Story of a Match: Chelsea (again)
I didn’t do a WBA report. Sorry about that. Pretty straight forward though: soaked up pressure, two good breaks and two good goals. Holty’s got speed, Ruddy was good, Ayala could have been sent off and WBA couldn’t finish their chances. So, with that out of the way, Chelsea came to Fortress Carrow along with the TV cameras, and everyone was predicting one thing: Torres would finally get in the goals. Facing a team that hadn’t kept a clean sheet all season, it was a fair assumption. No one really saw a 0-0 coming… so how did it?
…was a bit rubbish really. In fact, most of Chelsea’s attacking play was, but for the moment I will dwell on Torres. There had been plenty of talk around Norwich in the days leading up to the match about the difference in cost, and return, of Torres and Holt. If someone without any knowledge of football had seen Saturday’s game they wouldn’t have seen a £49.6m difference. They wouldn’t have seen a difference. Torres was abject to the point that I genuinely feel a bit sorry for him – in as much as you can feel sorry for a professional multi-millionaire footballer. He never chose to be a £50m player and he clearly doesn’t fit at Chelsea, has no confidence and has lost the cutting edge that genuinely once made him the best out and out striker on the planet. Against us he had one shot that I felt was going in, until Ruddy tipped it out for a corner, and one he should have buried but he slotted it wide from 8 yards. That was his contribution. Otherwise, he was kept quiet by Whitbread and Ayala, forced wide and never had much of an impact.
But like I said, this can be said of the Chelsea attack as a whole. The game reminded me a slightly diluted Liverpool performance, but we were much more of a threat and never totally dominated. Both teams managed to waste chance after chance, firing shots into the crowd and only pulling the odd save from Ruddy. Liverpool were more harshly done by with shots that hit the post etc, but in that game Norwich showed the character to come back and hold on. Against Chelsea we had grown, limiting their play and being a threat going forward.
Above you can see the comparison in their shots off target. Both got into double figures with the amount of shots off target and while against Liverpool it felt a touch like we rode out luck, against Chelsea we never did. They never seemed to have the edge of Luis Suarez or the confidence of Craig Bellamy. And if you compare them to the teams that have truly beaten us this year, neither had the class of Aguero or the sheer destructive nature of Bale. Both Liverpool and Chelsea showed by they are far off that title race.
Now against Chelsea, a lot of credit has to go with the way Lambert set the team up and how every player did their job to perfection. This was the first time this season that Norwich went with a traditional 4-4-2 formation, and it was a bit of a throwback. While we’ve shown complete flexibility all season, we’ve usually revolved around two systems; 4-5-1 or the diamond. Sure, we’ve played long, short, nice, ugly, wide, narrow… Lambert has the nous to sort a team for any opponent (because he’s a genius), but this was the first 4-4-2 we’d had, and it was set up with two contrasting pairs. In central midfield the ideal situation is to have a ‘passer’ and a ‘runner’. You want one who’s more comfortable in possession and one to be more box to box, hassling opponents and winning the ball. In Bradley Johnson and Fox we had this pair, players who’s own deficiencies are covered up by the other. A pairing of Fox and Wes wouldn’t have worked and neither would Johnson and Crofts. Just too similar. On the wings you had one pacey winger and one wide midfielder – Pilkington and Surman. It provides balance as one is able to be more attacking and support the forwards, while one is able to help protect the midfield, consolidate and shield the fullback.
These principles generally hold true even to the top teams. The best Man Utd midfield was a prototype of it – Keane and Scholes in the middle (runner and passer) and Beckham and Giggs on the wings (wide midfielder and winger). While the best teams can afford to tinker round the edges, it generally works as players fit into a system and you don’t leave yourself with any obvious holes. You have players who can pass the ball, players who can tackle, players who can attack and players who can defend.
With this in mind, the Norwich midfield did it’s job on Saturday to perfection. They were able to get forward quickly and Pilkington was a persistent threat to Cole down the right hand side. They were able to tackle, and Johnson was involved in plenty of battles in the middle. They protected the back four and they supported the front two. It was a case of making a midfield better than the sum of its parts – they did their jobs, and credit goes to both the players and Lambert. After the game Holt came out and said how the tactic had been to keep the middle of the pitch protected and generally try and force Chelsea wide and make them put in crosses.
And it worked. As you can see from the bottom graph with all of Chelsea’s passes, they didn’t have a great deal of the ball in the final third. Plenty of build up play but the midfield protected the defence and forced the ball out wide. The result you can see in the top half, with Chelsea firing in nearly 30 incomplete crosses. These were mopped up time and time again by Whitbread and Ayala. Ruddy was confident in coming to claim them, and we were then able to counter ourselves. It seems slightly contradictory as Chelsea’s best players started out on the wings – Mata and Sturridge. To force them to play down there seems to invite problems, but with Torres so short of form it isolated him and kept his chances down. We were given a bit of luck too when Lampard went off, Mata moved central and the useless Malouda played wide.
While they were putting an average attacking performance, we put in the best defensive show I’ve seen all season. Above you can see the interceptions and tackles made in our half. Time and time again Chelsea were attacking and the ball was mopped up by one of the back four. Tackling wise, we only lost 4 tackles in our own half in the entire game. Everything else was won, and this kept pressure off the back four and Ruddy for large parts of the game. There is no question that Chelsea had more of the ball and more chances, but they were half chances. We limited them through excellent tactical preparation and players doing their jobs on the day. No one let the team down.
This was epitomised by the two centre backs, Whitbread and Ayala. Both put in their best performances in a yellow shirt, especially Whitbread who I have been critical of in the past. Ayala did superbly to bounce back from a poor game vs WBA with a much more composed and effective one, constanly stepping out of defence to meet balls, getting his head onto crosses and passing it to a team mate. As ever he looks excellent with the ball at his feet, and if he continues the way he is he will be a bargain. Man of the match, though, was undoubtedly Whitbread who was just everywhere. He was clearing balls, tackling, sliding in to block crosses and starting attacks. It seems clear by now that this is the pairing Lambert wants to go with and barring a crap run of form or injury, I can’t see any changes being made to it. If they continue playing like this, it will work out fine.
All in all, it was a point that felt like a win. Part of this was getting the clean sheet monkey off the back, part of it was doing it against Chelsea. It was a disciplined, determined and clinical performance that showed exactly how good Lambert is, and how good he’s made our squad. These players are a rag tag bunch of lower league performers who kept Chelsea quiet for most of the 90 minutes and had chances themselves. They played out of their skin and showed the sort of resilience that will keep us up this season.