When it comes to stretching opposition defences, Chelsea can benefit by starting Victor Moses.
Time and time again, Chelsea have run into walls against defensive-minded teams, from Sparta Prague, to Stoke, to Swansea in the Capital One Cup.
The addition of Demba Ba has helped to an extent, but the key to an effective Chelsea offence rests with the attacking midfielders.
Let's look at why they've struggled, and how that can change.
Key men: Ryan Bertrand, Ramires, Victor Moses, Marko Marin
Early in the year, Roberto Di Matteo fancied a starting three of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata. All three like to play similar roles, drifting around behind a central striker, creating shot and assist opportunities, and taking defenders on when they can.
Di Matteo actually encouraged them to drift and interchange constantly, making them hard to track while they ran circles around a slower defensive line.
While this worked to good success at the beginning, Chelsea then encountered a new problem: opposition defences stopped trying to chase them and instead defended with a more zonal-marking focus, compacting the middle of the field.
Suddenly there was no space for the intricate passing they were trying, which led to speculative shots and stray passes hitting a brick wall.
So, what has Rafa Benitez done? Answer: tried to stretch that brick wall.
Soon after becoming Chelsea manager, Benitez benched Oscar and started Moses more often than not. Moses doesn't like to roam and create, he's more of an out-and-out winger who takes full-backs on down the line and crosses effectively.
He likes to cut in on occasion, but not to the point it becomes predictable. With defences forced to account for him by deploying a full-back in a wider position, Mata and Hazard have gained more space to work with.
Chelsea ran into problems when Moses left for the African Cup of Nations. Since then, Benitez has tried Ryan Bertrand, Ramires, and Marko Marin to relative success. Bertrand helps Ashley Cole lock down that left flank defensively, but his technical abilities aren't up to par for a dangerous attacking winger. His crossing is poor, he doesn't have the speed or skill to take most full-backs on, and his passing range is limited.
Marin is quite the opposite: he's mediocre - at best - defensively, but loves to run at full-backs and pass effectively. Problem is, he also loves to cut inside, and can't seem to pass the ball without having taken at least five or six touches. He stays wider than Hazard or Mata, however, so I'd label him a work in progress.
Marin played in Mata's current position in the hole at Werder Bremen, so it's an adjustment.
Ramires worked with the most success. He runs hard with great pace, tracks back defensively, and possesses enough skill and passing ability to give defences problems. Yes, he blasts the occasional shot all the way out of Stamford Bridge, but he came up with a class goal against Wigan. He seems the best option when Victor's not available.
The width argument changes when the opposition presses high up the pitch, rather than defending deep. The dribbling and passing ability Oscar brings to the table aids Chelsea in maintaing possession and linking up play, especially where they focus their press on our defensive-midfield pivots. West Ham focused their pressing on Chelsea's attacking midfielders, and we watched as Hazard, Mata, and Oscar feasted on the space they created with their dribbling abilities.
Width opens up Chelsea's attack to a huge degree, so we need an out-and-out winger in games where space is at a premium, especially when encountering bus-parking tactics.
Our best options come from Ramires and Moses, with Marin showing potential, or Bertrand when the opposition's right winger happens to be a huge threat*.
Starting the three musketeers becomes more viable when the opposition is weaker down the middle, and once they gain the chemistry that teams like Barcelona and Shakhtar Donetsk demonstrate**.
Recently, Hazard and Oscar have stayed wide more, so they reach a nice compromise when teams employ a balanced defensive strategy or press hard.
Keep The Blue Flag Flying High!
*This tactic worked successfully against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, as Arjen Robben was kept relatively quiet,
**Barcelona's play becomes narrow when they start any combination of Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, and Alexis Sanchez up front, but they're so passing focused that the intricate passing required to make this work comes more naturally. Shakhtar are similar, but they'll run into problems now that Willian has gone.
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