Narrow Chelsea searching for expansive approach

Posted by Phil Lythell

Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesChelsea's wide game against Aston Villa was virtually non-existent, much to the dismay of Jose Mourinho.

With the dust having settled on Chelsea's 2-1 win over Aston Villa, a few curious points have emerged from a contest that was enthralling, infuriating and nerve-shredding in equal measure.

In the immediate aftermath of such a match, the overriding sensation is one of relief. Relief at having gained the three points that are vital to ensure the campaign is on a sure footing prior to Monday's huge clash with Manchester United. Relief that fortune and the officiating favoured the home team. And relief that those fretful last 10 minutes did not replicate Chelsea's annoying tendency from last season of conceding damaging late goals.

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In fact, this season has already shown a marked contrast with the team under Rafael Benitez. The lineups and formations have not been unfamiliar, but the approach to the game has certainly been different. Whereas during Benitez's reign the team always looked lethargic in the opening exchanges of the contest, Mourinho's version has instead looked sprite and purposeful in the first half an hour against both Hull City and Villa. Chelsea flew out of the blocks on Wednesday night and deservedly took an early lead when Oscar's exquisite through ball allowed Eden Hazard to force home the opener. The game momentum was seized, though unfortunately not exploited by the way of goals -- a failing that resulted in Christian Benteke netting an equaliser that the imbalance of play in the first 45 minutes barely merited even if it was beautifully taken.

After a slow start, Benitez's side would invariably begin the second period with renewed energy and set about either clawing back the deficit or seizing the initiative in a tight game. In the two matches so far this season, the displays after half time have deteriorated. This could be the product of fatigue -- though that would be lame excuse given that it was Chelsea's own decision to globetrot through preseason -- or it could be that the opposition haS adapted to suit the threat posed by the Blues. Either way, it is a worrying -- if not quite alarming -- habit that needs to be addressed.

Aston Villa managed to make life difficult for Chelsea by simply shutting down their favourite area of attack -- the central avenue. Oscar ran the match in the first half as he was permitted to flit around the edge of the area and thread clever passes through implausible gaps. These gaps were shut down after halftime and there was nowhere else to go apart from out wide. Disappointingly, this option was very rarely used largely because the two men stationed on the flanks -- Hazard and Juan Mata -- both invariably chose to cut inside onto their natural foot. The play inevitably became narrower and narrower allowing the Villa defence to funnel Chelsea's forwards into a congested part of the field and making intricate play all but impossible. The problem was partially solved by the introduction of Andre Schurrle though shuffling the trio that started the game could possibly have had the same effect.

Oscar's influence dwindled markedly despite his perpetual desire to receive and pass the ball. Given the situation, it was surprising not to see Mata being shifted into the middle to see if he could make a difference in his favoured position. It was interesting to note that Mourinho swapped Hazard and Oscar around at certain junctures to give the Belgian the opportunity to pull the strings. At no point was there a call for Mata to be given his turn, a curious decision seeing as it was in that exact role that the little Spaniard earned consecutive Chelsea player of the year awards. Only time will tell whether it is a conscious play by Mourinho only to utilise Hazard and Oscar as his options in the number 10 role when playing 4-2-3-1, though one hopes that the Special One's mind is not totally closed to the option of deploying Mata behind the strikers and allowing him to showcase his vast skill set.

Even though some of Chelsea's football bordered on the predictable, there was also enough on show from an attacking perspective to encourage their supporters. Once Branislav Ivanovic had headed the hosts in front, Chelsea had plenty of chances to extend their lead with Villa forced venture forward in search of an equaliser. The Blues counter-attacked with purpose, though unfortunately what they held in imagination they lacked in execution. There were a few impeccably timed runs that the defence-splitting passes were just too heavy to meet while a delicious chipped pass from Marco van Ginkel was miscontrolled by fellow substitute Schurrle when only Brad Guzan stood between the German and the Villa goal. Fortunately, such errors are purely down to a lack of sharpness, and when the sure-footedness returns, Chelsea should have the requisite talent to finish teams off.

Nevertheless, Chelsea will have to improve in every department if they are to emerge from Old Trafford on Monday with a positive result, though there is no reason why they cannot. Some slicker passing, using the full width of the pitch and the inclusion of Romelu Lukaku in the starting the lineup will go a long way to getting the job done, though a full 90-minute performance -- and not just a 30-minute cameo -- would also be very helpful.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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