Chelsea suffered the pain of conceding in excess of five at home against one of their closest rivals, a storyline far too familiar in topsy-turvy Premier League season.
Andre Villas-Boas’ side has now lost two on the trot, with an inability to keep clean sheets the most alarming tendency of his side so far during his reign.
Much has been attributed to the high line that he has introduced, and while the high line is one element of our failings, it is not everything, as individual defensive errors and inconsistent pressing is the other side of the equation. In the first part of this analysis from Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5, I’m going to take a look at whether or not the high line really is directly responsible for Chelsea’s poor defending.
The high line is one part of the critical revamp he is bringing to Chelsea’s style of play. His Porto side had a similar identity, and they were unbeaten in the league and took home the treble, and furthermore, these tactics are also utilised by the best team in the world, Champions League holders Barcelona. In that sense, the tactics cannot be written off, for they clearly work.
These tactics invoke the use of a high line in conjunction with a high tempo passing style (although this can vary) with a focus on retaining possession and looking for lateral passes to open up deep defences. In addition a high first and secondary press is used primarily to regain possession and to not allow the opposition time and space to exploit holes in the defence.
By executing these three elements well within a system with suitable players a team can control a game and create attacking opportunities to score the goals necessary for victory. Each one of these elements is relatable to the other – a high line is necessary to make holding possession easier, a high tempo is necessary so that an "ultra low defensive block" cannot be applied by the opposition, and a high press is necessary so that the high line cannot be exploited.
The best example of this system in full function came when Chelsea were at the peak of their powers, against Bolton. Numerous times there was a cohesive press, which regained possession, and the ball was played out through the defenders at a fast rate up field, and effective finishing was all it took to score. In particular, Lampard’s first and third goals are good examples of this.
Furthermore, the risk associated with playing a high line is that it’s obvious when it doesn’t work. It’s easy to forget the amount of times our offside trap has worked well this season – an average of 4.2 a game, compared to 1.7 last season.
However the key difference between a working system and a losing system is the players’ implementation and understanding of their roles within the structure. Failure to do so will lead to the ignominy that comes after defeats like the one all those involved with Chelsea suffered on Saturday against Arsenal.
However terrible it is to experience conceding five on your home turf, lessons must be learnt from the mistakes made, and tweaks and practice must be done as to eliminate future possibilities of something like this happening again. That it is not to say there is any sort of crisis at Chelsea, to the contrary we have been playing some sparkling football and getting results we deserve in all our competitions, however there is an underlying trend to our defensive play that causes great alarm.
To demonstrate we have to look at examples from the loss to Arsenal in greater detail to understand what is going wrong. This should be read in conjuction with the following YouTube video.
In the twelfth minute Van Persie should have scored with a free volley in the Chelsea box, superbly set up by Aaron Ramsey. Initially the move begins with Andre Santos, who brings the ball into Chelsea’s half, looking for options. If we are going to play a high line, you can’t give the opposition time and space to construct moves – because then it’s too easy for them to pick out balls over the top, or play through the spaces.
In Figure 1 in the video, which is the start of the play, Mikel is dragged out of position because neither Bosingwa nor Sturridge is pressing the man with the ball. This individual laziness makes other players accountable for the necessary press, which Mikel does dutifully. This then allows Santos, with a bit of skill, manoeuvre past three men and open up the midfield and defence. The ball comes out to Walcott, who is not being pressed by anyone and only has Ashley Cole as a direct opponent. Cole sits back to account for Walcott’s pace advantage, and the lack of midfield cohesion in their pressing gives Walcott all the time in the world to pick out Van Persie’s off the shoulder run.
Running in behind the high line onto a well timed ball was an all time familiar scenario time and time again throughout the game, and is directly accountable, not towards the high line (although it does play some role), but the secondary function of Chelsea’s defensive game, the pressing.
This same scenario occurred repeatedly throughout the game – particularly evidently at the very start of the second half when Van Persie broke the lines, again when Ashley Cole pressed on account of a lack of team organization.
In the build up to Arsenal’s first goal, Chelsea’s defensive shape was actually very strong (Figure 2). They pressed appropriately and held a strong shape, while the defence was also high, allowing for the quick transition that would occur should Chelsea win the ball.
Contrast this with Figure 3, which is an aerial view of the Van Persie volley mentioned above. This is a mess, with all the players out of shape and struggling to get back into their required positioning.
Figure 2 has a strong shape – and yet Figure 4 takes place ten seconds later but it’s a completely different scenario. The midfield has moved slightly out of position and Ramsey then has time, as he has no one pressing him, to find Gervinho through the middle. This shows the importance of individual concentration and positioning for the high line to work.
Lampard is actually at fault here, and he is too busy arguing at the ref and is not staying in the defensive block, which Ramsey then exploits to good effect. In a sense, the best way to account for the high line’s ‘failings’ is the same way to account for a goalkeeper’s ‘failings’. Sometimes you can’t do much when the players in front of you don’t work well.
That said, there is more individual failings in place as neither Terry nor Ivanovic tracked Gervinho’s run. Along the same line, individual failings are directly at fault for the Santos, Walcott and Van Persie’s (#2) goals – Bosingwa just left his position for no reason and through no communication with Sturridge, no one cleared the ball when Walcott scored, and John Terry slipped chasing a poor ball from Malouda).
The high line is clearly not the problem. It’s part of the identity that Villas-Boas is trying to introduce at Chelsea, and there will always be blimps with it. The question of course is there – should one fit the players to a system or should the system fit the players? It depends. If Villas-Boas has guaranteed time at Stamford Bridge, then establishing a strong system is paramount. He has clearly seen the faults his players have when trying to adapt – when Chelsea played Valencia at the Mestalla we were a lot deeper and compact.
However, when trying to introduce a system you need to play it as much as possible. This season may be seen as all concerned with those involved in the top hierarchy as a transitional season and so a period of adaption and change must be accepted on the field and in the transfer market. We must remember that Villas-Boas is just thirty three. His young pedigree and inexperience is what we all signed up for when he arrived at Chelsea. His previous successes are enough that we should have faith in his management.
Furthermore, the players are transitioning to a completely new style of play. Mishaps and incorrect positioning are almost to be expected. That doesn’t excuse a defensive performance as poor as this one, and improvement is required.
The high line is not the issue – it’s undoubtedly somewhat a part of our struggles in adapting to AvB's system – but just because it’s the most obvious change to our style of play, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily always at fault.