The game changer

August 19, 2014

Last season Chelsea’s adventurous style failed because they did not have a dynamic playmaker. With Cesc Fàbregas, that has changed.

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Certain roles are compulsory in a successful José Mourinho team. Since 2002 nearly all of his sides have featured a playmaker creating danger in the final third: Porto 2002-04 (Deco), Chelsea 2004-07 (Frank Lampard), Internazionale 2008-10 (Wesley Sneijder) and Real Madrid 2010-13 (Mesut Özil). The exception was Chelsea 2013-14, where Juan Mata did not fit the bill. It is the only side with which Mourinho has finished lower than second place when in charge for a full season.

A coincidence? The lack of a dynamic playmaker certainly limited Chelsea. Given a second chance by Roman Abramovich, Mourinho started the season with an enterprising style intended to provide classy and entertaining football. Instead it brought an uncharacteristic fragility best summarised by a chaotic 4-3 league win at Sunderland in December. The result cannot have impressed a coach who in 2004 labelled Arsenal’s 5-4 win over Tottenham as “disgraceful” and a “hockey score”—“In a three-against-three training match, if the score reaches 5-4, I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly.” Two weeks later Chelsea returned for a League Cup match and lost 2-1. Mourinho had had enough.

“We may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” he said after the game. “It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0, I think I can, as I think it’s one of the easiest things in football. It’s not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves.”

It sounded like a plea to Abramovich. Chelsea had tried the proactive way and come up short. Significant was their inability to control matches; keeping possession and slowing down the game, especially in high-octane encounters away from home. The central midfield duo of Ramires and Lampard appeared to lack the required skillset. Realising his plan had failed—or, alternatively, that his squad was incapable of mastering the style—Mourinho installed a more defensive structure and plugged the gaps. Chelsea emerged stronger but scored few points among the purists.

Few cared less about that than Mourinho, but what for Abramovich? It is not inconceivable that an agreement on a certain style might have featured when the two renewed their allegiance last year. With the arrival of Cesc Fàbregas, Mourinho now has the player required to deliver more aesthetic spectacles. “Cesc is the kind of player that we didn’t have,” the coach said. “We had a box-to-box, a runner, a stable player. We never had this kind of football brain, so that has improved.”

The new maestro

That was evident in Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Burnley. Some had compared the fixture to last season’s match at Crystal Palace in March. Back then Chelsea lost 1-0 in a huge blow to their title bid. Here they overcame a spirited opponent by using the qualities they lacked last season. They dictated the tempo and worked the ball intelligently, robbing Burnley of chances to launch direct attacks and put the back line under pressure. They had 61.4% possession. The interplay displayed after Burnley’s opener was slick and efficient, and produced three goals before Mourinho shut up shop. Central to this was Fàbregas, who started as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation.

Chelsea v Burnley

The movement of Fàbregas and Oscar was surprisingly fluent. The Catalan spent the opening period towards the left, while the innocuous-looking Brazilian drifted towards the right. (When Burnley kicked off, their positions were actually the opposite but they switched almost immediately. Rafa Benítez once said managers sometimes use such false positioning as a foil.) Gradually these positions were blurred as both roamed freely. They swapped sides and alternated between dropping deep and supporting the forward trio.

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The fact that Mourinho played Fàbregas and Oscar together is slightly surprising. Before his second stint at Chelsea, he tended to prefer two capable ball-winners to complement his playmaker. Porto had Costinha and Pedro Mendes; Chelsea had Claude Makélélé and Tiago; Internazionale won the Champions League with a defensive platform of Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso; Real Madrid had Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Especially in the Premier League—on a wet Monday night at Burnley—one might have thought Mourinho would choose Fàbregas, Matić and Ramires, as he did in the dress rehearsal against Real Sociedad six days earlier.

But he did not, and it worked well. The duo gave the side an effortless dynamism and ability to retain possession. Their relatively free roles played to their strengths: both are among the most intelligent footballers around and were able to pick up clever positions as they pleased. There were no restrictions.

