Chelsea is settling into a very consistent pattern in their matches. Newcastle showed the same as the Blues squeezed the life out of the Toons.
Much has been said about whose tactics Frank Lampard’s most resemble. Generally the consensus here on The Pride of London is Carlo Ancelotti, with a splash of Jose Mourinho and a deep admiration for Jurgen Klopp’s. Chelsea’s recent run, however, has been notably different not in who is where on the pitch, but how they control the game as a whole. On that note, it is as if Guardiola’s patience and Klopp’s risk versus reward have been combined.
Game management was a massive weakness for the Blues even early in the season. The Blues only had one speed: ludicrous. They would receive the ball and immediately look to get it as close to the opponent’s goal as quickly as possible. It was helter skleter and if even one pass failed, Chelsea found themselves in the wind for a counter.
What changed? Chelsea has begun to mimic a python in their tactics. That has become a bit of a prophecy in of itself as games are following a very similar pattern. The score is tight early on, but then like clockwork the Blues pull away around the hour mark. How is this happening?
Part one is from the Guardiola playbook, particularly the Barcelona chapters. Chelsea might pile on at first to create a lead, however narrow. After that, patience becomes the name of the game. The Blues slow the game down to a grind with the opponent chasing the ball constantly. This is not just physically taxing, but mentally so given how well Chelsea’s midfield and wingers move about the striker and the fullbacks. Switch off for a second, either in a press or position, and it is game over.
Part two is from Klopp’s playbook. Klopp is unafraid for his team to play a risk pass or attempt a wild shot. Worst case scenario, the opponent wins the ball back but in a defensive shape. His teams quickly press to either force a long ball or simply win the ball back. Either way, Klopp trusts his side to regain possession quickly. Lampard’s Chelsea is following a similar pattern.
The Blues patiently play the ball about until there is a clear opening for a forward pass or a shot. Without hesitation they take it. If it comes off, great! If it doesn’t, the whole team presses to force the error. As of late, Chelsea’s press has been more than good enough to win the ball back and reset the play.
All of this culminates around the hour mark generally. Whatever the scoreline, the opponent is mentally and physically exhausted by this point. The Blues then merely turn their own gas back on. It happened against Newcastle, Sheffield United, Rennes, Burnley, and Krasnodar. In fact, it has been a prophecy of sorts since the winning run began. The Blues strike early, squeeze the life from the opponent, and then finish the job.
At half time during this run, the Blues have rarely looked impressive. But by fulltime, the scoreline looks “flattering” with Chelsea comfortably ahead. They are playing less of a lights out all the time game and more of a patient and methodical match.
Where might this go wrong then? As Lampard said shortly afterwards, when “control becomes comfort“. All that possession isn’t there just to give the Blues a break, it’s there to wear the opponent down. Is that turns into complacency, the opponent can find their way back into things.
Furthermore, Guardiola’s tactics work so well in part because opponents naturally sit off knowing what his teams can do. Of course, all this really does is put the opponent right where Guardiola wants them: cornered and afraid. If an opponent comes out to press Chelsea or has the energy to survive the squeeze, the Blues will find themselves the team wearing out.
One final way opponent’s may be able to cause Chelsea trouble is through man marking. Chelsea generally attacks in a 2-3-5 shape, so if an opponent defends in a 5-3-2 and matches up one on one they may be able to hinder progress. Other formations could take a similar approach while sacrificing one on one for overloads, but man marking the key players in the build up (basically everyone bar the centerbacks) might cause the Blues issues.
Of course, that is where the Klopp “risk versus reward” part comes back in, but Lampard must ensure his team doesn’t lean too deep into that and find themselves playing lights out and uncontrolled like earlier in the season.
Rennes midweek will likely face this same formula, but Tottenham next weekend will prove the true first test of this run. Can the Blues encircle and squeeze Tottenham? Or will Jose Mourinho’s Spurs put Chelsea on the back foot? The team must be prepared for both.