The final game of Chelsea’s pre-season saw Ancelotti’s team travel to Reading to serve up a performance that leaves a few question marks ahead of next week’s Community Shield opener.
Whilst it was no surprise to see Chelsea once again line up with an increasingly familiar 4-4-2 formation, Carlo’s decision to play Deco at the tip of the diamond (with Lampard and Essien filling the left and right berths respectively) and give Ivanovic the nod at right back ahead of Bosingwa was unexpected.
And for the first 45 minutes, it didn’t work. Like Jose Mourinho’s diamond midfield in 06/07, Ancelotti’s diamond of Mikel, Lampard, Deco and Essien looked slow and predictable. With a packed central midfield, Chelsea’s formation presented its most attacking players no space to make an impact on the game. If a 4-4-2 diamond formation is going to work, Carlo has to find a way to get width into the team.
It didn’t look so bleak for the first ten or fifteen minutes, however. Reading perhaps looked a little fazed and for the first five minutes and Chelsea’s central midfield were dominant, albeit with play getting scrappy in the last third. Half chances were arriving however, Anelka hitting tame shot wide after a good move, Lampard having a 25 yard shot saved on six minutes and and Terry heading a corner just wide a minute later.
More half-chances followed, with Drogba hitting controlled volley at goal from a Lampard cross, and in the first 15 minutes the game was being played entirely in the Reading half. Mikel (who had started the game a little slowly) was playing on the half way line and he and Essien were breaking up Reading’s play and feeding the more advanced Deco and Lampard. Cech had his first touch of the ball on fifteen minutes and, with Reading’s only attacking forays resulting in over-hit crosses from the left, it seemed at the time that Chelsea wouldn’t be seriously tested.
Anelka headed wide in the sixteenth minute from a well worked corner, but a reasonable chance for Reading just sixty seconds later – a cross narrowly failing to find a white shirt in the box - kick-started a sustained strong spell for Reading, with Robson-Kanu and Kebe looking particularly lively. Only Reading had shown any willingness to stretch the play wide and it was starting to show, with the blues increasingly playing only up a narrow central channel. Essien wasn’t getting into advanced positions and the 4-4-2 diamond was looking more a column-like 4-2-2-2, with Deco AWOL and Drogba and Anelka struggling to get in the game.
Reading were starting to have the better of the game but, despite the increasing predictability of the approach play, Chelsea were still intermittently carving out opportunities. Federici, the Reading keeper, nearly gifted Anelka a goal following a poor attempted clearance, and Essien fired in a shot from 25 yards that was saved by the keeper at the second time of asking. On 36 minutes Carvalho headed yet another corner wide.
Executing a perfect counter attack, Reading immediately found themselves one nil up. The lively Robson-Kanu taking advantage of uncharacteristically poor defending from Ashely Cole to find Kebe in the box, who deftly took the ball past Cech before slotting the ball home. One nil Reading.
It didn’t stay one nil for long. The final kick of the first half came from the boot of Reading’s Davies – a well taken free-kick on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area firmly struck into the bottom right hand corner.
Chelsea had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession but, in truth, hadn’t asked significant questions of the Reading defence from open play. No neat passing triangles this time, and the best chances had almost exclusively come from long-range attempts or corners. Yes, chances were arriving, but it was telling that Chelsea looked at their most dangerous on the few occasions when Anelka or Lampard did manage to find the ball out wide.
Alex, Bosingwa and Malouda came on for Ivanovic, Carvalho and Deco (Lampard moving to the tip of the diamond) and Chelsea did play with a little more dynamism and purpose in the second half. The game from this point was played almost entirely in Reading’s half and, before 60 minutes had passed, Alex had headed a Mikel cross wide and Federici had brilliantly saved a point-blank range header from Lampard.
More changes came on 65 minutes, with Beletti, Kalou and Sturridge taking the places of Drogba (who was looking leaden-footed), Essien and Anelka. With Reading tiring, a more balanced Chelsea finally started to stretch the play wide on occasion through Kalou running with the ball from the left and Bosingwa delivering crosses (of varying quality) from the right. Sturridge looked confident, lively and willing to try things on the ball and, whilst three shots in the space of five minutes didn’t find the net, his performance again looked encouraging. He turned creator on 83 minutes, feeding Lampard with a beautifully placed pass into the box before nearly dismembering Federici when following in Frank’s saved shot. He made another creative and intelligent reverse ball to Lampard two minutes later. He’s worth chances, this guy.
The game was reminiscent of Scolari-era Chelsea – impressive possession and territory stats but ineffective football leading to a charge for goals in the last ten minutes. Lampard had been involved in everything good and he was involved again, interchanging passes with Malouda who eventually scuffed a shot just high and wide. Bosingwa too got into the act, firing a powerful shot at the keeper from an acute angle on 88 minutes.
The frustration was to end there however, with Chelsea finally carving out, and taking, a good chance. Mikel picked up the ball on the half way line, took the ball on five yards before playing a ball between the two tired-looking Reading centre halves. Kalou was swiftly onto the ball, before shrugging off one challenge and slipping the ball under the advancing keeper.
And only moments later Chelsea somehow scrambled an equaliser. Providing the game with an eerie symmetry, the last touch of the second half resulted in a goal. Malouda fizzed in a good cross from a dead ball on the right flank and, under pressure from Alex, Alex Pearce got a head to the ball and headed into his own net. Heart-breaking for a well-organised Reading side.
Yes, the first priority for pre-season games is building fitness and yes, Chelsea did manage to scramble a draw. But despite massive possession, the positives start to run out there. The 4-4-2 diamond was far from convincing against a Championship side, attacking play was predictable and the side were unable to carve out fully-fledged goalscoring opportunities with any consistency. Under last season’s 4-3-3, Chelsea were one, maximum two – top class attacking players away from completing the jigsaw. We’re in early days, but from my perspective one thing is clear: the jury is still out on Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, which has put an entirely new jigsaw on the table.
bridgeviews.co.uk’s man of the match – another difficult one. Credit must go to Reading, who played very well, particularly in the first half. The lively Robson-Kanu wand Kebe impressive from the right and left respectively, and their back four played a disciplined game. In contrast, many of Chelsea’s players were lack lustre and guilty of sloppiness, and for that reason Lampard’s consistent quality in attack was the standout performance – again.