Stamford Bridge has long been regarded as one of the most intrepid away days for any Premier League club, perhaps if not for the corporate atmosphere but for the lingering memories of the Chelsea Headhunters and the 12-f0ot electric fence which fortified the Bridge as a place of intimidation for fans more so than players during the 80s and 90s. The arrival of Jose Mourinho in the early naughties saw this dynamic switch completely as Chelsea’s hooligan reputation was discarded for a cleaner and less accessible facade, whilst performances on the pitch resulted in a maiden Premier League trophy and an unprecedented 86 game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge. But over a decade has passed since Xabi Alonso’s lone strike brought an abrupt halt to the Blues’ streak, and with Frank Lampard, one of the most integral players in said unbeaten period, now taking over the reigns as manager we examine how he should combat his mixed fortunes in the home dugout after winning just three of his opening six games in West London.
Last weekend’s game against Crystal Palace proved to be a remarkably straightforward victory, and with Roy Hodgson’s men setting up with an interchangeable 4-5-1 formation, defensive stability was clearly at the forefront of Palace’s thinking – so what changes did Lampard make in order to break down one of the league’s most watertight backlines?
The main tactic Chelsea deployed actually came about as a result of Jorginho’s absence and the necessity for N’Golo Kante to, therefore, play a less expansive game in order to cover the space left by deploying Mason Mount in a more advanced role. Without Kante’s runs from deep this job was left to Willian who worked tirelessly to track back and turn over possession. His ability to dribble at pace drew Palace’s defenders in field and created an overlap for Christian Pulisic to exploit. You can also see this move take effect when watching Chelsea’s second goal against Brighton earlier this season. It’s this time the turn of Callum Hudson-Odoi to dribble at pace from deep, whilst Willian ghosts into the space created by the narrowing of the opposition backline. Whilst neither goal on the weekend came through said move, the space and time it creates is an obvious threat which Chelsea can continue to work on through the implementation of decoy runners across the face of the backline.
There is a clear theme to much of these attacking situations, hold the ball centrally before doubling up in wide positions to occupy the full-backs and create space in behind. It will, therefore, come as little surprise to hear that the next attacking routine starts with firing a ball into the feet of Tammy Abraham to hold and distribute. This move typically starts from either one of the midfield pivots. Once Abraham has received the ball he is faced with one of two options, having assessed where the gaps lie in the opposition backline. If the two centre-halves have come tight to press Abraham but the full-backs are still preoccupied with the free man out wide then it is the turn of players such as Mount, Pulisic and Willian all of whom are constantly probing the 18-yard-box to exploit the gap in the half-space between the centre-back and the full-back, making a late run into the box and collecting Abraham’s flick-on. If the opposition’s backline have elected to play more narrowly then it falls to Chelsea’s full-backs to hug the touchline before latching on to Abraham’s lay off and driving into the area. As soon as Abraham has released the ball he must then spin off the back of his marker and create an option inside the six yard-box, either to shoot or create a diversion for a late runner. The sort of combination play described above is perfect for disrupting deep defensive blocks as they make the opposition pick up runners off the ball keeping defenders constantly in two minds about when to engage and went to drop off.
Abraham opened the scoring against Palace after a largely frustrating first-half performance, and his involvement in the goal came in anticipating the flick on from Willian who had taken up the same role that I had previously attributed to Abraham – holding possession with his back to goal before releasing a runner from deep. The ease at which personnel can be interchanged in said move only contributes further towards the idea of keeping the opposition defence occupied as they are unsure how to specifically man-mark any one individual.
Reece James made his mark on the hallowed turf at Stamford Bridge for the second time in a week, easily containing the threat of one of the Premier League’s most fouled players Wilfried Zaha. Whilst his Premier League debut showcased the defensive attributes that have bought him to stardom over the past year or so, James also possesses the ability to get past his man and deliver the ball. With Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta and Emerson all displaying an abject cross conversion rate it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to rely on James to contribute to phases of attacking play such as the ones mentioned above and as his minutes inevitably continue to rise, Chelsea, will find more and more joy in implementing said tactics.
Of course, none of these solutions will bear fruit without the willingness of selfless runners and decoys to help stretch the defence and a lack of off the ball movement is something that every team suffers from due to the physical extremities of the task. But a keen focus on implementing this against deep defensive blocks will lead to more routine victories and lay the groundwork for a return to the dominance Chelsea oversaw at the Bridge come the dawn of the Millennium.