Chelsea 2-1 Sunderland: Tactical Analysis
If there was a scale for where you could place Chelsea's season right now, it would have to be in the grey area for sure. In what was supposed to be such a promising season after their superb Champions League triumph, the aftermath has been something of a travesty.
Yet, it almost seems that the West London outfit are starting to make steps in the right direction towards an unlikely Cup double under the reign of the unpopular Rafa Benitez, and their hard-fought victory over Sunderland epitomized their return to form during a tough period of difficult fixtures.
Benitez would have been thankful that his men were not forced to travel 1,800 miles from Moscow, with the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final clash played at home on Thursday, just days after their 1-0 win over Manchester United in their FA Cup quarter-final clash.
Their opponents, Sunderland, seemed to be sliding back down into the abyss after a temporary reprieve, and it was always going to be a nervy afternoon at Stamford Bridge with so much at stake for both sides.
The Black Cats were led out by controversial new head coach Paolo Di Canio, who was named as the successor to Martin O'Neill—the Northern Irishman was fired after a dismal run of defeats.
However, it seemed that because his appointment was met with so much adversity in the media, it was almost inevitable that Di Canio could pull off a shock result at a ground where Sunderland had struggled previously; in fact, they had won just once in their last 17 meetings with Chelsea.
With the Blues chasing the elusive prize of playing in the Champions League, there was no option for Benitez other than to play the magnificent playmaking trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, who have been instrumental this season in aiding Chelsea's attacking play.
At Stamford Bridge, playing with three creative midfielders is not such a problem for tactically cautious Benitez because, generally, Chelsea dominate possession at home and teams tend to invite the pressure onto them.
This allows space to open up for the hosts and with such intelligence in their midfield, they can carve open the opposition with ease. However, they found it tough to do so against a resolute Sunderland side packed with physical strength and presence.
On the contrary, Di Canio was surprisingly cautious with his team selection after being known for his all-out attacking mentality, opting to line up with a 4-4-1-1 formation, which presumably had the purpose of being more dangerous on the counterattack.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Italian's the decision to hand out-of-favor youngster Connor Wickham the responsibility of leading the line, with the dangerously creative Stephane Sessegnon sitting just behind him.
Di Canio also went for power in the middle of the park, selecting Alfred N'Diaye to match up to Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, while the energy of Craig Gardner in the center of the park would help to counteract the threat of the tireless Ramires.
Certainly, Mata was near to his brilliant best at times, delving into pockets of space in front of the Sunderland back four and exchanging neat, intricate passes with Hazard and Oscar, as well as the onrushing Ramires. Giving the little Spaniard the time to think about his next pass is a crucial factor in whether you win or lose, as Sir Alex Ferguson saw last Monday.
The early periods of the contest saw Chelsea attempt to retain possession and get the ball into their midfield trio, with Mikel and Ramires happy to sit tight in the middle, ready to pounce in case Sunderland turned over possession.
The Black Cats made a decent start to the game, with Di Canio urging his side to close down the Blues with high-intensity pressing, especially when the less technically gifted players such as Branislav Ivanovic were over the ball.
Unfortunately for them, the likes of Mikel and Ramires looked assured in possession, never giving away the ball despite the excellent hassling from Gardner and N'Diaye. Although the pressing was certainly having an effect, Di Canio's men soon began to tire and as a result, invited the pressure from Chelsea which was a dangerous move to say the least.
With Hazard and Oscar tucking in to receive the ball, it gave Chelsea's full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Ryan Bertrand to chance to surge forward, bursting down the touchline and giving the option to overload the attack to provide more width and stretch Sunderland's defenders further out, leaving more space in the middle.
It was strange to see, especially as the majority of Chelsea's play came through the middle, with Hazard and Oscar regularly deciding against passing to their overlapping teammates which left a gaping hole at the back.
