Chelsea’s disciplinary record for the season just ended makes for disappointing reading: collecting 74 yellow cards and 4 reds, they were the most ill-disciplined side in the division. The reason? Chelsea converting their style to a high pressing game under Andres Villas-Boas.
Considering the tactical fluidity favoured by AVB and the infamous caution of Di Matteo’s Chelsea, the alarming increase in foul play is perhaps unexpected. Even during Mourinho’s era, built on strength and power, Chelsea did not amass as many cards as they have in the 2011/12 campaign.
AVB Pressing Game
The unusually high card count is no statistical anomaly: it is as a direct result of Chelsea’s dramatic shift in defensive tactics, implemented during the infamous tenure of Andre Villa-Boas. Although Chelsea have subsequently reverted back to their more familiar system under Di Matteo, the majority of the cards Chelsea received came prior to the departure of AVB.
As highlighted by Michael Cox, AVB converted Chelsea’s containment and counter-attack strategy into a fluid pressing team, focused primarily on a high defensive line, pressing the opposition as high up the pitch as possible.
It is very difficult to pinpoint statistical evidence for the use of this system, due to the unavailability of data that records player movement – but there is one telling statistic to be found on whoscored.com. In the 2010/11 campaign, Chelsea’s defenders caught an average of 0.46 offsides per match: in 2011/12, this figure dramatically increased to 0.84.
This strongly indicates a higher defensive line, which in turn can only signify a high tempo pressing game. If coaches choose to abandon deep defensive positioning, then pressing higher up the pitch is a vital requirement in order to limit the possibility of being caught out by strikers being played-in behind the back four. Chelsea abandoned their counter-attacking philosophy and began playing much higher up the pitch, explaining their high (85%) pass completion rate over the season, up from 83.6% in the previous campaign: swift, incisive attacks (with a higher risk of misplaced passing) changed to a stable, attacking fluidity.
Harassing the opposition and closing down quickly will inevitably lead to a higher foul count, thus increasing the likelihood of receiving cards. And Chelsea certainly pressed the opposition hard, working tirelessly to win back possession before the opposition reach the final third. The number of interceptions made increased from 16.2 in 2010/11 to 16.8 in 2011/12: teams were frequently denied space.
All of these statistics point to one conclusion: Chelsea’s disciplinary record is largely a result of their revolution in defensive philosophy, with AVB instigating a brand of football that will inevitably lead to more fouling, given the dogged requirements of Chelsea’s defenders in this system.
Inevitably the increased card count asks severe questions about the legitimacy of this philosophy, particularly considering Chelsea’s disappointing season. However, their foul count was not much higher than the Premier League average, and the cards accumulated is more as a result of positional fouling, rather than repeated infringements.
A high defensive line, as opposed to a containment system, inevitably offers (theoretically) more space for opposition attackers to exploit. Unlike a deep defensive line, passes can be played through the defense, leading to a higher number of one-on-one opportunities, and a higher frequency of attackers running with the ball at speed (into the pockets of space found behind the high defensive line). Consequently, a team utilising the pressing system are more vulnerable to cynical fouls, or fouls that are seen to have significantly halted play and thus deemed worthy of a yellow card.
Naturally, coaches attempt to nullify this vulnerability with diligent defending and a rigorously drilled offside trap. But on the odd occasion that the system fails, yellow and red cards are highly likely; 3 of Chelsea’s red cards this season came from fouls on a player clean through on goal.
The disciplinary record at Chelsea is not a long-term cause for concern. Considering this was Chelsea’s first season utilising this system, and it was being operated by players with many years of experience defending in a wildly different manner, it is not surprising that it failed more often than it should have.
It cost Chelsea many cards, it cost them a higher league finish, and unfortunately, it cost Andres Villa-Boas his job. Given more time for his players to become used to the system, AVB’s style may have begun to work. As it is, Di Matteo has reinstated Chelsea’s deep containment philosophy, and in doing so has earned himself the job, despite holding a lower win percentage than his predecessor.
The disciplinary record is highly likely to improve next season. The league position may not.
All stats are taken from whoscored.com, unless otherwise stated.
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