Chelsea's clinical counter-attacks trouble European champions

Posted by Phil Lythell

Despite triumphing in the 2012 Champions League final via the ultimate footballing lottery, Chelsea reprised their previously scornful relationship with penalty shootouts by being cruelly denied by Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup. But away from the agonies of having victory snatched out of Blue hands, it was possible to ascertain a more definitive way by which Jose Mourinho is planning to approach the more testing fixtures this season.

- Worrall: Resilient Chelsea slip to unlucky defeat
- Lomas: Guardiola, Bayern create history
- Lomas: Prague, the perfect host

The last week has seen Chelsea face the champions of England and the champions of Europe, each time setting out as the outsider for victory and each time setting out with a clear strategy. While the match at Manchester United saw Chelsea choose to begin conservatively before starting to impress themselves upon the game from an attacking perspective, Bayern were perceived to be an even more difficult proposition and the mantra from kick-off to final whistle was to maintain the defensive shape at almost any cost.

The Blues were not concerned about ceding possession as long as they left no holes for the Germans to exploit. There is clearly a certain amount of risk in allowing a team containing the talents of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller to have plenty of the ball, though the tactical discipline of Chelsea's back five, central midfield and wide attackers ensured that few alarms were raised by their illustrious opponents. The only area in which Chelsea were repeatedly troubled was down their right flank where Branislav Ivanovic struggled with the pace of Ribery much as he had done against the sharp movements of Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor nine days earlier.

For the most part, Bayern were contained even if they perpetually had the ball at their feet and it was not until the second half when they began to impose themselves more forcefully. For a 15 minute period after the break, Chelsea found themselves chasing a few more shadows with Ribery causing havoc by scoring one before narrowly firing wide shortly after. But that was about it until the last vestiges of extra time when a bombardment of crosses finally bore fruit.

Meanwhile, Chelsea were relying on lightning fast counter-attacks to earn their spurs and it was highly encouraging to see them execute their plans with purpose and efficiency. The opening goal could be held up as the dictionary definition of the tactic with Eden Hazard's swift turn and weaving run finding Andre Schurrle, whose inch perfect cross was instinctively lashed home by Fernando Torres. It was utterly clinical and stung a Bayern team on almost the first occasion in the match in which they did not have the ball.

That theme continued and Chelsea had plenty of other chances to exploit the space left by Pep Guardiola's attacking slant. Hazard made a mockery of Chelsea's numerical disadvantage following Ramires' harsh sending off with a lacerating run and finish that was as ruthless as it was stupendous. The rapidity and intelligence of movement from Oscar, Schurrle, Hazard and Torres ensured that every time possession was turned over, Chelsea looked a serious threat to the opposition goal.

Although there will be some that are not impressed by what could be perceived as a negative strategy, it can also be argued that a team should play to its strengths while negating those of the opposition. Had Chelsea adopted a more expansive possession-based approach, then it would have played right into Bayern's hands and the result would have been a foretold conclusion. Instead, Mourinho did what he does best and that is to set up the team while considering his opponents and enforce a strict game-plan that he demands that his players assiduously follow. It almost worked in Prague, but for an unfortunate bounce of the ball and a nervous looking penalty from Romelu Lukaku. The seeds have been planted that should blossom into greater reward later in the season.

The one caveat is that this tactic can only be pursued on the few occasions that Chelsea take the field against a potentially better team. By and large, the Blues will be facing inferior opposition and will be expected to make the running while the other side sit deep behind the ball. It will require the polar opposite of what Chelsea produced on Friday night as they will need to be patient on the ball and probe for openings rather than seeking to transfer the ball quickly from back to front in an attempt to get behind the opposition defence.

In the past two seasons, Chelsea have often found it difficult to break down obdurate opponents and that will be something that Mourinho will no doubt be working on tirelessly at the training ground. But for the big European nights that they will hopefully be contesting when spring 2014 rolls around, the Blues already look well equipped.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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