The freedom particularly benefited Fàbregas. He is a natural central midfielder but has cultivated his game into numerous directions in recent years. At Arsenal he played deep in midfield as well as behind the striker. At Barça he occasionally played as a false nine. This has made him competent in every zone from defensive midfield to the forward position. The absence of positional restrictions enabled him to express all these parts of his game. One moment he would collect possession from the centre-backs. The next he would link up with Diego Costa and even run into space behind the defence. No player gave a higher number of passes to Fàbregas than Diego Costa. Third on the list was centre-back Gary Cahill.

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The role also extracted his ability to dictate a game. Fàbregas attempted the most passes (78/89) overall and the most passes in the final third (25/33). Despite recording two assists and setting up another chance, his pass completion hit 87%. The second-highest passer was Nemanja Matić (60/71).

04Ytr6The assist from Fàbregas to André Schürrle was the most memorable piece of skill, though Mourinho chose to highlight his overall influence. “More important than the pass was the control he had with the game, the understanding he had with Nemanja Matić which brings our team to a different dimension in the quality of football that we play,” he said. “He makes the right decisions, the right intensity of the game and he brings other people in the right direction. I am really happy with him.”

Decisive signing

These are qualities Chelsea have missed. The effect Fàbregas will have on their season should be profound. His presence looks likely to transform the side in two separate but equally important phases: dictating the tempo from deep and creating chances in the final third. The former will help Chelsea gain control in tricky away matches; the latter will enable them to break down defensive walls at Stamford Bridge. The importance of signing Diego Costa can hardly be overstated but, come May, Fàbregas may well have proved to be even more crucial.

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Photo by dishwab / Licensed under CC BY 2.0

7 comments

Hi Thore,

Love the site, wonderful analyses, especially on Mourinho and his tactical framework at Real Madrid, and Alonso’s centrality to it+the Barcelona stuff, the reduction of complex tactical phenomena into so few understandable words is truly a gift.

On this article, I agree with much of it. Certainly, Chelsea were limited by lacking the possession of a central playmaker (forcing Hazard to do far too much creative work, rather than working into wide forward positions, while also lacking any real form of vertical movement (in my view, a function of a 4231, especially with Oscar having to drop so deep in order to create decent ball regulation.

Fabregas to me solves this, as you say. However, I would add a few observations of my own to your analysis.

a) You claim that Chelsea started in a 433. Really? From what I have seen in the early games (particularly the first two), I would describe it as a rotational double pivot. Fabregas it a notional 6, receiving the ball from deep, but running far beyond him as the build up progresses. Oscar moves deep (then wide, to the left in the Burnley game), Fabregas moves into the space that is vacated, offering midfield verticality that has defined Chelsea for so many years, and offers link up with Schurrle+Costa.

b) In the defensive phase (from memory), Oscar always played higher up in a band of 3, was fairly involved in pressing. This is to me what made it a (lop-sided) 4231 rather than a 433. This is also to my mind what made it possible to have both in the same team simultaneously, Oscar’s incredible appetite for pressing the ball, and coming deep to cover space.

c) As you note in your piece on Alonso (I think, I read it months ago, forgive me!), Modric is really important, in that he forced teams not to follow Alonso so deep because if you did, you gave such a talented player as Modric so much room to dictate, hence allowing Alonso and the 2 CBs a 3 vs 2, hence playing out. I think Matic/Fabregas provide a different dynamic, but similar in effect. Giving Matic space is really not good, he has a surprisingly good passing range, is perfectly able to move forward with the ball and distribute into attacking bands (also seems very capable of finding onrushing left back, esp. useful with Filipe Luis, when he comes in). But Fabregas is indefinitely more creative, meaning that he has to be occupied/pressed, or his forward passing options closed down. But, unless you have systemized pressing, you leave one or other free to dictate the game. If you DO choose to press, then you give Oscar the change to find half-spaces+the general technical ability of Chelsea (including John Terry, whose diagonals on either foot provide a nice way of changing angle of attack) can play out unless the pressing is incredibly intense.

