The template for this match is well rehearsed. As in their clean-sheet victories over Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City earlier this season, Stoke will sit deep and look to pounce on the counter through Xherdan Shaqiri. For the most part this will be a constrictive affair with few clear-cut chances, but the key creative zone will be on Stoke’s right, where Shaqiri and Eden Hazard – both on an upswing in form but defensive liabilities – go head-to-head.
Although Mark Hughes has attempted to instil a more attacking, possession-based philosophy at Stoke this season, statistics suggest that they are not transitioning particularly effectively; before the last two home games against Aston Villa and Newcastle (the division’s bottom two clubs) Stoke had earned just seven points from the 12 games in which they held the majority of possession this term, and 29 points from the 14 games in which they held the minority. The pattern of this weekend’s match should therefore suit Hughes’s side.
Chelsea are vulnerable to the sort of counter-attacks that Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan are capable of because Eden Hazard rarely tracks back to defend. It was his absence on the left that allowed Norwich to build down this flank and score on Wednesday night in a move that exemplified why a frustrated Jose Mourinho eventually dropped the Belgian from his starting XI. Hazard averages just 0.5 tackles and 0.3 interceptions per match; it is no surprise that his zone is Chelsea’s most vulnerable.
On the other hand, the Belgian is returning to his best in an attacking sense. The vast majority of Chelsea’s forward play in midweek came down the left, with Hazard again becoming the fulcrum of every attack. He had 73 touches of the ball in total, creating three chances and assisting the opening goal.
This lopsided situation is mirrored at Stoke. During their impressive recent three-match winning streak, Shaqiri has averaged 2.1 key passes and 2.0 dribbles per game, amassing two assists and a goal in that time. He is undoubtedly entering a purple patch, and yet defensively he continues to let the team down, making just two tackles and one interception across all three games. What’s more, he was directly at fault for Villa’s goal last weekend (having jogged back listlessly instead of tracking Leandro Bacuna’s forward run).
The situation at Chelsea and Stoke is very similar. Both possess a fantastic winger capable of creating chances but who also leaves huge pockets of space behind him. Matched up on the same flank, their tussle – particularly if the game opens up and Stoke’s counters are counter-countered – should be a fascinating and decisive one.
Chelsea vs Stoke LIVE ANALYSIS with Stats Zone
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