After witnessing the performance of Eden Hazard against Reading at Stamford Bridge, Jonathan Wilson explains where Roberto di Matteo’s greatest challenge lies. Chelsea
The era of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge is, at last, over. He spent a little over three years at Stamford Bridge, from the summer of 2004 to September 2007, but they are three years that have lasted almost eight. He took an ambitious thrusting side with money and made it one of the giants of European football. He formed the squad and defined a style and, in doing so, forged the soul of the modern club, casting a shadow from which every subsequent Chelsea manager has struggled to escape.
It takes seismic events for eras to come to an end. When the British historian Eric Hobsbawm defined Europe’s “long nineteenth century” he charted a period that ran from the French Revolution in 1789 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914. If Abramovich’s first decade at Chelsea – a “short decade” as it turned out – began from the moment he bought the club from Ken Bates in 2003, it ended in Munich in May with the penalty shoot-out victory over Bayern in the Champions League final. European success was what Abramovich had craved since first falling for football watching Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3 (losing 6-5 on aggregate) in the Champions League in 2003.
What he’d also craved, though, was football played with elan. Not for him tactical battles or defensive pragmatism! He wanted attacking and skill and flair. He wanted to be thrilled by the football the team he paid for played. In that regard, Mourinho was exactly the wrong coach to appoint. He brought success, and perhaps no other manager could have so quickly bonded a squad brought together at great expense from across the world; he made Chelsea a formidable team, setting Premier League points records. Their 4-3-3 was muscular, hard-working, dynamic. It was superstars playing functional football. When Abramovich bought Andriy Shevchenko to add attacking zest, Mourinho pretty much laughed at him.
Even after the great fall-out in 2007, that style remained Chelsea default. Avram Grant went along with it, Luiz Felipe Scolari couldn’t change it, Guus Hiddink accepted it, Carlo Ancelotti made initial efforts at development and then gave up and went back to the old ways. Andre Villas-Boas tried to introduce a hard-pressing high line and was sacked as the players reacted against it. Although Roberto di Matteo did start to switch last season from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, the style, particularly in the big European games, remained Mourinho’s: sitting deep, absorbing pressure, looking long to Didier Drogba for an outlet. And finally, in the most remarkable circumstances, it brought the Champions League.
The squad, though, was already beginning to change. Although Fernando Torres and Drogba often occupy the same space for Chelsea – too often for them comfortably to play together – they are very different types of forward, which is one of the reasons Torres had such a difficult start to life at Stamford Bridge. Juan Mata is a deft skilful attacking midfielder in the classic Spanish mould, a very different wide man to, say, Damien Duff or Florent Malouda. The arrival over the summer of Marko Marin, Oscar and Eden Hazard gave Chelsea a further trio of slight, skilful players. Kevin De Bruyne, the young Belgian signed in January and immediately loaned out, may yet prove another. Drogba’s departure removes the option of the long ball, lessens the threat from set-plays. The old guard, the cabal of Mourinho loyalists, has been broken up, and the nature of the new personnel means a new style is essential.
Hazard’s adaptation to life in the Premier League has been rapid. It was his turn and through-ball that laid on the first goal for Branislav Ivanovic in the 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic with which Chelsea began the season and he was then tripped for Frank Lampard’s penalty in that game. No player in Europe’s top five leagues was fouled in the box as often as Hazard last season – his quick feet means he is never quite where the defender thinks he will be – and he earned another penalty against Reading, before laying on the fourth goal in a 4-2 win for Ivanovic. He also played the last pass to Gary Cahill before his long-range strike skidded under the dive of Adam Federici; it was hardly as incisive or as spectacular as his other efforts but it meant he assisted five of Chelsea’s first six goals of the season.
Di Matteo, understandably, praised the link-up between Hazard and Mata and when Oscar came on to replace Ramires in the Reading game, Chelsea had a creative trident of remarkable technical gifts. Although Torres was offside in scoring the third goal against Reading, the quick-fire passing that led to the chance was stunning. All that is hugely positive, of course, and Abramovich is presumably delighted that his side is finally producing the sort of football he dreamed of.
But that sort of football comes at a cost. The interchange of the trident means there is rarely width. That’s not a great problem in that the full-backs are encouraged to get forward: Ivanovic’s goal against Reading was a little freakish in that in was a rapid break to take advantage of the fact Federici had gone forward for a corner but it’s no coincidence that he scored against Wigan and that Ashley Cole laid on Torres’s goal against Reading.
The issue, rather, is defensive. If there is space on the flanks for the full-backs to get forward, there is also space for the opposing wide men to attack the full-back. Wigan put in an astonishing 29 crosses against Chelsea without making anything from them; both Reading goals came from wide: a cross from Gareth McCleary for Pavel Pogrebnyak and a dart from Jobi McAnuff that brought a foul and the free-kick from which Danny Guthrie embarrassed Petr Cech. “It’s going to be paramount to keep a good balance,” Di Matteo said. “Everybody wants to see flair players but to win games you’ve got to have balance.”
The emphasis has changed from Mourinho’s days but the importance of having a solid base can’t be ignored. Di Matteo’s greatest challenge is to infuse the thrilling close-passing approach with defensive resolve.