Would love a read of my article on the subject, obviously done before any games were played, but it might contain some minimal insight. (http://footballprism.com/tactical-preview-chelsea-201415/)

Once again, great article, hope to read more.

by Football Prism on September 2, 2014 at 3:09 am. #

Hi. Thank you for the comment, and for the very nice words.

A & B) It is difficult to draw the line between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, hence my point about Cesc (and Oscar) roaming. Chelsea used a 4-3-3 right from kick-off, which is always a good indication of the players’ original positions (even though Cesc and Oscar swapped sides so soon). Also, all but one of Cesc’s defensive involvements came down the left flank. (Look up his defensive dashboard against Burnley on your analysis app.) This suggest a fairly specific position when not in possession. (With possession, it’s very difficult to pin down an exact formation.)

C) Yes, much agreed; Matić is a solid passer and, ideally, Chelsea’s opponents should aim to close down all three midfielders (as you mention in your very fine and comprehensive piece).

by Thore Haugstad on September 8, 2014 at 5:59 pm. #

Yeah, I guess you could make that case on Cesc’s defensive position, though against Leicester, it appears he was instructed to defend the right (http://www.fourfourtwo.com/statszone/8-2014/matches/755314/player-stats/17878/OVERALL_04#tabs-wrapper-anchor). Guess it just points to the fluidity you point out. You may be interested in this map from statsbomb, which just visually demonstrates the level of fluidity (http://statsbomb.com/2014/08/player-positional-tracker-chelsea-v-leicester/). On the 433 or 4231, guess it is just a notational thing, interesting what you say about KO’s, didn’t see that, from a fair few (particularly opposition) goal kicks it looked 4231, in open play it often resembled a left side heavy 433.

Thanks for your kind words on my article, if I ever reach half the level of insight you regularly produce, I would be pleased.

by Football Prism on September 8, 2014 at 8:53 pm. #

Hi

Very insightful article, I really enjoyed reading this & will be following your site in the future.

It was a Special feeling watching Chelsea with Cesc at the heart v Burnley.

Also, your comments from coaches really expose the little insights into their ideas when managing a side.

I’m currently an academy coach for Santos FC in Cape Town, hope you don’t mind me asking you questions in the future.

Yours in Sport
Yunus Le Chat

by yunus on August 23, 2014 at 9:08 am. #

Hi Yunus. Thank you very much. Questions are always nice :)

by Thore Haugstad on August 25, 2014 at 1:14 pm. #

What would happen often at Barca with Fabregas when he was played in central midfield and Iniesta pushed up as a left sided foward, is that these two players would often occupy the same space and get in each other’s way which would render both of them ineffective. He was used as a replacement/spare in case of injuries and when players needed rest in a variety of positions, but was still pretty successful with double digit assists and goals in all three seasons. He never really fit in though, because of his more direct style of play (fashioned in the EPL with Arsenal) and its hard even for a player like him to break in a team that boasts Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. Barca still made a mistake though letting him go. Now they are becoming more direct and Xavi is winding down. Fabregas was supposed to be and should have been his replacement. Very shrewd of Murinho to get him, especially remembering that he pretty much had Marcelo go after Fabregas in the 2011 spanish supercup when he was with Madrid.

by Angel on August 21, 2014 at 4:57 pm. #

Yes, that’s a good analysis. I always found the Iniesta-Fàbregas conflict frustrating. (There’s a piece on this elsewhere on this site, in an analysis of Iniesta’s movement.) As you say, he was a natural replacement for Xavi but the timing was unfortunate. Should never have sold him, but by now it’s difficult to be surprised at the decisions of this Barça board…

by Thore Haugstad on August 25, 2014 at 1:18 pm. #