After witnessing the performance of Eden Hazard against Reading at Stamford Bridge, Jonathan Wilson explains where Roberto di Matteo’s greatest challenge lies.Ai??Chelsea

The era of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge is, at last, over. He spentAi??a little over three years at Stamford Bridge, from the summer of 2004Ai??to September 2007, but they are three years that have lasted almostAi??eight. He took an ambitious thrusting side with money and made it oneAi??of the giants of European football. He formed the squad and defined aAi??style and, in doing so, forged the soul of the modern club, casting aAi??shadow from which every subsequent Chelsea manager has struggled toAi??escape.

It takes seismic events for eras to come to an end. When the BritishAi??historian Eric Hobsbawm defined Europeai??i??s ai???long nineteenth centuryai??? heAi??charted a period that ran from the French Revolution in 1789 to theAi??beginning of the First World War in 1914. If Abramovichai??i??s first decadeAi??at Chelsea ai??i?? a ai???short decadeai??? as it turned out ai??i?? began from the momentAi??he bought the club from Ken Bates in 2003, it ended in Munich in MayAi??with the penalty shoot-out victory over Bayern in the Champions LeagueAi??final. European success was what Abramovich had craved since firstAi??falling for football watching Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3Ai??(losing 6-5 on aggregate) in the Champions League in 2003.

What heai??i??d also craved, though, was football played with elan. Not forAi??him tactical battles or defensive pragmatism! He wanted attacking andAi??skill and flair. He wanted to be thrilled by the football the team heAi??paid for played. In that regard, Mourinho was exactly the wrong coachAi??to appoint. He brought success, and perhaps no other manager couldAi??have so quickly bonded a squad brought together at great expense fromAi??across the world; he made Chelsea a formidable team, setting PremierAi??League points records. Their 4-3-3 was muscular, hard-working,Ai??dynamic. It was superstars playing functional football. WhenAi??Abramovich bought Andriy Shevchenko to add attacking zest, MourinhoAi??pretty much laughed at him.

Even after the great fall-out in 2007, that style remained ChelseaAi??default. Avram Grant went along with it, Luiz Felipe Scolari couldnai??i??tAi??change it, Guus Hiddink accepted it, Carlo Ancelotti made initialAi??efforts at development and then gave up and went back to the old ways.Ai??Andre Villas-Boas tried to introduce a hard-pressing high line and wasAi??sacked as the players reacted against it. Although Roberto di MatteoAi??did start to switch last season from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, the style,Ai??particularly in the big European games, remained Mourinhoai??i??s: sittingAi??deep, absorbing pressure, looking long to Didier Drogba for an outlet.Ai??And finally, in the most remarkable circumstances, it brought theAi??Champions League.

The squad, though, was already beginning to change. Although FernandoAi??Torres and Drogba often occupy the same space for Chelsea ai??i?? too often for themAi??comfortably to play together ai??i?? they are very different types ofAi??forward, which is one of the reasons Torres had such a difficult startAi??to life at Stamford Bridge. Juan Mata is a deft skilful attackingAi??midfielder in the classic Spanish mould, a very different wide man to,Ai??say, Damien Duff or Florent Malouda. The arrival over the summer ofAi??Marko Marin, Oscar and Eden Hazard gave Chelsea a further trio ofAi??slight, skilful players. Kevin De Bruyne, the young Belgian signed inAi??January and immediately loaned out, may yet prove another. Drogbaai??i??sAi??departure removes the option of the long ball, lessens the threat fromAi??set-plays. The old guard, the cabal of Mourinho loyalists, has beenAi??broken up, and the nature of the new personnel means a new style isAi??essential.

ChelseaHazardai??i??s adaptation to life in the Premier League has been rapid. ItAi??was his turn and through-ball that laid on the first goal forAi??Branislav Ivanovic in the 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic with whichAi??Chelsea began the season and he was then tripped for Frank Lampardai??i??sAi??penalty in that game. No player in Europeai??i??s top five leagues wasAi??fouled in the box as often as Hazard last season ai??i?? his quick feet means he is never quite where the defender thinks he will be ai??i?? and he earnedAi??another penalty against Reading, before laying on the fourth goal in aAi??4-2 win for Ivanovic. He also played the last pass to Gary CahillAi??before his long-range strike skidded under the dive of Adam Federici;Ai??it was hardly as incisive or as spectacular as his other efforts butAi??it meant he assisted five of Chelseaai??i??s first six goals of the season.

