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I encountered something strange the other day. When I was writing up the Nordsjaelland vs. Chelsea player ratings, I found myself not commenting on how poor Petr Cech's distribution was. In fact, it was downright ok. 22 passes, of which just nine were hit long, and an 82 percent pass completion rate? In a season where Cech's random-looking punts forward had been haemorrhaging possession, it was a nice change.
According to statistics from Whoscored.com, prior to the match in Copenhagen, Cech had played 152 passes, 78 of which had been completed. That's 74 incomplete attempts, and while that figure is not necessarily to be confused with Chelsea losing the ball (a defender can head a long pass out of play, for example), it's pretty clear that that number was too high.
There's nothing wrong with playing it long in the right circumstances. For years, Chelsea had the sort of players who'd happily battle against the best the Premier League had to offer whenever the ball was in the air. Didier Drogba was a magician whenever he was targetted with long balls, and Chelsea played accordingly. Route one football was perfectly viable, so why not play it?
Now, however, things are a little different. Chelsea's front four feature a grand total of zero Ivorian man-gods (even Salomon Kalou has moved on). Instead, we're regularly playing Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres and Oscar, who have the combined height of the average Peter Crouch. Is it any surprise that the Blues haven't been able to pick up the ball when it's unceremoniously booted up the pitch?
If the intention is to morph the team's style to focus around fluid, attacking football, the second order of business* should be to control the football. Losing the ball a good proportion of the time Cech touches it is rather counterproductive, and it's been clear for a while that something had to change.
*The first was the acquisitions of Mata, Hazard and Oscar.
But there's happy news: Now that we're done with Norwich City, it looks like something has changed. To the graphs!
In every match before Nordsjaelland, Cech tried a long pass more than fifty percent of the time. Since, he's played 34 passes, of which nine have been long. Against Norwich, he tried the long punt forward a grand total of zero times, always playing short and retaining possession. His pass completion rate? 100 percent.
It's pretty obvious that fewer long passes means a higher completion rate, but I went ahead and charted it out just for fun.
(R² is 0.82, if you care about R² for nine-game samples.)
Anyway, if someone's taught Cech to stop passing it long so often, I'll be very happy. Obviously, we shouldn't want Chelsea to swing the other way and never hit it long, because sometimes you just need to make the ball go away -- a lesson Barcelona and Victor Valdes would do well to learn -- but with the squad Roberto di Matteo has at his disposal, the optimum balance is much closer to all short than the 70 percent long passes Cech was playing prior to our little adventure in Denmark.