Focus: Chelsea and Fabregas to profit from space invasion at Newcastle
After a cataclysmic opening month, Chelsea’s energetic, bullish display against Arsenal has restored some confidence. Building momentum is the next step, and a trip to face a Newcastle team in disarray presents the perfect opportunity to reaffirm their status as champions.
Steve McClaren is attempting to install short-passing, high-tempo attacking tactics at Newcastle that reflect the aesthetics of his Derby County side. On the opening day against Southampton, Newcastle held 55% possession and attempted 427 short passes (up from the 2014/15 average of 278); passing out from the back, their full-backs each averaged more than 50 passes each.
But as the poor results pile up, this system has gradually given way to a disjointed, long-ball style typical of teams without confidence; their short passing (278 per match) is now exactly the same as last season, and their possession average is 5% lower (43%).
New signings Florian Thauvin, Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic all need time to adapt to English football, and thus it's the performances of established regulars Papiss Cisse (1.2 shots per game) and Ayoze Perez (0.3 key passes per game) that have been most disappointing.
However, the key tactical confusion at Newcastle is based on a struggling transition from deep-lying defending to high-tempo possession football; while the midfield is attempting to press high as McClaren expects, the back four is more hesitant to follow suit, leading to large gaps between defence and midfield.
This should help Chelsea rediscover their creativity, since Jose Mourinho’s inverted wingers frequently float across the pitch and into pockets of space between the lines. Pedro and Eden Hazard will both hope to cut inside and penetrate these gaps, but it's Cesc Fabregas who should benefit the most.
Fabregas’s defensive frailties are exposed when Chelsea don't dominate, but against a confidence-stricken side likely to concede territory, he will have greater freedom to roam forward and dictate the tempo in front of the Newcastle defence.