We all knew the shape of Chelsea’s front four under Roberto Di Matteo. Fernando Torres would play as the lone striker, with Juan Mata on the right, Oscar in the hole and Eden Hazard on the left. But new interim manager, Rafael Benitez, has used a variety of attacking players in his 4-2-3-1.
Benitez’s Chelsea have favoured width in attack and during his brief tenure he has tried out Victor Moses, Mata, Hazard and most recently Oscar on the right flank, with varying degrees of success.
Chelsea’s right wing experiment #1 – Ramires
The first player to play on the right wing for Chelsea this season however was Ramires – in the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City. City were playing with their experimental back three and Ramires was used out wide to stretch the backline of City and create gaps for the likes of Frank Lampard, Mata and Hazard to venture into.
However, Chelsea struggled to get in behind the City defence and Kolarov had the relatively simple task of following the runs of the Brazilian. Ramires was soon moved to right back in that game though, with Mata moving to the right wing, after Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic was shown a red card and Di Matteo’s side changed to a 4-4-1.
#2 – Mata
Once the league campaign was underway, Mata starting on the right wing soon became familiar for Chelsea – as already mentioned he most commonly featured on the right when Di Matteo played all three of Mata, Hazard and Oscar.
In Chelsea’s opening game of the season, away to Wigan, Mata started on the right with Hazard through the middle and Ryan Bertrand used down the left in order to try and stretch the play. Chelsea were guilty of being a little too complacent once they took the lead but Mata was one of the standout performers, finishing with 93% passing accuracy.
Against Newcastle in late August, Mata, playing on the right (yellow ring in the diagram), linked up superbly well with Hazard (yellow ring) who was given a much freer role through the middle for Chelsea, and the two players showed several moments of clever interchange on the edge of the Newcastle box.
Mata’s tendency to drift inside was best highlighted in this match, and Newcastle’s Vurnon Anita had a torrid time when both Mata and Hazard drifted into the same areas of the pitch.
Chelsea looked to have a nice balance, with Bertrand on the left providing width and Branislav Ivanovic pushing forward from right back once Mata had drifted inside to link up with Hazard and Torres.
Chelsea’s 2-1 victory away at Arsenal was another example of Mata impressing from the right wing. Again, he drifted into the middle; Mata prefers playing in the middle and is left footed meaning he naturally looks inside when playing on the right, and this allowed Ivanovic again to motor forward from deep.
Chelsea’s right hand side was crucial to this victory, with Kieran Gibbs clearly having been picked out as the weak point in the Arsenal defence. An astonishing 47% of Chelsea attacks came down the right hand side and no Chelsea player touched the ball more times than the Spaniard – he also completed three dribbles, attempted four crosses and made more passes than any of his teammates.
Perhaps Mata’s most influential game for Chelsea this year, certainly in terms of statistics, came in the highly fortunate 3-2 Champions League victory at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. Mata was again on the right, with Oscar through the middle and Hazard on the left, and it was Mata who had the most touches of any Chelsea player – also making six key passes and nine crosses.
It said a lot that the match winner on that occasion, Moses, replaced the disappointing Oscar when he came on from the bench, rather than Mata – the substitute took up the right wing slot, pushing the Spaniard inside.
Against Juventus, in Di Matteo’s last match in charge, he actually started with Cesar Azpilicueta on the right wing (yellow ring in the diagram) – Mata started on the left, Oscar played in the hole and Hazard was a false nine.
The decision was probably a defensive one with Azpilicueta given the responsibility of tracking Juventus’ energetic left wing back Kwadwo Asamoah (light blue ring).
It should be pointed out that despite the 3-0 defeat he did a decent job of this.
Mata was very narrow on the left against Juventus, again indicating how he naturally wants to move inside and be a focal point of his side’s attacks, regardless of which wing he starts on.
Azpilicueta did the opposite, in that he stayed out wide in attack but was rarely used – the Spaniard had only 31 touches before being replaced on the hour by Moses.
Chelsea under Rafa Benitez
Since the arrival of Benitez, Chelsea’s settled side has changed, with Mata and Ivanovic both being moved inside – Mata now plays in the hole and Ivanovic has been used more at centre back in recent weeks. This is because Benitez has favoured a right-sided partnership of Azpilicueta and Moses – an indication that he wants more width in Chelsea attacks.
In their defeat to West Ham at the start of December, both Moses and Azpilicueta started down the right flank and 43% of attacks came down that side of the pitch.
When Hazard and Mata both started out wide, Chelsea only had width from their full backs but Benitez is a more rigid manager and this has resulted in the full backs being more cautious, with width now expected to come much higher up the pitch from the wingers – although Hazard on the left is still given the freedom to wander.
The role of Oscar
Oscar has been the fall-guy under Benitez but he did start last week in the 2-0 Capital One Cup defeat at the hands of Swansea City.
Mata and Oscar have ‘swapped positions’ under Benitez, with Mata now playing through the centre and Oscar stuck out wide on the right.
Unfortunately for Oscar, he didn’t make much of a case to start ahead of Moses.
He looked very isolated on the wing, and in comparison to Mata who would drift inside and link up with others when starting on the right, or Moses who instead stays as wide as possible, gets to the byline and crosses, it was unclear as to what Oscar’s role was.
He neither looked to get inside, nor get to the byline and deliver a cross. Luckily for Oscar, Moses has been called up to the Nigerian squad for the African Cup of Nations and so he can now stake a claim to get back into Benitez’s favoured XI.
However, it looks like he is competing for a right wing slot now, and not his favoured central position, which Benitez seems to firmly believe Mata is better off playing in – a fair assessment perhaps given he has provided the most assists for his team and averages the most key passes per game.
Whether or not too much should be read into the fact that Bertrand started instead of Oscar against Stoke City last Saturday is unknown. Bertrand started on the left wing, with Hazard switching sides to the right, but doing a ‘Mata’ in that he cut inside.
Mata and Moses are certainly benefitting from Benitez’s reign, but it seems that the same can’t be said of Chelsea’s number eleven…