Alex Dunn uses Opta data to take an in-depth look at why Chelsea are not yet quite firing, despite their manager's insistence his tactics will bear fruit given time - with or without Juan Mata. Chelsea's position at the summit is impressive, but there's still plenty of work to be done...
By Alex Dunn - @skysportsaldunn. Last Updated: 22/09/13 7:56am
Juan who? Oscar scored Chelsea's opener and was named Man of the Match on Saturday
Jose Mourinho will look at the Premier League table in Sunday morning's papers and roll his eyes over talk of a 'crisis' at Stamford Bridge, but the Portuguese is wily enough to accept off camera that a subdued 2-0 victory over west London rivals Fulham will do little to alleviate a growing sense his second coming may yet prove true the old adage that it's never the best of ideas to go back.
After what was a turgid opening 45 minutes for the home side, Oscar did his best to justify his 'preferred no.10' status in breaking the deadlock not long after the half-time interval. It was another Mourinho favourite, Jon Obi Mikel, who ended a run of 258 appearances without a goal at the death to make those Chelsea fans who'd spent the preceding 84 minutes grumbling look a tad churlish.
Mourinho spoke post-match of how it will take time to change Chelsea's 'philosophy' and that he's not losing sleep whilst his team sit at the top of the table: "I still think that they played much better against Everton than they did today but points are also important after a bad start - a start that everybody keeps telling me is the worst start in about a decade.
"But today I could go to bed and I look at the table and nobody is in front of us."
Chelsea and Fulham's starting line-ups
Five games into the new season and its central narrative resolves around a player who isn't even getting picked. Mourinho's decision to leave Juan Mata out of his 18-man match-day squad sent Twitter into meltdown.
Hard not to feel sorry for Mata. First rumblings Mourinho had issue with him even before he arrived. Strange, to say the least.- Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) September 21, 2013
"He was one of the best players last year, therefore it's something personal," Ruud Gullit told Saturday Night Football.
"I find it staggering," added Jamie Redknapp. "He went in there with pre-conceived ideas that Mata wasn't the man for him. He's got a battle now and it's one he needs to win. If they keep losing and if things don't go well, the first thing everyone is going to throw at him is 'Why are you not picking Juan Mata?'"
David Luiz also failed to make even the substitutes' bench, but Mourinho was typically non-plussed with the drama his selection had caused. "Juan has to fight and work for his opportunity. He played against Everton, he played against Basel and his performance wasn't enough convincing to leave other players out. David is a simple technical decision. I didn't like so much his game against Basel. I believe after two defeats the team needs some stability positionally, but especially emotionally."
For Fulham, a hamstring injury to Dimitar Berbatov gave Darren Bent an opportunity to impress, with Redknapp of the opinion the Bulgarian's absence would work in their favour: "I don't think Berbatov being out is an absolute disaster for Fulham. Bent has a big role today. He's quick and he scores goals. I think at times he has to improve his link-play, but if he gets an opportunity he can finish." Cue Darren looking sheepish at full-time.
Fernando Amorebieta replaced Philippe Senderos, while Chelsea old boy Damien Duff came in for the injured Bryan Ruiz on the right flank.
Where it was won and lost
Fulham went into the contest in the knowledge that in recent years they have proven more than adept at frustrating their hosts, having taken draws from their last three visits to Stamford Bridge. When you add into the mix Chelsea hadn't won a game since August 21, Martin Jol's quiet optimism before kick-off was understandable if not, ultimately, prophetic.
"Fulham's primary intention will be to quiet the crowd and not concede in the first quarter," said Davie Provan on co-commentary duty. To a man, Jol's players did exactly that. In the opening half-hour the away side were content to sit, soak and counter-attack and play with a backline so deep one supporter behind David Stockdale's goal needed a steward to remove a Fulham centre-half from his seat.
You don't exactly have to be Poirot to deduce the look on Sascha Riether's face on the quarter-of-an-hour mark suggested he had indeed pushed Hazard in the penalty area. Chelsea will also feel aggrieved they were not awarded a spot-kick in the second period either, when Amorebieta clumsily clipped Ramires. Fulham deserved a slice of luck though, and given Jol had seen his head called for last weekend, there was nothing to suggest his players weren't playing for him.
Chelsea v Fulham average positions after half an hour
The graphic above demonstrates how Brede Hangeland and Amorebieta gave Samuel Eto'o scant room to get in behind, whilst the pugnacious Scott Parker (28) and snappy Steve Sidwell (7) sat just in front to provide a shield. Time after time they nipped in front of Chelsea's celebrated but ineffective attacking triumvirate, turning the ball over 15 times in the first period alone. Sidwell made seven interceptions, to put into context no Chelsea player made more than one, while Amorebieta deserves a nod for topping the successful clearance (11) chart and sharing joint-honours for tackles (4). Given Fulham went into the contest having made the least amount of tackles of any top-flight side this season, any signs of solidity are cause for optimism.
Just as Basel and Everton had done in Chelsea's last two matches, Fulham were happy to flood the middle third of the field with bodies, as Chelsea's lack of width was again an Achilles heel that flared throughout. Fulham reduced the home side to just three attempts on goal in this period, as audible groans from the home crowd were drowned out only by caustic 'you're not special anymore' chants from the away following. Chelsea's transitions were far too laboured, with Ramires and Mikel both guilty of taking excessive touches before moving the ball on.
