Chelsea’s Hybrid Midfield: The Key to Unlocking Defenses

Updated: August 21, 2014

Chelsea made a statement of intent on Monday night, as they ran out of Turf Moor 3-1 winners and exhibited the confidence of a club who believe in their quality and ability to win. We’ve already covered basically everything you need to know about that match in our excellent Tactical Match Review, but we thought it would be interesting to take an even closer look at the midfield movement in a long-form piece. Prior to Schurrle scoring the beautiful second goal against Burnley, the Blues orchestrated a 25-pass possession, made possible by the dynamic interplay of the midfield, which dominated Monday evening’s key moments.

Mourinho, who often lamented his lack of reliable goal-scorers in the previous campaign, may have equally missed having a dependable midfield pairing. Last season, José experimented with a variety of duos in the pivot (2) of his 4-2-3-1, with Matic, Mikel, Ramires, Luiz and Lampard all seeing significant minutes there. Besides the partnership of Matic and Lampard (when Lamps was at his very best), or Matic and Luiz (when Luiz was having one of his better days), it was rare for Chelsea to have the defensive shield Matic provides while also having an outlet in transition and possession that they now have in Fàbregas. Certainly, there was no consistently good pairing in the first half of the season, nor a consistently good partner for Matic after he came in.

It would be foolish to take too much away from only one competitive game, but it can still be very interesting to look at exactly what happened. After all, that first half was one of the most impressive attacking displays Chelsea have put on since the 2009 / 2010 record-setting season. On Monday, Mourinho’s classic 4-2-3-1 of last season gave way to a hybrid 4-3-3 requiring a versatile midfield trio to be successful. In that game, we saw Oscar play in this midfield three, although it is a position that could arguably be occupied by several players in Chelsea’s squad in the matches to come.

Chelsea's 4-3-3 against Burnley.

Oscar’s positioning and interchange with Fabregas is what made the system on Monday so interesting and which frustrated the Burnley players so much. Matic and Oscar each maintained an 84% pass completion rate during the match, which complimented Fàbregas’ 88% rate quite nicely. Essential to Chelsea’s fluidity in attack was the ability of Fabregas and Oscar (or whoever José picks to play in future games) to interchange positions. Indeed, Oscar found himself dropping quite deep to collect the ball while Fàbregas was seen as far forward, often playing mere yards behind Costa. As observed in the heat map below, Oscar spent the majority of his time within the center circle, while also operating as an extended attacking midfielder linking up with the wide players.

Oscar's heat map from Monday night's match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

Oscar’s heat map from Monday night’s match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

A fantastic illustration of Fàbregas’ awareness of player positioning – arguably the most underrated asset the Spanish midfielder has – came in the buildup to Schürrle’s goal. Cesc interchanged positions first with Hazard, then with Oscar, then drifted out wide, then forward towards Costa, and finally back to his original position alongside Matic before finding Schürrle who began the move for the goal. Here is where his experience – one of the main reasons Mourinho wanted him in the side – really showed. Instead of sprinting upfield, he allowed the play to progress, arriving at the top of the box at the perfect time to deliver a sublime assist. And then he showed his real quality: the ability to pick a final pass; one which saw him end the 2014 season at the top of the La Liga assist charts.

But it wasn’t simply Cesc’s awareness or his passing that made the biggest difference. It was also his movement off the ball and positioning throughout the match which helped earn him Man of the Match honors. In his heat map, shown below, Fàbregas did not isolate himself to the middle of the field, instead showing heavy saturations near the midfield touchlines of either half. In fact, he featured most extensively just outside of the center circle, which shows his understanding of where he can be most effective.

Cesc Fàbregas' heat map from Monday night's match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

Cesc Fàbregas’ heat map from Monday night’s match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

The reason for Chelsea’s midfield success against Burnley is the result of stellar player placement and an understanding of the manager’s tactics. Mourinho, who favored a 4-3-3 in his first tenure as Chelsea manager, has found a way to interchange that formation with the 4-2-3-1 of last season. It is particularly instrumental in the transition from defense to attack, given that Matic has developed an acute understanding of his positional responsibilities. In fact, one could argue that Matic covered more ground, in key areas, than both Oscar and Fàbregas. His heat map, below, illustrates a dynamic comprehension of what is required at the defensive midfield position. Seen clearly, he maintains a proximity to midfield, operating either left or right of the center circle. He rarely finds himself in an advanced role, and that is, in part, thanks to the spacing of the midfield trio.

Nemanja Matic's heat map from Monday's match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

Nemanja Matic’s heat map from Monday’s match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

Fàbregas’ successes, therefore, were a result of efficient play from his midfield partners. As seen in the combined heat map below, Matic, Oscar, and Cesc managed to dominate the middle third. By interchanging often, Fàbregas and Oscar were able to provide a steady outlet whether building out of the back or simply providing a square pass for Hazard or Schürrle. By maintaining his positioning, Nemanja Matic provided the support and balance needed to switch fields or play out of pressure. He also permitted the more creative Oscar and Cesc ample room to pull the strings on offense.

Oscar, Matic and Fàbregas's combined heat map from Monday night's match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

Oscar, Matic and Fàbregas’s combined heat map from Monday night’s match against Burnley. [via Squawka]

What is evident, is that José Mourinho has found the team he needs to challenge for the title. However, until now, Mourinho was unable to implement the tactics he has long favored and could not employ last season. We can probably expect to see this morphing 4-3-3 relatively often this season, especially against weaker opponents. Too often last year, Chelsea failed to break down teams they “should” be beating, and it did not boil down solely to striker productivity (or the lack thereof). If you read Oscar’s guest feature in the Plains of Almeria Season Preview (found on page 17; please download, and donate to the charity!), then you’ll know that, along with having problems at chance-conversion, Chelsea were also far from perfect in statistics measuring creativity itself. Far too often, players like Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Salah (or De Bruyne and Mata when they were still here) found themselves isolated in the 4-2-3-1. The new look 4-3-3 promises supporting triangles across the pitch, and is an effective way of maintaining possession – in fact, Chelsea finished the match with 61%. Equally important is that the small passing triangles force opponents to defend in numbers, effectively pulling them out of position while letting the ball do the work. Now, again, we’re not trying to make too much of one

game, but it’s fair to say that we didn’t really say many stretches of play last season that looked anything like the game against Burnley.

If this is a sign of things to come, Chelsea fans can take heart in the team’s ability to dominate matches in a variety of ways and in a variety of formations. Expect the Blues to line up in similar fashion next week when they face off against Leicester City.

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