoke defensive blocks. In fact, it was Mata who came very deep to collect the ball rather than Lampard. It was after the Drogba goal that the Chelsea number 8 dropped deeper into the central midfield role to partner with Ramires.
Creating Nothing with Crosses
|Chart 1. Chelsea's Crosses against Stoke City|
So why did it take Chelsea so long to break Stoke down? First, Stoke defended with great organization. Second, Chelsea's attack played into Stoke's strength -- forcing opposition wide and clearing the high crosses into the box. With Shawcross and Huth (and later Upson), Stoke can defend that kind of ball delivery into the box all day long. From set piece and open play, Chelsea made a total of 36 crosses in this game and only 6 successfully reached a Chelsea player. That is a mere 17 percent success rate.
Of course, it is much harder to weave through the middle or drive inward from the wings to deliver low crosses than lobbing hopeful balls into the box but it is telling that Chelsea goal came from the penetrating build-up through the middle and that one of the best chances also came from Ivanovic driving in from the right to play one-two with Lampard inside the box.
The Return of John Obi Mikel
|Chart 2. Mikel's Passes (Stoke) vs Scholes' Passes (Liverpool)|
For the second game in a row, Mikel put in a great shift as the central midfielder in Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1. I intentionally use the term "central midfielder" because many still think that he is playing the holding role. The truth is that the two pivot midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 are not necessarily defensive midfielders*. Since Mikel has been playing as the lone defensive mid in Chelsea's 4-3-3 for a long time, it is understandable to still see him as a defensive player. But in reality, Mikel has been playing higher up the pitch and playing like a traditional central mid of a 4-4-2 in the past two games.
* You can read more on that topic in this article: Frank Lampard and The Double Pivot.
Chart 2 compares the passes Mikel made in the Stoke game with the passes Paul Scholes, a traditional central midfielder, made in United's game against Liverpool. You can definitely see the similarities between the passing patterns by these two players. In fact, Mikel even played higher up the pitch than Scholes did against Liverpool.
Mikel's new role becomes even clearer if you look closely at the type passes he is making. The Nigerian completed 68 passes in 75 attempts against Stoke. More than half of these passes (42/47) were forward passes. Meanwhile, he completed only 8 back passes and 18 square passes. Almost half of all his passes (32/36) were made in the attacking third. Despite leaving the game at the 67th minute, Mikel the highest number of passes and the highest number of passes in attacking third (Lampard came in second with 30).
Di Matteo withdrew Mikel in order to put more attacking power with Sturridge but Chelsea's breakthrough goal came without much help from Sturridge and the Blues missed Mikel's calming presence in the midfielder when Stoke searched for the equalizer. We are all still figuring out Roberto di Matteo's preferred starting eleven but based on the last two performances, Mikel has to be one of the first to get on the team sheet.
I know I'm ending this post without really mentioning Drogba's milestone goal which confirmed the Ivorian's legendary status at Chelsea and showed how reliable he still is. I intend to do a separate goal analysis post to cover that.
It wasn't a blow out game but the three points and the clean sheet were very much welcomed for the resurgent Chelsea. Most importantly, the team looks to be confident and players are stepping up their game. Two cup games are now on the radar with Napoli and Leicester coming to Stamford Bridge for Champions League and FA Cup respectively. Exciting prospects! But the two league games, Manchester City (away) and Tottenham (home), that come immediately after might be the ones that will define Chelsea's season.
Carefree, wherever you may be...