Mourinho repeatedly talks of how he likes his 'wide men' to work but if we take the average positions, it's again evident how Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole invariably are charged with providing the width. Andre Schurrle's natural inclination to drift inwards is such, it's impossible to make him out on the graphic as his movement is so similar to Eto'o's. Eden Hazard, of all of Mourinho's attacking options, acquiesces to his manager's wishes most readily as he is guaranteed to hold his position on the left. It's telling how Ivanovic put in twice the number of crosses, four to two, to Cole on the opposite flank as Chelsea lack any other impetus on the right. That said, Hazard's desire to work the ball onto his right foot to get a shot off means he put in just two crosses all game, compared to Schurrle's 14.
Indeed, it was Ivanovic who had arguably Chelsea's best chance of the half when his drive on the overlap from Hazard's lay-off was blocked just before the break.
Given the scarcity of Fulham's counter-attacks, especially after Oscar opened the scoring and Jol failed to conjure up a satisfactory plan B in the second half, Chelsea got away with holding such a high line. Better sides though will punish the chasms of space in behind John Terry and Gary Cahill. Fulham fired a warning shot when a standard ball over the top caught Chelsea square after just eight minutes, only for Petr Cech to mop up. Moments later, when Pajtim Kasami threaded a cute ball in-between a gaping gap between the English pair, Bent was guilty of squandering the half's best chance when he shot meekly at Cech to end a personal run of scoring in his last three appearances against Chelsea.
Fulham incessantly intercepted in the first half, with Parker everywhere as we show his touches per zone
Chelsea had a season high 24 attempts on goal over the course of the 90 minutes but the manner of their performance, the lack of invention that was needed as they struggled to break down a compact but limited Fulham, became apparent at half-time as they left the field to a chorus of boos.
"Can I see the face of Abramovich?" said Sky Sports pundit Gullit at half-time.
Roman Abramovich enjoys the first half
"This is what we're thinking watching the game. It's been very disappointing. Chelsea have no ideas, a lot of players are too central and there's no natural width. They're going to keep struggling if they continue to play like this."
Jamie Redknapp was even more cutting: "Every Chelsea player goes to the ball, it's the same as Wednesday night. It's been poor, very poor. I've just asked the stat boys for how much that side cost to assemble - £140million - it's not good enough. The Jose I remember would have made changes already. He looks passive on the bench. Sometimes your best performances come when you don't play and Mata is having a blinder out there."
Mata may have been having a blinder without having even laced his boots but, in fairness, Oscar was the game's outstanding player. Provan rightly awarded him the Man of the Match gong: "He always looks for the ball; he never hides, even when it isn't clicking for Chelsea." Just how good a matured Oscar, with a year in England behind him, would be in tandem with Mata remains a question Mourinho has yet to answer.
His goal was one of the few occasions in which Fulham went to sleep. Riether's desire to show Schurrle the outside to keep him off his right foot allowed the German a yard of space to get in his cross on the touchline. Stockdale, who later in the game made a stunning stop to deny substitute Fernando Torres a first league goal of the season, should have done better than push the ball to Eto'o, whose prod for goal was knocked back into the path of Oscar no more than a yard or so from goal. Kieran Richardson had left the Brazilian for a critical second, caught ball-watching as he was drawn to the near post as Oscar held his run. Chelsea certainly looked more productive when Schurrle stuck to the left in the second period, with Hazard tucked inside.
How Chelsea broke Fulham's resolve in the second half at Stamford Bridge
Thereafter and Fulham were caught in a classic Catch-22 scenario. Twist and overload bodies forward in pursuit of a leveller and risk being picked off on the counter or stick and hope for a set-piece at the death? Jol was positive in his substitutions as a heavy looking Adel Taarabt was summoned off the bench. A debut was afforded to the willing Buomesca Tue Na Bangna, whilst Hugo Rodallega made the briefest of cameos. In truth though, Jol had already shown his hand. As tired legs began to chase a Chelsea side who invariably look better on the counter-attack than being forced to batter a sitting duck into submission, it looked less and less likely a leveller would be found.
185 - No outfield player has made more appearances in the @premierleague before scoring their first goal than John Obi Mikel. Wait.- OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 21, 2013
Had Sidwell reacted a little quicker to a deep free-kick that found him free at the back post late on, Fulham may just have escaped with a point. However, by the time Mikel became the day's - make that the season's - most unlikely scorer, Chelsea were value for their win. The midfielder's acrobatic strike from Terry's towering knock-down off Frank Lampard's corner earned the biggest cheer of the day, as thereafter the Nigerian was encouraged to 'SHOOT' whenever in possession.
They may be top of the tree, but at the moment the Special One can only dream of such a revered reception. The campaign to #freemata is going nowhere soon...
The evolution of the team is that I want Oscar and Mata to play together. I want that but for that (to happen) one has to adapt and to work to a certain way of play because I am not ready to change Oscar's position. Juan has to learn to play the way I want to play. He has to be more consistent, has to participate more when the team loses the ball. It's not his fault, it's just the consequence of the way he has played in the last years."
"Darren Bent is a goalscorer and anybody can miss chances. If you saw the first 10, 15 minutes, on the right, on the left, we turned our defenders and Cole had problems with Damien Duff. We should have stepped up a gear, as they did, in the second half after 50 minutes. Today, especially in the first half, there was maybe a surprise in the air, but we couldn't do anything in the second half, and that was disappointing."
"The spark was Oscar. He led the team today. He wanted the ball and drove the team. He made tackles and ran without the ball. He was exceptional today and everything he did had a purpose to it."
With the football fraternity seemingly very much on the side of Team Mata in his battle with Team Jose, it's easy to forget the man who's keeping him out of the team is a little magician himself. Oscar was yet again Chelsea's best player and deservedly achieved our top mark, whilst also being named as the official Sky Sports Man of the Match.
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