If anything, it gave Sunderland the opportunity to expose the weak links by playing the ball into the channels, and Sessegnon's close-range effort highlighted the danger that came with this approach, skipping past David Luiz after Bertrand was caught out.
Adam Johnson's inclusion in the side was proving to be a shrewd tactical decision by the Italian coach, giving England international teammate Bertrand a torrid time with his neat footwork and drop of the shoulder, twisting and turning to create different angles to confuse the Blues defender. It worked a treat, and Di Canio recognized this weakness, instructing his players to spread the play to the right.
And right on the stroke of half-time, Sunderland's battling display in the first half was rewarded with a freak goal; a corner delivered by Sebastian Larsson reached Azpilicueta, but the former Marseille man sliced his attempted clearance into the top corner.
It was a shock goal against the run of play, but it was nothing less than Di Canio's side deserved after a solid display.
Whatever was said at half-time in the home dressing room certainly made a difference, and after having to scrap his notes for the interval, Benitez reacted to going 1-0 down by throwing on Fernando Torres after Demba Ba picked up a suspected knock to his ankle.
And the change made an instant impact to their approach play was clear to see, with the former Liverpool star injecting some life into an unspectacular looking Chelsea side after a below-par showing, with their manager altering their uninspired hit-and-hope style of play to a more fresh and exciting style.
Rather than playing aerial balls into Ba from the back, Chelsea were now looking to execute passes into the path of Torres and use him as a target man to set up the play around him, with Hazard and Mata circulating centrally, waiting for an opening.
The tactical switch seemed to have the desired effect: Sunderland were pushed back and soon enough, Chelsea's equalizer came just two minutes after the break, again from another own goal, but it was very much influenced by Torres, brimming with confidence after his brace against Rubin Kazan on Thursday.
The 29-year-old got beyond Danny Rose and squared to Oscar. The Brazilian's run was met by an attempt to smother the ball from keeper Simon Mignolet, but while doing so, the Belgian's block ricocheted off Matthew Kilgallon and trickled into the net. It was an unfortunate goal to concede but instead of fighting back, Sunderland were left stunned by their lack of luck.
Chelsea used their opponent's misfortune to their own advantage, committing more men forward as they attacked in search of that elusive winner and suddenly, Di Canio's men had lost their sense of confidence as they struggled for consistency on the ball, giving it away needless and again allowed the likes of Mata and Hazard far too much time on the ball.
The inevitable second goal for Chelsea arrived in due course. The force seemed to be with Chelsea for the winner; David Luiz's hopeful strike from range kindly deflecting off his defensive partner Branislav Ivanovic, which wrongfooted Mignolet and crept into the bottom corner.
It was harsh on the North East strugglers, but nonetheless it was a constant reminder of how close they are to dropping out of the Premier League, and despite the amount of luck involved, the attempts to close down Luiz were not quick or substantial enough to divert his effort away from goal.
Never had the saying of "somebody's loss is another's gain" been so relevant to a football match, as the Saints began to display the kind of performance that had left them languishing just above the relegation zone.
Their organisation had gone awry, the midfield began to tire and the lack of substitutions from Di Canio—James McLean was the first to be brought into action on 71 minutes—could have ultimately cost his side, appearing to be far more jaded than the hosts, who were playing their fourth game in eight days.
Di Canio's attempts for an equalizer were futile and far too late; the introduction of Jack Colback for the booked Craig Gardner seemed to be more of a resignation to defeat rather than late impact substitution. The decision to leave £5 million man Danny Graham on the bench when searching for a crucial goal was all the more baffling.
And so after a decent start, Sunderland's tactical focus eventually crumbled, with Chelsea showing their class to take their chances, and credit must be given to Benitez. Despite the loss, Di Canio will be upbeat with their level of performance in the first half.
The harsh lesson to take from their latest defeat is that without maintaining that level of efficiency for the full 90 minutes, Sunderland could find themselves in the second tier of English football next season, with the club only outside the relegation zone on goal difference.
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