Another international break is over, and Chelsea return to action on Saturday afternoon with a trip to The Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion.
The last time Chelsea traveled to the Midlands to face West Brom, a late Michy Batshuayi gave the visitors a 1-0 lead that secured the Premier League title for the Blues.
This season, both teams are in markedly different places. The reigning champions’ erratic form sees them sitting nine points off the league leaders Manchester City. But aside from the 3-0 disaster away to AS Roma in the Champions League, Chelsea have won their last three Premier League fixtures, including a 1-0 win over Manchester United in their last match before the break.
Things look grimmer for West Brom, where manager Tony Pulis will hope the time on the training ground will lead to an uptick in form. The form table isn’t pretty for the Baggies.
Two wins in their first two Premier League matches seemed to indicate West Brom had picked up where they left off last season, but things quickly spiraled. Since their 3-1 win over Accrington Stanley in the Carabao Cup on 22 August, the Baggies have failed to record another win and currently sit just one point off the relegation zone.
Needless to say, West Brom are the side in desperate need of a result this Saturday.
Is the Tony Pulis effect starting to wear off?
In some cases, Tony Pulis doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a manager. Pulis main strength has always been setting his teams up with a good solid structure that gives them a chance to win even if they don’t have the ball. The hallmark of that tactic has usually been a back four consisting of four defensive-minded players, and either a midfield five or a midfield four that are set up to break up play and feed a target man.
When it works, it allows his sides to have a chance against anyone they face. When it doesn’t work, his sides have real problems getting results because they’re not built to chase a game if they’ve gone behind.
Right now, it’s not working for West Brom, and they find themselves getting closer to being in a long relegation battle at the bottom.
It’s becoming very reminiscent of Pulis’ final season with Stoke City. While he did masterfully to establish Stoke City as a Premier League mainstay, even participating in the Europa League during his time there, the grinding style of play began to wear on the players and the supporters watching.
In that final season, Stoke were flirting with relegation for periods in the season, but did stay up with 42 points. But the record wasn’t great. Stoke had just 9 wins that season and 15 draws, and inevitably Stoke decided to go in another direction.
Right now, Pulis might be at a similar crossroads at West Brom. West Brom have just 2 wins and 4 draws from their first 11 matches and have scored just 9 goals. That is relegation form.
If there is one area where West Brom could hurt Chelsea, it might be in the wide areas.
One of the interesting tactical conundrums that’s happening this season at Chelsea is that the back three seems to be pulled around a lot more than last year. For one reason or another, players seem to be getting caught out of position, and it’s led to some nervy moments on the counter attack, when teams can get in behind the wing backs and prepare crosses.
West Brom is a team that is capable of putting on pressure from crosses. Players like Matt Phillips and Chris Brunt are very good with their delivery from wide areas, but will Tony Pulis play that way?
So far this season, Pulis has often played a version of 4-3-3 against teams around them in the table with Nacer Chadli and Jay Rodriguez in the wide positions, and against bigger teams, like Manchester City and Arsenal, switched to a back five.
A back three or a back five is how most teams have tried to counter Antonio Conte’s formation as of late, but as teams have found, if you play three natural centre backs in your back three, you could leave yourselves with problems against the movement of Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata, and Pedro.
That’s exactly what West Brom do. If they play a back three, they will play Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, and Ahmad Hegazy as their centre backs. Quick passing and movement will be the key, and City opened them up quite a few times, before their finishing let them down.
David Luiz will be included in the squad, but how?
Antonio Conte announced in his press conference that David Luiz will be included in the squad that travels to The Hawthorns. What role he will play on Saturday remains to be seen.
Luiz was dropped in favour of Andreas Christensen for the visit of Manchester United in a move that Conte described as a tactical decision, though some interpreted as punishment for various misdeeds and his performance against Roma.
Luiz has made quite a few more errors this season than last, where it looked like he had finally started to mature into the world-class defender that his talent suggests he should be. But this season, he’s played a lot closer to the player roundly criticised by many for indiscipline, poor positional play, and sometimes lacking focus.
Compounding the issue for Luiz is the emergence of Christensen as a viable threat to his position. While he might not be the all-around footballer that Luiz is, in terms of skill and passing, he’s a much more calm and calculated presence. It’s that calmness under pressure as well as the ability to make the right decisions under pressure that has clearly made the 21-year-old a favourite of Conte’s, and it might not be too long before he overtakes the Brazilian to make that position his own.
Luiz will likely get a chance on Saturday to prove to Conte that he deserves to play. Christensen completed two tough World Cup playoff matches with Denmark over the international break and is likely to get a rest, and it will be up to Luiz to make an impression if he expects to keep his place.
Expected lineup: (3-4-3)
Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro, Morata, Hazard.