Countdown for the English top-flight season has begun, and these last few days will go by at an excruciatingly slow pace, despite the color which the transfer window provides. For Chelsea fans, this period is all the more tougher to deal with, considering the customary change which takes place at Stamford Bridge almost every summer. This summer has been no different.
The guard has again changed – from an experienced, graceful campaigner who had been there, done it all to a confident young man who has never blinked in the face of a tough challenge. The club underwent a paradigm shift of enormous proportions when Andre Villas-Boas, the 33-year old manager of Porto, was pursued and instated as the manager of Chelsea. A club that yearns to win the Champions League appointed a manager who’s yet to manage even a single game in the elite competition.
Considering it’s Chelsea we are talking about, it’s hard to foretell whether by this move, the club has finally made a appointment with a long-term perspective or the Portuguese’s exploits with Porto convinced the men who matter that he can deliver immediate results. Irrespective of the motive behind the decision, the fate of the manager will be determined by what the team does on the pitch.
With various media houses claiming that Yuri Zhirkov has already signed a deal with Anzhi Makhachkala and Romelu Lukaku will be a Chelsea player next week, let’s assume that they are right and then, look at the Chelsea line-up.
Out of the back five positions, four are decently covered. Petr Cech owns the number 1 position at Chelsea, and the fact that the club offered Hilario a one-year extension, hints that the management trusts him to serve as a back-up for at least another year. For the left-back slot, Cole is a sure-shot starter, while Bertrand and/or van Aanholt can serve as an able back-up, whenever the need arises. Chelsea have arguably the best collection of center-backs, matched only by Man United perhaps, in Terry, Luiz, Ivanovic, and Alex. The 22-year old Serbian defender Slobodan Rajkovic, who is quite literally built like a tank, may eventually replace The Tank if his work permit hearing goes in Chelsea’s favor, allowing Alex to move on. The only position which does not inspire confidence is right-back. If Ivanovic starts there, then Bosignwa and Ferreira can be trusted to fill in for him, occasionally. However, if Villas-Boas prefers Ivanovic in central defense (going by pre-season selections), the situation will become tricky.
As things stand, Chelsea have two defensive-minded midfielders in Mikel and Romeu, two attacking midfielders in Lampard and Benayoun, one good passer of the ball in McEachran, and one tireless box-to-box player in Ramires. If the manager seeks solidarity in a big match, while deploying an inverted triangle in a 4-3-3 system as shown in the formation above, he will have to select two out of Mikel, Ramires and Romeu, with Lampard, Benayoun or McEachran occupying the attacking berth. However, if he plays a double-pivot, then one destroyer can be paired with a passer or a box-to-box player, behind a central attacking midfielder. Benayoun or McEachran can play here, but the position is yet to be fully covered, somewhat limiting the manager’s options if he wants to switch to a 4-2-3-1 system in crucial games.
In all honesty, all will depend on how ready Romeu really is for first-team football in the Premiership, on the rise of McEachran, on the impact of fit-again Benayoun, and on the kind of season Mikel has. Ideally, the midfield is not properly covered, with the departure of Zhirkov, injury to Essien, and the absence of a young, attacking, goal-scoring midfielder.
In a scenario wherein Mikel gets injured before a huge game or is out-of-form, the manager will have only Romeu to call upon in case he wants a physical presence in the middle. Now a team of Chelsea’s stature, may not want to face such a predicament.
Coming to the attack-line, the West London club has an abundance of center-forwards, if no one is sold and Lukaku is signed; however, what the club lacks are quality wide players – a touchy topic which has been debated endlessly in Chelsea circles. For the slot of the left-forward/winger, the options are a moody Malouda, an inconsistent Kalou, or an unproven Kakuta (assuming he’s not loaned out), while for the right, Anelka’s and Sturridge’s name can be added into the mix. However, in all fairness, there’s not even a single name for whom the opposition may have to draw special plans.
