Pundits, supporters, and fans alike were bemused by Chelsea’s January transfer window deadline day addition of winger Juan Cuadrado. While The Blues did need to bring in reinforcements after selling winger Andre Schurrle to VfL Wolfsburg and loaning winger Mohamed Salah to Fiorentina, spending a potential £26.8 million on Cuadrado seemed excessive especially since current starting right winger, Willian, was not only playing at a high level but also adjusting to the more reactive style of play that Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s manager, preferred because it balanced out a Chelsea side that relies on the attacking instincts of left winger Eden Hazard.
While Hazard is Chelsea’s most creative attacker and is a certainty in any Chelsea lineup as long as he is available, he has struggled balancing his attacking strengths with his defensive responsibilities. Generally, with Chelsea’s superior squad, this flaw is mitigated. However, when Chelsea play better competition, as occurred with their 3-1 home loss to Atletico Madrid during the 2013-14 Champions League Semifinal second leg and their 1-1 draw with PSG during the 2014-15 Champions League Round of 16 first leg, this weakness can be exploited by their opposition.
Chelsea’s 1-3 loss to Atletico Madrid has to be their most disappointing performance under the second reign of Mourinho. After taking an early 0-1 lead in the match and the tie, with the first leg ending 0-0 in Madrid, Chelsea conceded three straight goals two off which were attributed to Hazard switching off defensively and allowing Atletico Madrid rightback, Juanfran, a free attacking run and the freedom to create the two chances that led to Atletico’s first and third goal.
On the first goal, Juanfran was able to make a late and unmarked run to the byline, while Hazard was preoccupied watching Tiago, who had possession of the ball before lofting a pass to Juanfran who then redirected the ball towards Adrian who leveled the score for Atleti.
On the third and match-sealing goal, Hazard again lost an attacking run from Juanfran giving him the ability to cross the ball to Arda Turan who headed the ball onto the crossbar, collected the rebound, and then gave Atletico a 1-3 lead and confirmed a trip to the Champions League Final.
Chelsea and Hazard again struggled defending down the flanks in their 1-1 Champions League first leg draw with Paris St. Germain. Throughout the majority of the first half, Hazard was positioned on the left wing where he was responsible for tracking the runs of PSG rightback Gregory Van der Wiel, a very attack minded fullback . As with his struggles with Juanfran against Atletico Madrid, Hazard allowed Van der Wiel too much freedom throughout the first half of the match, giving him ample space in advanced positions to create scoring opportunities for PSG. PSG were not able to capitalize on these four opportunities because of two bad entry passes to Van der Wiel and two bad touches by the Dutchman but Mourinho was forced to switch Hazard with the more defensive minded winger Willian in an attempt to deny Van der Wiel any more opportunities. This tactical adjust brought mixed results as Van der Wiel was not nearly the threat he was in the first half but PSG recorded all of their remaining scoring chances down their left attacking flank, including the match leveling assist from central midfielder Blaise Matuidi to forward Edison Cavani.
Even though Mourinho will accept the 1-1 draw that gave Chelsea an away goal and the advantage to advance to the Champions League Quarterfinals, for a manager who prides himself on nullifying the most dangerous attacks in world football, the defensive performance, especially down both flanks, must have been disconcerting enough to warrant a tactical rethink to their attacking midfield line.
To address Chelsea’s vulnerabilities on the flanks the best solution would be to insert Cuadrado on the right wing, flip Willian from the right to left wing and slide Hazard from the left wing to the central attacking midfield position.
Cuadrado is the quintessential counter-attacking winger. He is blessed with stamina, allowing him to run for extended periods of time when Chelsea does not have possession of the ball. He is extremely quick and fast, allowing him to exploit the space afforded to him by the advanced runs of opposition fullbacks and the high defensive line used by opposition centerbacks when they are in possession of the ball. Finally, he is a great dribbler which gives him the opportunity to create scoring chances when he is without attacking support from teammates who are positioned deeper down the pitch before Chelsea’s attempted quick transition. Defensively, after a professional career in Italy where he was developed and situationally deployed as a wingback and fullback, there is no winger more adept at undertaking the overlooked defensive duties of an attacking player. Paired with Branislov Ivanovic, a converted centerback, on the right flank, Chelsea would boast a formidable defensive partnership that would rarely offer attacking freedom to their opposition.
Willian would return to the left wing position that he starred in at his previous club, Shaktar Donetsk. On the left wing his responsibility was to drift into central attacking positions to act as the primary creative outlet for a side that was at its most lethal when they were able to counter attack with a highly technical transition play. Willian, who adjusted his game to a workmanlike defensive style in order to secure a position in Chelsea’s starting lineup, would provide much more protection for Chelsea leftback Cesar Azpilicueta than Hazard currently provides and when Chelsea gain possession of the ball, Willian can act as a secondary creative attacking threat to the now central Hazard.
Freed from his defensive responsibilities by sliding to the center of Chelsea’s attacking midfield line, Hazard would no longer have to track back to mark advancing fullbacks and would be allowed to position himself higher up the field. From this position Hazard, Chelsea’s most creative player, would act as the primary outlet after Chelsea regain possession of the ball and could quickly push it forward in an attempt to exploit the space behind an open and exposed opposition. Also, with Hazard occupying the central attacking midfield position, central midfielder Cesc Fabregas can dictate Chelsea’s buildup play, a feat they struggled with during their 1-1 draw with PSG where Fabregas played as their central attacking midfielder from Chelsea’s double pivot.
This attacking midfield line would rarely be utilized. When Chelsea need to break down deep and organized opposition defenses the creativity that Hazard brings from wide area would be vital. In the few matches against equal or better opposition this attacking midfield line formation could be crucial in providing the foundation for a Chelsea victory.