Familiar failings as Chelsea flounder at City

Posted by Phil Lythell

With Chelsea having failed to fire for what seems like ages, there was little in the way of expectation before the trip to Manchester City, yet the 2-0 defeat was still disappointing.

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The Blues have not put in a truly impressive 90 minutes since their 4-0 win at Stoke on Jan. 12, and they continued their spell of mediocrity at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The club are 48 games into their marathon season, and lethargy is clearly playing a part in the series of substandard displays so far in 2013, but it would be facile to blame every setback with that tired excuse.

Unlike City, Chelsea had a European fixture to negotiate in midweek and there was a distinct lack of freshness from the visitors. That could have been avoided had Rafael Benitez's team put the tie against Sparta Prague to bed early on Thursday night; instead, their complacency forced them into a frenetic finish that ultimately proved successful but sapped the energy from some already weary legs. Even so, the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Frank Lampard, Demba Ba and David Luiz were exempt from Europa League duty, so there should have been a sufficient injection of vitality into the starting 11.

As has been the case all season, the main problem with the team is the imbalance between defence and attack. Chelsea appear to field two different and distinct units: a defence-minded seven (construed from the goalkeeper, the back four and the two deep-lying midfielders) and an attacking unit formed from the three attacking midfielders sitting behind a lone striker. Defending should be done as a team, but when the ball is lost, the front four are generally neglectful of their less-glamorous duties, which almost always leaves those behind them hastily backpedaling without putting in a challenge for fear of yielding too much space behind them.

It didn't help that both Lampard and John Obi Mikel had poor games. The forwards' laziness might have left them chasing shadows at times, but their positional sense was also awry as exemplified by Yaya Toure's opening goal in which neither of them were close enough to squeeze up on the Ivorian before he got his shot away. It is widely accepted that matches are mostly won and lost in the midfield battle, though it often appeared to be men against boys as Toure, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and James Milner showed greater enthusiasm for the fight against Chelsea's wispy efforts.

It remains a mystery as to why this should be. The team's greatest strength over the past decade has been the coupling of power and style in the middle of the park, but the desire to morph into a team in the image of Barcelona has seen much of the steel removed to be replaced by delicate window-dressing. That would be fine if the precision among the twinkle-toed was a given and there was a cold, ruthlessness in front of goal to snap up any half-chances that fell their way. Unfortunately, whenever there was a glimmer of goal, there was also a dearth of finesse to convert the opportunity, as seen when Ramires fluffed his lines when his interplay with Ivanovic should have resulted in an equaliser.

One of the main concerns under Roberto Di Matteo was this very issue, yet it is impossible to see what Benitez has done to rectify matters. The forward surges from fullback have been curbed to a degree, and it is rare to see Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar all deployed at the same time. However, the imbalance persists and the defensive frailties endure. The system has stayed the same regardless of the evidence pointing toward its flaws or the quality of opponent being faced. Perhaps, adding another into midfield to create a 4-3-3 against the Premier League champions could have added greater solidity to a problem area while still retaining a quick and skillful attack. But stubbornness and rigidity of thought means that the 4-2-3-1 is here to stay, even though Chelsea are continually found wanting whenever they come up against a team of genuine quality

That formation was also a constant under Di Matteo, though at least when the Italian was in charge, the Blues were unpredictable in attack, which caused problems for the opposition. Now the buildup play rarely offers surprise. It was therefore all the more depressing to see Eden Hazard being withdrawn from the action when the Belgian appeared to be the sole player taking the fight to Manchester City and asking serious questions of Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy.

Obviously, the perspective could have been very different had Lampard scored from the penalty spot and the team had hung on for three points, yet that would have been another case of papering over the cracks. The Blues now enter a stage of the season where they face five very winnable games in the league as well as humble opposition in both the FA Cup and the Europa League.

The next few weeks will go a very long way to determining the outcome of this campaign, so it's time the players and manager prove that they are up to the challenge.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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