Swansea produced a fantastically disciplined performance against the European champions in the first leg of this league cup semi-final. The away side happily conceded possession in order to sit deep and defend their box, but struck twice on the counter to take a 2-0 lead back to Wales…
Rafael Benitez made the decision to start with Fernando Torres ahead of new signing Demba Ba, as Chelsea lined up in their familiar 4-2-3-1. Behind the Spaniard was Juan Mata in the hole, with Eden Hazard on the left wing and Oscar operating from the right. Ramires and David Luiz played in the centre of midfield, with the latter playing slightly deeper. Ross Turnbull started in goal with Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta the two full backs. Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic partnered each other at centre back.
For Swansea, Gerhard Tremmel started in goal. Ashley Williams was back in the side and his leadership was brilliantly on show as he commanded his fellow centre back Chico Flores, as well as the two full backs Angel Rangel and Ben Davies. Swansea set up in an identical formation to their counterparts with Ki Sung-Yueng and Leon Britton holding in midfield.
The front four for the away team consisted of Jonathan De Guzman playing in a more advanced central position, just off the shoulder of Michu. Pablo Hernandez started on the right wing but was quite narrow throughout the match, unlike Wayne Routledge on the other wing who did a decent job of monitoring Azpilicueta’s bursts forward from defence.
At the weekend, Arsenal used Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud to stop Swansea playing their usual style of passing through the midfield, and to encourage them to play longer. Torres and Mata performed a similar role tonight, in that they also both dropped off the Swansea centre backs and instead tried to position themselves between the back four and Ki and Britton in central midfield.
One concern with pairing Ramires and Luiz in central midfield is that both players like to burst forward in attack, and Luiz in particular can be quite wild in terms of his positioning and discipline. At time tonight he drifted slightly towards the left leaving Ramires alone in the middle against three Swansea players – but fortunately for the home team, Swansea were sitting so deep that Chelsea were never really hurt from this.
Michael Laudrup’s Swansea were very aware tonight’s game was only the first leg of two and their mentality reflected this. Their defensive line was incredibly deep and narrow, and Chelsea were simply allowed to retain possession up to the half-way line before coming under any sort of pressure. They also defended as much more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 with De Guzman positioning himself noticeably deeper than he had done on Sunday (and the two wingers were slightly narrower).
To get round this, Chelsea needed to rely on their superior creativity in between the lines, but they struggled because of two things. Firstly, Swansea’s midfield and defence was very compact, limiting the amount of space for the likes of Mata and Hazard to receive the ball in, and secondly, Chelsea (and Swansea when they had possession) were too slow with the ball – both sides were simply too cautious in attack and didn’t want to risk being out of the tie after just the first leg.
One Chelsea player who failed to stand out tonight, and has been relatively out of favour for Chelsea under Benitez, was Oscar. The Brazilian looked very isolated on the right, with Mata instead playing as the creative player through the middle, whereas under Roberto Di Matteo it was usually the other way round.
When Mata plays out wide, he tends to cut inside onto his left foot and help Chelsea dominate the middle of the pitch, but the right-footed Oscar was unwilling to do this and instead stayed out wide, but failed to provide any crossing opportunities. Victor Moses and Azpilicueta have also found themselves playing on the right wing this season but they have both managed to have some success from getting to the by line and supplying a cross.
The first half was dominated by Chelsea possession with the home side trying to wait for a gap to emerge. The two players most likely to create anything were Mata, who was starting to find space, and Hazard, who looked very dangerous when receiving the ball slightly deep on the left wing, which then enabled him to run at the Swansea defence.
However, against the run of play, Michu gave Swansea the lead after excellent De Guzman pressure forced Ivanovic into a sloppy error. The score remained 1-0 up until the break.
After half-time, Mata noticeably started to move deeper to try and initiate Chelsea attacks and give them a quicker tempo. As a response to this Luiz started to push further forward in search of space and this again could have exploited Ramires being alone in the centre of the pitch, but Swansea were now sitting even deeper. Throughout the second half Michu was very much so isolated but he was happy to run into the channels and offer light pressure on Cahill and Ivanovic.
Just after the hour, Laudrup made his first change and it was a defensive one with Dwight Tiendalli replacing Routledge, meaning right back Rangel moved forward into the right of midfield. De Guzman also became more defensive in terms of his positioning, with Swansea now looking like a deep 4-1-4-1. The Dutchman followed the runs of Luiz in midfield, leaving Ki to press Frank Lampard, who replaced Ramires, whilst Britton tried to sweep up in front of his defence.
As well as bringing on Lampard, Demba Ba later replaced Torres up top and he looked like much more of a threat – partly the result of Cole and Azpilicueta (yellow rings) now pushing forward in attack, with the aim of receiving the ball out wide and putting crosses into the box.
Chelsea simply couldn’t find an equaliser though and their troubles were only made worse with minutes left as substitute Danny Graham doubled Swansea’s lead after a terrible backpass from Ivanovic (now responsible for both goals his side conceded).
Overall Chelsea dominated possession but needed far more width in attack and a much quicker tempo in the final third of the pitch.
Laudrup got his sides tactics spot on. They were much more defensive than at the weekend, but still intended to hit Chelsea on the counter, and did so twice, scoring on both occasions, meaning they go into the second leg with every likelihood of making the final in Wembley.
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