LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United holds off Raul Meireles of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on August 25, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Two first half goals from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres sealed the victory for Chelsea against Newcastle United. It was a game in which the Blues were clearly the deserved winner: they outplayed the visitors in the first half and held tight in the second. Out of the three games played this season, this was the best yet with the whole team -- from the back to the front -- putting in a strong performance. Let's break this game down a little bit after the jump. To the CHARTS!!!
There were a couple of notable changes to the Chelsea eleven that started against Reading in midweek. John Terry's injury brought David Luiz back in defense. Frank Lampard was given a rest so Raul Meireles stepped in. Ryan Bertrand starts (on the left wing) in place of Ramires. I can think of a couple of reasons behind the inclusion of Bertrand here: (1) he is rather good against Wigan, (2) Ramires was rather bad against Reading, and (3) di Matteo wants to take a cautious approach against the tricky Hatem Ben Arfa on Chelsea's left. It made sense, and most importantly, it worked. It's a 4-2-3-1-ish formation; Bertrand stayed strictly on the left wing while Juan Mata and Eden Hazard roamed all over the pitch to fill in any gap that they can find.
The majority of the Newcastle first eleven were rested in their midweek Europa league game. There was a downgrade in midfield, through injury, from Cheik Tiote to Vurnon Anita and an upgrade in defense from James Perch to Fabricio Coloccini, but the rest were the same folks who started in their victory over Tottenham in the opening game. This was a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, with Ben Arfa drifting in from the right.
Chelsea played a reactive game against Wigan. They sat back and defended for the majority of the game after scoring early goals. Against Reading, the Blues played a proactive game. They started brightly, took the lead, conceded two goals, and then went on all out attack in the second half. They were more balanced against Newcastle -- dominant in the first 45 and compact (and under control) after the break. It will be inaccurate to describe this game as "a game of two halves" in the sense that the second is the total opposite of the first. Chelsea attacked and controlled possession in the first half; they were more defensive in the second half but were never really in danger of conceding. This was the flow of the game and the performance of each players changed according to each phase.
Controlling the Center
Chelsea's strong attacking performance in the first half was based on the solid foundation provided by John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles in the midfield. The pair finished the game as two of the top three passers of the game (Mikel first 60/63; Cabaye second 56/64; Meireles a close third 55/63). And yes, Meireles' passing numbers are almost identical to those of Cabaye, Newcastle's best player on the day. They controlled the tempo of the game with simple, effective passes, and they were almost always open for a pass. They seemed to have a good understanding between them in both defense and in attack.
And most importantly, they were very much willing to let their more creative players -- Mata and Hazard -- run the attack. Their job was to facilitate their front four in attack and their back four in defense, and they carried this out brilliantly. Nevertheless, three of the most penetrating passes made to Torres were from Meireles and Mikel: a floating long ball from Meireles was chested by Torres for Bertrand to shoot; a through-ball from Meireles put Torres behind the Magpies defense and led to Torres making a Rabona pass (passing with the kicking leg behind the standing leg); a forward pass from Mikel put Torres 1v1 with Coloccini leading to the incident that saw Torres wrongly booked for diving. I take away two things from their performance: (1) the importance of Mikel in this 4-2-3-1 system and (2) the luxury of having a quality functional player like Meireles as a squad player.
Wherever They May Roam
It is now getting to a point where it is almost silly to assign positions to Mata and Hazard. The former started in the central role while the latter took the right wing, but they never stayed in these starting positions (see passes received chat of the two players above). Instead, they moved all across the attacking areas of the pitch like water flowing into any cracks and gaps in sight. There were times when they were both on the right wing. Other times, they were playing one-two on the left. And at times, combing down the center.
Of the two, Mata stayed centrally longer and dropped deeper into the midfield. One of the reasons why Chelsea were able to dominate possession in the first half was because Mata (or Hazard at times) were dropping back to be the extra man in midfield, making it easier for Mikel and Meireles to circulate the ball. Hazard played a bit more wider and more direct from the flanks. But they seemed to understand each other's movements and were very fluid, causing all kinds of problem to Newcastle's defense.
The Front Man
He won the penalty with a neat dribble into the box. He then scored an incredible goal to double the lead for the half time whistle. This was arguably Fernando Torres' best performance for Chelsea. We saw a lot of good things from Torres in this game but here's the one that stood out. He was at the end of several long balls from the back and winning the aerial battles against Steven Taylor and Coloccini. He won 7 of the 10 aerial battles. In comparison, Cisse and Ba (combined) contested in a total of 9 and won 3. Of the 8 that Steven Taylor and Coloccini got involved in their own half, they won 2. It was definitely a strong center forward performance from the Spaniard. And when Chelsea played more counter-attacking football in the second half, Torres was an effective outlet -- making diagonal runs or holding the ball up successfully.
Yes, having the creative players like Mata and Hazard help Torres' game, but there is more than that. I'm one of those who believed that Torres' goal-scoring problem lies within himself (i.e. not lack of service), and thus, now that he scores, I give him full credit for his performance. There seems to be a distinct change in the striker. From the Community Shield game against Manchester City to this league game against Newcastle United, we have witnessed a few positive things that we didn't quite see from Torres before in a Chelsea jersey: (1) willingness to take on the defender with pace and skill both inside and outside the box and (2) finishing without hesitation. Both of these aspects have improved his game tremendously.
Newcastle's main source of creativity lies in right wide-man Ben Arfa who likes to drift in field. But he was marked out of the game by Bertrand, the defensive winger, and Cole, the left back, during the first half. As you can see in the above pass-received chart, Ben Arfa was floating around the halfway line in the first 45 and had little impact on the game. We expected Bertrand to be defensively tight, but he surprised us all by being more proactive in attack too. For the second time in a week, he combined with Torres -- this time the Spaniard setting up for the youngster to shoot. This was a very positive performance by Bertrand.
The French man had more freedom after the break, drifting in field and toward Chelsea's right. As Newcastle's attack got better, they penetrated down that right flank where Ivanovic, again, got little protection from Mata. All of Newcastle's shooting chances during the 15 minutes subsequent to the break came from that side of the pitch with their left back Santon getting forward frequently.
This was when Roberto di Matteo brought Ramires on for Mata to protect Chelsea's right flank. Almost instantly, the attack from that flank died down. Ramires sat rather deep and tracked/pressed/marked any Newcastle player that ventured into his zone. This, I think, is the testament to the depth in the Chelsea's squad. They can be more attack-minded, using creative players like Hazard and Mata in the same lineup, but they can also drop a gear to protect the lead, using two defensive wingers on each flank. The Mata-to-Ramires substitution was a logical move. Di Matteo made the right call.
Conclusion of Some Sort
A very positive performance in which Chelsea were proactive in the first half and compact defensively in the second. If I had to pick a Man of the Match, it would be Fernando Torres, for the dribble that won the penalty and the finish for his goal. It has been a positive start for Chelsea. Enjoy it. But don't get too carried away.