Not having a single player, who is breathtakingly fast or unbelievably unpredictable, who can stretch the opposition’s backline by staying wide and providing immaculate delivery into the box or occasionally cut inside to score, is a major worry for Chelsea – whether they acknowledge it or not. Villas-Boas has inherited many good things, or players, but he has also inherited a few offensive players who are reluctant to leave – and, why wouldn’t they be, considering the salaries they draw here. Since the implementation of the strict 25-man squad rule, clubs can’t accumulate foreign players as only 17 can be registered.
Villas-Boas is way too smart to miss out on this deficiency in the squad, so the only reason why the club hasn’t signed anyone can be that they haven’t been able to free-up slots in the team. If they can’t sell them, they must keep them. If they must keep them, they must play them. If they play them, the team will lack balance.
The departure of Zhirkov will vacate one slot, but it may be used up to strengthen the midfield. If Rajkovic get’s a work permit, Alex will be sold as the Serbian will qualify as a home-grown player, freeing up one more place. Ergo, to bring in one or two wide players, the club has to somehow sell either Malouda, Anelka, or Kalou, or sign an under-21 player.
Overall squad strength: Defense – strong. Center-forwards – strong. Midfield – average. Wide-forwards – weak.
In the recent past, Chelsea have got off to a flying start in the league, only to lose momentum in the period between November to January; then, gradually picking up form as the season draws to a close. This season Chelsea have to face Stoke, West Brom, Norwich, and Sunderland, before traveling to Old Trafford on September 10, 2011. It will be imperative that before The Blues take on Manchester United, all the flaws have been ironed out and a preferred system is up, firing on all cylinders.
In a busy month of December, Chelsea have to entertain Man City before two back-to-back London derbies against Tottenham at White Hart Lane and against Fulham on Boxing day. It will serve the club well in the end, not to lose their way in this period. City and Spurs would then take on Chelsea on March 17 and March 24 – a crucial couple of weeks for Chelsea, especially as they will be expected to give their best in the Champions League round-of-16 fixtures as well.
In the last four games of the season, The Blues may have to dig deep to get favorable results from their trip to Emirates on April 21 and at Anfield on May 5, before ending the campaign at Stamford Bridge against Blackburn on May 13, 2012.
There used to be an aura of invincibility at Stamford Bridge in the past. A feeling that if Chelsea score first, they won’t lose, come what may. Villas-Boas is well accustomed to this, having served during those days under Mourinho. The primary task for Villas-Boas would be to restore this belief in the team, in the fans and in the opposition. Last season, Chelsea lost 0-3 at home to Sunderland – not only are such results bad for the psyche of the home team but also give confidence to the teams yet to travel to the venue. The manager will try to ensure that mistakes of the past aren’t repeated once the season begins.
Chelsea need to be consistent on the travels, picking up wins against weaker opponents and fighting it out till the very end against quality opposition. There will, of course, be unfavorable results along the way, but what’s important is that the team remains consistent across the campaign. Last season, even a trip to St. Andrews to take on Birmingham began to look like a mission in itself. The team was unsure, injury-hit, and lacked self-belief, and the opposition drew its strength from Chelsea’s weaknesses. Villas-Boas is believed to be working on the mental aspect of the game, ever since he took over the reins.
If we look at the present team, it’s good enough to crush the living daylight out of mediocre teams, but may come up short against the top teams, both in the league and in Europe.
Chelsea will look towards their biggest signing of the summer, their manager, to make up for whatever the team lacks in personnel. His tactical astuteness, attention for detail, ability to get the best of of his players will be the club’s most potent weapon this season. The players will be immaculately prepared – each one of them will know exactly what to expect from their opposite number. The team is very solid defensively, and if players such as Mikel, McEachran, Malouda, Benayoun, Sturridge and Torres consistently play well, then this team will appear an altogether different unit.
Carling Cup: Winners
FA Cup: Winners
Champions League: Semi-finalists
If Chelsea go on to address the problems in the squad between now and the end of the window, this scenario will, of course, change.