Of all the teams the Blues have faced this season, Sunday’s draw at Turf Moore proves that Burnley are amongst the toughest.
It was a classic Beauty-vs-the-Beast scenario. Silky-smooth, skillful Chelsea against the combative, industrious Lancastrian club. And, make no mistake about it, Sean Dyche’s team were excellent value for their point.
Things seemed to be going swimmingly when Pedro side-footed the league leaders ahead, but Burnley, themselves owners of a proud home record, had something to say about that.
Indeed, only the Blues and Spurs have better home records than Dyche’s men:
The first twenty minutes suggested it would be a formality for the Blues. But from the moment Nemanja Matic’s clumsy foul gave Burnley a set-piece opportunity, it was clear it would be anything other than plain sailing.
Robbie Brady’s free-kick was inch-perfect, unsaveable. Critics have argued Victor Moses might have done better on the end of the wall, but such was the quality of the Irishman’s strike – which set out well wide of the post before nestling in the top corner – there is little anyone could have done to deny the Clarets a warranted equaliser.
Ultimately, a draw was a fair result, but the concern for Chelsea was the ease with which the hosts nullified the Blues’ usually seamless attacking unit.
Dyche didn’t do anything special. In fact, his tactics were straight out the Sunday League textbook. And that’s the biggest worry for Antonio Conte to ponder over. Here, we take a brief look at how Burnley made the league leaders look pretty damned ordinary.
The first word you’d associate with a Sean Dyche team is “organised”. Each man knows their role, no questions of it. Burnley are a team that will run and fight until the final whistle. They are so utterly relentless and single-minded in their approach that it helps to bridge the huge gaps in quality they often face.
On paper, the Blues should have killed their opponents. But, on a snowy mid-February afternoon, there was little chance of the hosts rolling over in front of their own fans. Victories over Everton and Liverpool underline the fact that, at Turf Moor, Burnley are as tough a test as there is in the Premier League.
The key to their success on Sunday, and indeed all season, is their work-rate. Burnley pressed and pressed, but only sporadically, for quick, short bursts. They then invited Chelsea to have the vast majority of the ball and possession, but, because of how deep they were sat, there was little room for Chelsea’s midfield magicians to manoeuvre.
With two solid, uncompromising banks of four, Burnley are a tough side to stretch – though they do that exact thing to any team they come up against. Because the minute they win the ball back, they are able to exploit any space left in behind by playing two combative strikers, who are willing to tussle with centre-backs and make often fruitless runs into the channels for the percentage long ball.
It’s an effective system which stifled Chelsea on Sunday. After an uncharacteristically sloppy start, in which they conceded, as soon as Burnley got started, there was no room for Eden Hazard or Pedro to carve out shooting opportunities. The fact the Blues couldn’t muster another shot on target after Pedro’s goal shows just how defensively organised Burnley are.
They also caused a fair few problems for Gary Cahill and company, as we will now discuss.
Chelsea have won 19 of their 25 Premier League games this season. With thirteen games still to play, they are already 10 points better off than after 38 games in 2015/16. With their eight-point advantage, they are realistically eight wins and a draw from the title, going by the average number of points needed to lift the league crown since 2010 (85).
Yet, this team has weaknesses which Burnley exposed for all to see.
Firstly, they targeted the Blues’ left-flank. Eden Hazard is not the most defensively-minded of forwards, and, for a wing-back, neither is Marcos Alonso. The Spaniard brings a lot to the party going forward, but is by some distance the weakest link in Chelsea’s back five. Added to Hazard’s half-hearted tracking back, even with N’Golo Kanté in the side, there are spaces to exploit.
It is no surprise, then, that the game’s best chance after Pedro’s opener and Brady’s sumptuous equaliser, came about down Alonso’s side of the pitch. Thankfully, Thibaut Courtois was having none of it and saved Matt Lowton’s drive with his knee.
Another stunning weakness is the Blues’ inability to deal with long balls. When Chelsea go forward, they commit numbers a long, long way up the pitch. That means, in the case of a turnover, there is space in behind. Compared to Chelsea teams of yesteryear, this is indeed surprising.
As we know, Burnley enjoy releasing their forwards with balls into the channels, and when the Chelsea wing-backs are pushed into the opposing half, those balls into the channels become an awful lot easier for Joey Barton and company.
Those long balls were also a defensive tactic. They stretched the play. Instead of Chelsea winning back possession in midfield and launching attacks from there, which is what they wanted to do, they had to come at them from much further back. It gave Burnley time to re-organise, but their forwards would continue to harry and press and force sloppy passes from Conte’s team.
To their credit, Chelsea track back very well, and Kanté and Nemanja Matic dutifully drop in to reinforce the three centre-backs when we’re hit on the counter. Yet Burnley’s direct approach created several meaningful attacks. Though they produced little end-product (Courtois was virtually unemployed for the remainder of the game), a team with better-quality forwards might be able to punish the Blues’ inability to defend the long ball.
Chelsea are not as physical a side as they once were. Luiz, Cahill, and Azpilicueta might be decent in the air, but they don’t win the aerial duels that John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho used to without breaking sweat.
Tall target-men have been a cause of consternation for some time, and it seems this remains the most effective way to play against the Blues at present. It remains to be seen whether Wolverhampton Wanderers will employ this approach in this weekend’s FA Cup clash.
Time to re-shuffle?
The fact Conte chose not to bring in reinforcements last month is a huge vote of confidence in his current squad. Even so, is the current 3-4-3 becoming stale because of the Italian’s faith in the same starting eleven?
Changes in the side are usually dictated by injury or suspension, with the odd tactical re-think – Willian or Pedro, Matic or Fabregas – here or there. That has meant the Blues have become a little predictable in recent weeks, with draws at Anfield and Turf Moor not a result of bad fortune, but because opposition managers are beginning to suss out how to line up against Conte’s men.
Playing the returning Nathan Aké in Alonso’s wing-back role may help to stem the tide of attacks coming down that side of the pitch.
Similarly, it is Fabregas who might hold the key to reinvigorating the final sprint to the May finish line. The Spaniard brings that unknown quantity, an x-factor, and the eye to pick out a pass that few others can spot. Throw in his set-piece specialisms, and Fabregas might be the man to help create that chance the Blues need in tight matches such as this one. Food for thought, Antonio…