“I don’t say we are a defensive team. I say we are a strong team in defensive terms”- Jose Mourinho, Chelsea manager.
In popular football culture, Jose Mourinho the coach is pragmatic, his teams stereotyped defensively well-organised. Defensive nature is not choice in football, it is necessity. Mourinho’s Chelsea of last season conceded the lowest goals (32) in the division; only League Two club Shrewsbury Town allowed fewer goals (31) than the Blues in 2014/15 across all professional leagues in England.
Not a flash in the pan by any means, Mourinho’s Chelsea conceded even fewer goals (27) in the 2013/14 season. Manchester City let in 38 goals last season, which incidentally is more than Chelsea’s 37 conceded over two title-winning seasons during Mourinho’s first spell with the Blues. It is intriguing how he does it with such regularity.
Following is an attempt at analysing the patterns, formation morphs, off-the-ball movements, zone coverage and other features of Chelsea’s defensive game.
Chelsea suffered a heavy loss (conceded five goals) on New Year’s Day to Tottenham Hotspur. It was more a case of Spurs capitalizing on their chances and the individual brilliance of their front players than Chelsea suffering from defensive disorganisation. Harry Kane’s second goal (video below) involved a little turn that sent Nemanja Matic the other way and opened up shooting space on the edge of the box. That little piece of skill took John Terry out of the game too.
The scenario explains a pattern. Chelsea regroup into a four at the back in defensive transitions. Matic drops into the space between the centre-backs, when one of the full-backs gets up the pitch.
Note Mourinho isn’t a fan of wing play from the back. Most managers push both full backs up during possession phases but it is a pendulum-shaped defence at Chelsea with a flat four. Matic’s covering of space between the two centre-backs means one of them goes wide into the zone vacated by the full-back on his side.
Generally, the two lines at the back form a 2-3 M; Chelsea play a medium-low block defensive line, with Terry and Gary Cahill being the defensive recyclers. One of the two central midfielders positions himself deeper in build-up phases since neither Terry nor Cahill is a ball-playing defender. The diagram shows the M-shaped line at the back which morphs into a flat four when Chelsea are on the defensive.
Often teams subject Chelsea to high presses in a bid to 1) affect their build-up play, and 2) win the ball closer to their goal. Mauricio Pochettino is known to apply high-block pressing systems at his clubs (Southampton notably) which is yet to take full effect present club Tottenham. In the 5-3 win however, the Argentine’s tactics were aimed for disrupting Chelsea’s defensive organisation with the high press which exposed their ‘hole’.
Chelsea in the above scenario are playing to the referee’s whistle, and not overly reliant on playing the offside trap. See the movement and positioning of Cesar Azpilicueta who spots the penetrative movement of Ryan Mason and is in a position to cover should he receive the ball behind the centre-backs. Terry directs Cahill to stand back and cover. Cesc Fabregas, too, is in a defending shift covering for the out-of-position Branislav Ivanovic.
Chelsea’s defensive structure allows for opposition pressure in the Zone 14 (hole), but there is sufficient cover should their line be breached. A stat to back: Chelsea caught opposition 75 times offside last season in the league which, almost two per game, was lower than nine other teams.
Spurs used multiple pressing triggers in the Chelsea half in the forms of Kane, Andros Townsend and Mason. They maintained a consistent third band of three advanced midfielders; Mason stepped up when Nacer Chadli became the furthest Spurs attacker forward. Nabil Bentaleb, Mason’s partner in the back of midfield, played the Matic role.
The screengrab above shows Chelsea’s defensive structure. Their active zone is under Tottenham’s advanced man-to-man press. Fabregas, a modern deep-lying playmaker, is Chelsea’s outlet from the back. Chelsea maintain a good balance at the back, which makes their organisation in defensive transitions quicker and more efficient. Another example from the same Spurs game to clearly illustrate the point.
In the above scenario, Chelsea have four men in the active zone (zone where the ball is) who are covered by Spurs players. Spurs’ coverage is man-to-man situational (marker doesn’t follow his man everywhere; they only do so when nearby pressing triggers force a mistake from a Chelsea player that results in a loose/wrong pass). Chelsea can overcome Spurs’ intense pressure by spreading play to the passive zone. Cahill is in space, so is Ivanovic and once the Blues play around Tottenham’s high block, they are away attacking the opposition who have half their team in the new passive zone. Oscar (Chelsea’s number 8) drops near the centre circle to help build up and make himself an available passing option.
One upside of having four at the back at all times is the numerical advantage. Teams normally don’t play four forward players in their basic setups. Of course, things could vary depending on the state of the game, but Chelsea themselves form a blanket in such situations maintaining their advantage. This takes us to another distinct aspect of their defensive play: covering and marking.
COVERING AND MARKING
Chelsea zonally cover space; their marking scheme is part man-to-man, part spatial. Their midfield two cover the central passing lanes. The Blues started well in their 5-3 loss to Spurs and even scored the opening goal. They were largely undone by the north Londoners’ high pressing block as mentioned earlier.
