"What the [fun] is going on out there?"
Raise your hand if you were satisfied with Chelsea's performance on Saturday. Nobody? Right. It's late and I'm tired, so this will have to suffice as an introductory paragraph. Formation chart after the jump, made up in Paint in lieu of having statistics.
Figure 1: Chelsea vs. Birmingham City formations, Feb. 18, 2012.
Chelsea began the match in a 4-3-3, using John Obi Mikel as the base of a midfield triangle with Raul Meireles and Ramires in front. The front three were more or less standard for a Didier Drogba-less Blues team, and the only real change at the back was Ryan Bertrand for the injured Ashley Cole.
Chris Hughton set up his team in a very deep 4-5-1, almost exactly what you'd expect from a Championship side visiting Stamford Bridge. The lone striker, Adam Rooney, was pushed up close to David Luiz, probably because Hughton didn't want him competing one on one with Gary Cahill in the air, but without support he was easily neutralised. Birmingham's other main threat from open play was expected to be left winger Nathan Redmond, but Branislav Ivanovic took him out of the match without too many problems.
The visitors scored first through a set piece, but in truth they failed to be any threat whatsoever to Chelsea's back line apart from on that corner, which was a masterpiece of bad defending - Meireles, Ramires and Ivanovic each failed to clear the ball when presented with the opportunity, while Fernando Torres simply didn't bother to track as the left back stole in unmarked to score.
Meanwhile, however, Chelsea offered very little of their own. There were a few tactical problems in the first half which I thought were worth exploring in a little more detail:
1. Ryan Bertrand was not pushed up high enough. He regularly failed to anticipate the ball coming to him, which caused some particularly promising attacks to falter. For all of Cole's defensive indifference this season, one of the things he's excellent at is coming up the pitch to provide an outlet when the ball is on the right hand side or centre. Bertrand didn't, although he got better after he was pulled to the sideline for a chat with Villas-Boas.
2. Juan Mata had very little support when he was going forward. We all know that Mata's not a prototypical left winger, so the fact that he prefers making runs up the centre of the pitch is perhaps not a surprise. However, Raul Meireles and Bertrand were failing to offer him much support, and Mata was drifting to the centre too much. If Bertrand was available on the left more, I suspect Mata would have been more inclined to try to overload Jonathan Specter* on the left.
*That fact that we couldn't seriously worry a man I could beat one-on-one is a damning indictment of Chelsea's performance.
3. We had difficulty getting the ball out of the back. There were complaints about the number of passes that were going between Gary Cahill and David Luiz, and the reason that this happened was that Cahill was having real problems pushing the ball to midfield and getting it to stick. That's partially because he's nowhere near as good a passer as David Luiz, who was probably our primary attacking threat in the first half, but also because Ramires wasn't getting back to offer him much support. In a 4-3-3, a centre back on the ball should have at least four short passing options - his centre back partner, a full back, the holding midfielder and the attacking midfielder higher up the pitch.
You can see what actually happened below in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Gary Cahill in possession vs. Birmingham City.
When Cahill was in possession, Adam Rooney tended to block off the passing lane to John Obi Mikel. Nathan Redmond was pressuring Branislav Ivanovic, making a pass to him pretty much useless, and Ramires was upfield and being generally blocked off by whatever a Margaro Gomis is. Ideally, the way out of a situation like this is for Ramires to drop deep, receive the ball and flick wide for Ivanovic to take up the flank. Instead, the ball shuttled between the centre backs until David Luiz managed to do something clever
4. Speaking of Meireles, he was very good at offering himself up for the ball when David Luiz was trying to bring it out of the back. He was, however, utterly abysmal at doing at anything else. His touch was poor, his passing was poor and when Birmingham were in possession he was doing a phenomenal job of marking empty space. A week ago, I was watching Josh McEachran look like a headless chicken at the Liberty Stadium as he attempted to track Norwich City. This wasn't any better, and at least McEachran has the excuse of being an 18-year-old child making his second Premier League start with a new team. Meireles is a Portugal international who's made more starts for top-level teams than I can be bothered to look up. His complete inability to play without the ball is astonishing, and while Chelsea didn't really have defensive difficulties against Birmingham, it's a major problem against teams that are actually capable of playing football.
5. This is the big one. Chelsea have been struggling with the attack lately, and the common refrain is that the team plays too slowly. Now, teams can indeed play too slowly, especially on the counterattack, when quick, precision football is the order of the day. Chelsea, as you might have noticed, are lethal on the counter - we're at our very best when teams try to beat us. We look terrible when we're behind and have to create something. The team is not capable of breaking down a compact defence.
Now, there are a number of ways of doing that. You can throw the ball out to the flanks and cross, but for that you need a) good crossers and b) people capable of converting them. You can take enough long-range shots that something good comes out of it. Orrrrrrr you can do the Barcelona thing, where you recycle the ball around the opposition until you yank them out of shape, and then exploit that.
Option three is the one Andre Villas-Boas favours. Lure the defence out of position, bait them with the ball and then take advantage of the space. This is the most technically difficult of the options, but Chelsea have enough talent - any certainly enough money - to play like that. The requirement, however, is to play controlled, intelligent football. Being slow isn't a bad thing, as long as you're the one in control.
Chelsea, however, aren't doing this, or anything like it. Instead of controlling the game, they're just driving pointlessly at the defence whenever they get the ball. This, to me, is a matter of confidence and/or Ramiresiness. The attack looked panicked in possession, and where they should be asking the other team questions, they're the ones under pressure. The team is playing too quickly. Patience must be the order of the day.
So that's a lot of problems to deal with, and it doesn't even touch on the Fernando Torres question. How might we begin to address them?
The obvious solution to most of them is a switch to a 4-2-3-1 (duh). Mata getting shifted to the centre makes us more patient and shifting to a double pivot opens up more options for the defenders to distribute from the back. The goal was a direct result of the switch to 4-2-3-1, which occurred in the second half with the introduction of Salomon Kalou for John Obi Mikel. That switch didn't help as much as it might have - although Chelsea were better in the second half, they were hardly as good as they should have been.
I don't think a formation switch is the answer to the problems the team is having. However, it's a partial answer, and I'll take that for now. Ultimately, we're going to need to figure out how to play better football, and with the team in an absolute mess it's unclear how exactly we're going to do that. Did I mention that we're facing the most dangerous attacking force in the Serie A on Tuesday? Good timing, huh?