Earlier in the day I watched an interesting piece on Football Focus with Borussia Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp. The young German emphasised the importance of tactics on a game and said that each individual game had its own strategy to combat the opposition to gain a result. For long periods yesterday, it seemed as if Steve Clarke’s tactics were wrong.
There’s no question that Chelsea are a better side than Albion; their resources are of course far greater than ours – and, of course, they are the European champions. Getting anything from Stamford Bridge was always going to be a tough task – just ask Aston Villa fans how they got on earlier in the season.
But, back in mid-November, Albion showed they could match their illustrious rivals. Steve Clarke got his tactics spot on as the Baggies beat Chelsea 2-1 in Roberto Di Matteo’s final game in charge – and that’s the reason yesterday was frustrating.
Clarke was forced to bring in Graham Dorrans in place of the injured Chris Brunt and Marc-Antonie Fortune for the ineligible Romelu Lukaku.
Despite the recent turmoil around Stamford Bridge it was Chelsea who started the game the strongest. The quick start Albion needed to get the fans further on the back of Rafa Benitez and his side never materialised. In truth, it was one-way traffic. Foster made the first of a string of fine saves in the fourth minute when he denied Oscar from close range in the fourth minute.
Albion hit back with a chance of their own almost immediately. Morrison was felled 25-yards out. Reid struck the free kick hard and straight at Cech, who had to tip the ball over the goal.
But that was as good as it got for the Baggies in the first half. The all-important tactics seemed to beckon Chelsea on at every opportunity. Our defenders were far too deep allowing Oscar, Hazard and Mata time and space to run at goal. Long was isolated up front and Morrison was unable to get into the game. Yacob and Mulumbu tried to get a foothold into the game, but the ball kept coming back. Time and time again our goal was under threat. It was only a matter of time before the opening goal came.
After Oscar had headed straight at Foster and the goalkeeper had denied David Luiz from a free kick, Demba Ba opened the scoring in the 28th minute. Chelsea worked a short corner and Hazard delivered a deep ball. McAuley lost Luiz who nodded back across goal for Ba to tap in. It looked like the first of many.
Chelsea were pushing for a second. Despite Albion’s inability to defend higher up the pitch, credit must go to the back four who were prepared to put their bodies on the line as the shots were fired in.
Albion’s second attempt of the half came when Long finally collected the ball in the box and fed Morrison. But his volley sailed high into the stand behind the goal.
After the break
It was very much the same as the game kicked off for the second half. I’m sure Steve Clarke had tried to adjust the shape of his side to align defence, midfield and attack. But Albion just couldn’t get near the likes of Mata, Oscar and Hazard. The trickery and speed of thought was just too good for Albion. There was no lack of effort of application but Albion just couldn’t get near to Chelsea’s playmakers.
Foster had to be aware ten minutes after the break when he came off his line to deny Demba Ba at close range. The stopper also made a fine save from Oscar in front of the on-watching England manager Roy Hodgson.
But – much like at Anfield – you felt Albion were always in the game. The animosity towards Benitez meant there was a sense of tension in the stands. If only Albion could exploit this. The Baggies tried to push forward. Olsson headed over from a Morrison corner. Odemwingie was called from the bench to add some impetus to our attacks.
It was the want-away striker who tested Cech next. Odemwingie hit a curling 25-yard free kick which the Czech international had to tip over. From the following corner the ‘keeper had to be at his best to keep out Azpilicueta header from close range.
Albion pushed for an equaliser late on but couldn’t find a way past Cech. Odemwingie tested the stopper down low and panic ensued from a late corner when Ben Foster almost connected with a bicycle kick in stoppage time. The ball was cleared and the final whistle blown.
Despite being dominated for long periods there was still a sense of frustration at full time. Albion had done well to keep the score down to just 1-0 after being put under pressure for long periods of the game. Ben Foster again excelled between the sticks. But when we were prepared to push men forward we looked as if we could’ve snatched something.
Our performance against Chelsea earlier in the season was one of the highlights of the campaign so far. But we seemed tepid in the return clash. We gave Chelsea too much time and space in midfield. People criticise Brunt for playing so narrowly in games but his presence in a more central position was missed yesterday. The recalled Dorrans and Fortune were almost non-existent. But they weren’t the only ones. Chelsea were so dominant that any Albion player – bar Ben Foster – struggled to have a good game.
We must of course consider the opposition before tearing strips off Steve Clarke or the side. It shows just how far we’ve come when we lose by the odd goal at Stamford Bridge and are disappointed. A couple of seasons ago, we lost 6-0 there. Onwards and upwards.
Come on you Baggies!
Have your say on Albion's defeat here at Baggies Banter.