The Blues morph into a flat back four at all times during possession turnovers in their own half, which meant Spurs’ advanced midfielders, who formed their second pressing block (behind striker Kane, the press initiator), always found space behind Chelsea’s second line of defence.
They bypassed and isolated Chelsea in the central areas with the game in balance when Chelsea were understandably taking the initiative to attack. Chelsea’s propensity to play safe at the back (maintaining their four) meant Spurs could move forward into the whereabouts of the ‘hole’ without being subjected to much pressure.
This allowed Kane to score his first goal from outside the box. Spurs’ second goal, too, came from a similar exploitation of space in front of Chelsea’s flat four as Christian Eriksen found time and space to trouble the Blues.
The above videos give a fair idea of Chelsea’s defensive schemes and flat lines of defence. Mourinho’s Chelsea, like any other team, try to hold on to a lead, and Kane’s goal above shows the two banks slightly deeper (Chelsea were leading at that stage) than when they had to again take the game to Spurs at 1-1 when Rose struck.
Last season, Chelsea dropped their first points in the league in an away fixture at Manchester City. Things were going well for the Blues; they were a man up and led the defending champions by a goal until Frank Lampard restored parity for Manchester City in the 85th minute. The way Chelsea defended in numbers after Andre Schurrle’s 71st minute goal hints at another defensive pattern.
Manchester City had the sole presence of Sergio Aguero up front, but Chelsea had no plans to afford central space to the Argentine or the other auxiliary attackers supporting him. As ESPNFC‘s Michael Caley says: “That moment where defensive organization has broken down is the moment when an attack is most dangerous,” Chelsea’s approach lessens their chances of suffering from defensive meltdowns although they found themselves down 4-1 at one stage in that Spurs game.
The following scenario is from the City game after Chelsea had taken the lead. Notice how the Blues form two distinct banks of four. Chelsea are horizontally compact at this moment. They have managed to cut down most of the available passing lanes centrally while ignoring the wide areas.
Chelsea develop horizontal as well as vertical compactness as they defend deeper in their own half. In the last quarter-hour of that Manchester City game, Chelsea reorganise into a blanket to minimise City’s scoring chances. They cover the central zone, and pressure in wider areas is less intense.
Not necessarily parking-the-bus stuff, Chelsea’s smooth transition into a cohesive defensive unit involves pressing areas corresponding the strong attacking zones of the opposition. All ten outfielders create overloads in zones inside their own half, outnumbering City eight to four in the central zone. Note the four Chelsea players around Aguero, where the pressure is more intense than on Jesus Navas.
The central zones are subjected to intense pressure when the Blues are in a cohesive defensive shape. Most of the available central passing lanes are covered and blocked off. This leaves David Silva (screenshot below) with little to no option of moving the ball forward centrally.
Of course Chelsea change defensive patterns according to in-game situations; the above example is when they are defending a slender lead against strong opposition late into games.
PRESSING AND OVERLOADING
Chelsea aren’t a pressing machine; they press their opposition strategically in dangerous areas and almost always have a counter attacking trigger to support their pressing scheme. Rarely do they press inside their own half; their morphing into a back four in defensive possession turnovers means distributed pressing is not Chelsea’s game. However, they do press, and the opposition half is their preferred pressing zone.
The above scenario explains another pattern: Chelsea disrupt Tottenham’s build-up with a high press. Chances are they recover possession following a successful press which explains Eden Hazard’s positioning on the wide left as a counter attacking trigger. Chelsea have become more of a possession-based side and goals from counter attacks were rare in 2014/15 after scoring the third highest number of goals from counter attacks the season before.
Chelsea’s block defence (reorganising into four at the back) leaves little chance for them to use pressing traps in their own half. One of their two midfielders in the back of midfield closes down the opposition central passer and starts pressing him to force passes away from goal into wide areas.
In the following scenario, Matic closes Kane down and as a consequence, the Spurs striker’s passing angles are narrowed down. This man-specific coverage from Matic comes at the expense of leaving the space in front of the back line vulnerable. Eriksen and Chadli have space in the hole but Chelsea, too, have half a chance of recovering possession from Kane.
Overloading schemes are similar to the aforementioned pressing schemes. Willian on the right is defensively better than Hazard on the left. The balance on both flanks is maintained by the attacking nature of the full-backs. Ivanovic on Willian’s side is more attack-minded than Azpilicueta on the left.
In the whereabouts of the penalty area, chances of an opposition player shooting or finding a team-mate lessens as he is heavily overloaded. Note Willian tracking back and covering the space vacated by Matic as he closes Chadli down on the edge of the box.
Mourinho’s reputation as the pragmatist often precedes him; he is prone to criticism for his tactics, but is well worth the money for his ways. He is a manager who guarantees success, and has turned his new Chelsea into another well-oiled machine, almost.
Enjoy this counter attacking brilliance from Hazard, and do accept my apologies for the extremely drawn-out piece.
– Footage courtesy of IMG Sport Video Archive
– Stats courtesy of WhoScored.com
– Featured image courtesy of Huffington Post