An unsurprising goal, a very, very surprising goal and a tactical attacking shift were required to overcome a stubborn and extremely tight-lined Fulham defence on Saturday.
How to beat Fulham’s Bus?
You will be hard pushed to find a defensive “parked bus” unit as determined and disciplined as the one driven and conducted by Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell for Fulham on Saturday. Known for their defensive midfield qualities and dogged English determination and asked to make defending their match priority, it’s no wonder the pair had a commendable performance and upset Chelsea’s attacking flow.
Playing just in front of a deep back-four, and with added support from the hard-working Duff and Kacaniklic, Parker and Sidwell were excellent at marshalling the space between their midfield and defensive lines, the space from which Chelsea’s creative attacking players normally influence the game. Parker and Sidwell, always side by side and with the ball in front of them, shifted across the width of the pitch preventing us from passing into the feet of Eto’o and Oscar and broke up any attempts to run with the ball direct through the centre. As a result, Chelsea had very little time and space in which to attack and hurt the Fulham back-four. Even when Hazard and Schurrle drifted from their outside starting positions to receive passes in central areas, the energetic efforts of Parker and Sidwell limited their time on the ball and regularly forced Chelsea’s play backwards and sideways.
Adaptability, the key to success
Affluent with creative “number 10” style attacking players, Chelsea’s tendency is to attack from central areas, developing the play from outside (wide) to in. With quick, intricate passing our “number 10’s” receive the ball where they can have greatest impact on an attacking move. Fulham, with Parker and Sidwell, permitted any effective attacking from central zones and a shift from our preferred style was needed to beat them (see my analysis article of the Hull City match [here] to get a more detailed explanation of our central attacking play).
A style shift we installed, and with it another facet that bolsters our title winning capabilities. Instead of probing central attacking play, we displayed constant width throughout the match and ventured around the outside of the Fulham wingers and full-backs – away from the seemingly impenetrable Parker and Sidwell in the middle. This ability to adapt and maintain width, both wide and long, is a crucial characteristic that we will need to call on every time an opponent “parks the bus”. Being able to play both through the middle and out wide ensures Chelsea are less predictable and harder to defend against.
To attempt to stretch the compact defensive shape of Fulham and manufacture more time and space to attack, Schurrle and Hazard (sometimes Oscar if Schurrle or Hazard started central) provided width high up the pitch at all times. Additional wide support was offered by Cole and Ivanovic on their respective flanks in the form of overlapping runs or reserve passing options that lead to the full-back crossing into the box for Eto’o.
Attacking with width provided by Schurrle, Cole, Hazard and Ivanovic was not enough to get the job done, however. In the first half Chelsea’s speed of play, although patient, was slow and lacked penetration – passing was distributed from one flank to the other at a tempo deficient in the pace needed to create spaces in the Fulham defensive unit. With Fulham preventing forward passes between their midfield and back-four the ball remained in front of their defensive system, allowing them to shuffle from one side of the pitch to the other as a compact unit without the fear of being pulled out of position. Faced with a team set of defending, attacking play must be energetic, pacey, with players making driving runs that exploit the small spaces that are momentarily available.
1-0 and with speed
Oscar’s opening goal came hand-in-hand with Chelsea’s increase in passing tempo and resultant undoing of Fulham’s defensive shape. Also, it was produced from excellent wide play.
For once, the play began with a large separation between the Fulham defenders and midfielders, who were caught higher up the pitch than at any other time in the game, and Chelsea’s wide attacking shape was ready to exploit it. A quick, accurate pass from John Terry into the feet of a wide positioned Schurrle by-passed the Fulham midfielders and initiated the quick lay-off into Hazard. Hazard (Oscar was providing width on the right), unmarked and beyond the line of Parker and Sidwell was able to dribble with speed right at the heart of the Fulham back line, making the transition from midfield into the attacking third quicker than was possible in the first half. Stretched and facing an on-rushing Hazard, the Fulham back-four narrowed to prohibit any advances through the middle and engaged Hazard on the edge of the box. Schurrle, having continued his forward run after playing into Hazard, provided a wide passing option and received outside the box before driving into the area and shooting at goal.
Schurrle’s saved shot fell at the feet of Eto’o and his effort rebounded for Oscar to tap home the opening goal. If you read my pre-match scouting report of Fulham here, you’ll understand why I was not surprised to see one of our midfielders in the “second wave” of play unmarked inside the box and free to score during an attack where the ball reached the by-line behind Fulham’s defenders.
Why Ramires and Mikel?
Lots of discussion at the weekend centred on the choice to play two defensive minded players (Ramires and Mikel) in a home game against a team who inevitably would defend and offer very little in attack. A common alternate suggestion is to select just one of the two and instead start Oscar deeper to allow for another central attacking player (Mata/Willian/De Bruyne) in the team.
Certainly, I agree that Oscar can play from a deeper role in the midfield alongside a more defensively able player and will improve our attacking transition play between the defensive, midfield and forward thirds when Chelsea are required to move the ball with speed to unlock tight defences. However, Fulham’s defensive solidity in the centre of the pitch would have countered the effectiveness of an additional Chelsea “number 10” on Saturday.
I have already explained our need to play around the outside of Fulham and to have success in that method of attack the full-backs need to assist the attacking players at all times. Playing Ramires and Mikel in the centre granted both Cole and Ivanovic the freedom to attack at will and to help break down Fulham. Other than his potent goal-scoring threat (!), Mikel provides defensive stability in the areas vacated by his team mates and Ramires, with his phenomenal ability to recover and recoup ground lost to opponents, is better suited at stopping counter-attacks than others.
It’s a tricky balance to weigh; should we sacrifice attacking creativity and the ability to thread very intricate passes into our forwards and central attacking midfielders in favour of defensive stability? Against Fulham, the balance was correct, and anyhow, Mikel justified his selection with a goal. Does anyone else think Frank Lampard’s club leading goal tally is under threat?!
Written by Chris Wales, you can follow him on Twitter here
Please note : the views in many of our blogs are written by fans of Chelsea FC and are not necessarily the views of the club