Chelsea: Just Think What We Could Do With Strikers Like Atleti...
When Diego Simeone took over at Atletico Madrid, the impoverished little sibling to the Galacticos of Real Madrid, they were sitting just above the drop zone. Now they are a genuine threat to Real’s title push, and have just knocked Barcelona, the tournament’s most successful side of the last decade, out of the Champions League.
In Chelsea, Simeone faces a very different test to any in La Liga. The irony though is that his side best resembles Chelsea in style. The two legged semi-final should bear a striking similarity to the ties Chelsea used to have with Rafa Benitiez’s Liverpool.
In his profile of the Argentine boss Andy West of the BBC sums it up: “As the eloquent Argentine boss explained in the build-up to his team's latest triumph, Barcelona's strength lies in controlling possession; Atletico's lies in controlling space.” Atletico managed to beat Barcelona by refusing to give them time and space in key areas and by winning key battles, battles that won’t be so easy against a far better physical match in the form of Chelsea.
Mourinho’s sides know when to soak up pressure and when to pounce, much like Simeone’s Atletico. Something will have to give, but on paper this makes the semi-final look like a guaranteed stalemate. Mourinho does have the favourable position of playing the home tie second though, meaning he can look to keep the first leg extra tight before using the black magic of Stamford Bridge to overcome the hardy Spaniards.
The former Argentine international has built a unit which is more than the sum of its parts, and the qualities of intelligence, determination and hard work the Argentine brought to his playing career has seeped into the way he builds teams as a coach.
Atletico set up with a strong back four, a hardworking narrow midfield and two genuine goal scorers up top in David Villa and Diego Costa, the unofficial heir to Dider Drogba’s throne at Chelsea. The midfield, as always, will be key. Raul Garcia and Koke play narrow alongside former Blue Tiago and the magnificent Gabi.
As pointed out by David Cartlidge at whoscored.com Koke is the all-rounder that, alongside the heartbeat, Gabi, is key to the system working. At the time of writing he has the most assists in La Liga with 13. His goal was the difference against Barcelona in the end, but it is his all round game that makes Atleti tick. Bursting with energy off the ball and seldom making a bad decision on it. High praise? Don’t take my word for it: “Koke has it all, an extraordinary player. He will pull the strings for Spain for the next 10 years,” Cartlidge quotes Barcelona maestro Xavi as saying.
Chelsea will need to bypass the astute midfield four and then a physical and well drilled back-four of Felipe Luis - Miranda - Diego Godin - Juanfran, only two of which are full internationals (Juanfran and Godin) but who have benefitted from being a settled unit for most of the season.
What Chelsea do possess in guile in the midfield can so often remain on the team sheet, as shown by the lacklustre final third play against Swansea last weekend. In the Champions League they have been better, and none more so than against Paris Saint Germain in the quarter-final second leg. Eden Hazard hardly featured that night, but in his absence Willian and Andre Schurrle shone, running at PSG relentlessly and putting them perennially on the back foot. The Blues will need all of this and more against Simeone’s hard working, well drilled and intelligent side.
Atletico have been excellent against the big sides this season so far, holding Barcelona and Real goaless already this season, and have conceded just 22 all season. That’s five less than Barcelona and two less than Chelsea, who hold the best defensive record in the Premier League.
Spike Friedman at Grantland, with some help from the astute Jamie Adams, points out that Simeone has borrowed liberally from Chelsea’s approach to stopping Barcelona over recent seasons. By funnelling them wide and not allowing through balls through the danger areas up the middle, and then transitioning quickly up the pitch, even the best Barcelona side can be beaten.
Chelsea also struggle against this sort of system though, lacking the sort of striker to feed on service from wide and apparently the required penetration to break though deep banks of four. This has been apparent in Chelsea’s stuttering performances against the lower teams in the Premiership this season.
Oscar should play against Atletico, and his ability to play in between the lines could be the key to unlocking the Spaniards high-press. On current form Demba Ba may be the surprise choice to lead the line in these ties, especially the first leg, allowing for the opportunity to cross and for someone to hold up the ball when the back four are forced to go long in face of the relentless high-press.
Oh what Mourinho would do to have the sort of polished finisher Atletico possess in David Villa and Diego Costa. In a battle between two very evenly matched sides, this may prove the difference.