Di Matteo, understandably, praised the link-up between Hazard and MataAi??and when Oscar came on to replace Ramires in the Reading game, ChelseaAi??had a creative trident of remarkable technical gifts. Although TorresAi??was offside in scoring the third goal against Reading, the quick-fireAi??passing that led to the chance was stunning. All that is hugelyAi??positive, of course, and Abramovich is presumably delighted that hisAi??side is finally producing the sort of football he dreamed of.

But that sort of football comes at a cost. The interchange of theAi??trident means there is rarely width. Thatai??i??s not a great problem inAi??that the full-backs are encouraged to get forward: Ivanovicai??i??s goalAi??against Reading was a little freakish in that in was a rapid break toAi??take advantage of the fact Federici had gone forward for a corner butAi??itai??i??s no coincidence that he scored against Wigan and that Ashley ColeAi??laid on Torresai??i??s goal against Reading.

The issue, rather, is defensive. If there is space on the flanks forAi??the full-backs to get forward, there is also space for the opposingAi??wide men to attack the full-back. Wigan put in an astonishing 29Ai??crosses against Chelsea without making anything from them; bothAi??Reading goals came from wide: a cross from Gareth McCleary for PavelAi??Pogrebnyak and a dart from Jobi McAnuff that brought a foul and theAi??free-kick from which Danny Guthrie embarrassed Petr Cech. ai???Itai??i??s goingAi??to be paramount to keep a good balance,ai??? Di Matteo said. ai???EverybodyAi??wants to see flair players but to win games youai??i??ve got to haveAi??balance.ai???

The emphasis has changed from Mourinhoai??i??s days but the importance ofAi??having a solid base canai??i??t be ignored. Di Matteoai??i??s greatest challengeAi??is to infuse the thrilling close-passing approach with defensiveAi??resolve.

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  • Neither Cole nor Ivanovic look comfortable against speedy wingers & Terry’s lack of pace is being exploited more and more. Could it be that Bertrand and a younger quicker right back are needed in this formation?

    Chelsea’s other issue seems to be they have never really found a Makalele replacement, to protect the defence. While Mikel was outstanding at the end of last season, he has a tendency to lose concentration from time to time.

    The Goals For column by the end of the season should look very healthy; but I fear the goals against will not be so good.

    • Abhinav

      I am guessing there will be far and few clean sheets this season. Our defense and the double pivot needs to be sorted.
      Lampard and Mikel both are in their own ways slowing the tempo of the game.

  • Abhinav

    Attacking football comes with a price and in this case, with the defense sorted out. Wins should be imperative at the cost of clean sheets.

  • k10

    I believe RDM is clueless of his formation. He started the game with the same team as against Wigan but when they were goal down against Reading, all he did was removing his more defense minded player and introducing more attack minded player. Chelsea finished the game with Torres, Sturridge, Oscar, Mata, Hazard up front with only Lampard being the link between defense and striker force. Now Lampard alone cannot do the work in midfield of his own and with his tendency to move upto the box, it was destruction written all over Chelsea’s defense. Now it was only Reading (not undermining them) but against any decent club say NUFC, Everton, this will really hurt Chelsea there. They need to sort out this issue first.

    • Sorry have to disagree. Attack is the best form of defence and with Chelsea chasing the game it was the correct way of breaking down a well organized Reading defence. When we attacked Reading constantly in the second half they posed no attacking threat.

      After we had scored two goals to take the lead, only then did the manager replace Mata with the more defensive minded Meireles. Once that happened Chelsea sat further back allowing Reading to attack in the closing minutes at which point we looked vulnerable.

      What RdM did midweek is tactically the sort of thing Mourinho did when he was in charge at Chelsea; so I think the manager should be applauded for his actions. The one difference between RdM and Mourinho is that Mourinho had the luxury of the irreplaceable Makalele sitting as the holding midfielder.

  • A defensive midfielder in d Mould of Gustavo,Van Bommel should b recruited.also Hulk or anoda proven striker should b engaged.Cortois should b brought back to rival Chec,d errors are increasing.

    • Don’t want to be critical, but without Cech we wouldn’t have been European Champions last season. His command of the penalty area and shot stopping was at times sensational last season. This season he has made one bad mistake in two games; so I hardly think it worthwhile to have Courtois warming the bench when he is gaining experience playing for Atletico Madrid.

    • Abhinav

      Chelsea fans / football fans need to get a grip… one mistake and Cech has become a vulnerability sheesh …