Roberto di Matteo has finally received what was rightfully his – a two year contract – by virtue of the turnaround he effected in this Chelsea side. A relieved Chelsea squad and establishment can now look to the future.
The wrangling over a new deal for the manager notwithstanding, it has largely been an extremely enjoyable summer for the Chelsea faithful. The doom mongering and general paranoia prevalent post Andre Villas Boas’ sacking has been replaced by a feeling of calm and also a fair sense of schadenfreude at rival club Tottenham’s plight. The club had after all literally put all of its eggs in one basket. A win in Munich would bestow not just the coveted trophy but along with it, would guarantee a spot in the Champions League group stages and millions of pounds of added revenue that the club is certainly in need of.
Club football is wonderful in the sense that both the highs of elation and the depths of despair are almost only a bit longer than momentary. For every season that goes horribly wrong and for every season that goes wonderfully right, there will always be a next season to undo the rights; and to right the wrongs. And therefore, before the start of yet another season and with the painfully slow progression of yet another summer, moods of merriment or hopelessness are both replaced by introspection. Now that Chelsea have won the trophy and all that was at stake, the feeling of calm and smugness have been neutralized by the most basic of human tendencies – Expectation. And where there is expectation, there is speculation.
The introspection however cannot be complete without picking out some pointers from the season that has gone by. It was expected that Andre Villas Boas would reinvigorate Chelsea. Mourinho’s protégé was to bring attacking football to Stamford Bridge and came across as an extremely knowledgeable and tactically sound coach. Early last season, it did seem like he would deliver everything that was expected of him, even when Chelsea lost. Chelsea’s performance away at Old Trafford was one of their finest against Manchester United despite the game ending 3 – 1 in favor of the hosts, and the nine man fight back at Loftus Road(which ended in a 1 – 0 defeat) felt like a victory of sorts, merely due to the spirit shown.
AVB’s tactical plan of implementing a defensive ‘high line’ coupled with a high intensity pressing game in midfield didn’t suit the Chelsea players. Here was a team that preferred to sit back, organize their lines when they lost the ball and were well drilled in the art of being patient while trying to regain possession. The adaptation to a completely different style of defending wasn’t smooth. Chelsea’s erratic, incoherent pressing in midfield left open many a gap thereby drawing defenders out of position. A 3 – 5 defeat against Arsenal at home meant that the plan crumbled altogether. It was the point where Andre Villas Boas could and should have reverted back to what suited his players. However, after conceding the league title as early as October, AVB stubbornly persisted with his tactical plan and the full extent of the cracks within the dressing room came into public view in Naples. Villas Boas had alienated his senior players and was making it abundantly clear when he left Micheal Essien, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole on the bench in a game which Chelsea eventually lost 3 – 1. A 1 – 0 defeat, against West Brom would prove to be his final game as Chelsea manager before Roman Abramovich ‘wielded his axe’ as the press would say.
Di Matteo’s subsequent promotion as interim manager and the FA Cup and Champions League double are only too fresh in memory. Oddly enough, he achieved the stupendous success by implementing tactics that clearly contradicted Boas’ tactical approach. It does make one wonder what may have been if AVB had heeded to the advice that he was receiving from his assistant manager? Evidently he didn’t, perhaps he should have.
Di Matteo had Chelsea defending in two banks of four in midfield and defence. At times in the Champions League, Chelsea maintained a watertight line of five players stationed horizontally across the pitch in midfield and four at the back. His preferred formation was a 4 – 2 -3 – 1 which usually had space for Juan Mata to play behind Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres. In tighter, more tactically competitive games, Juan Mata was pushed out to a wider position. Di Matteo’s greatest strength was however his man-management capabilities. Clearly, he had won over the squad, again something which AVB failed to do.
Post the Champions League victory, Didier Drogba has said his goodbyes to everyone at Chelsea, and the club has notified the FA that Jose Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou are to leave as well. It is indeed a damning indictment of Chelsea’s quality(or lack thereof) of wide players as they started the Champions League finals with Ryan Bertrand(a left back) and Salomon Kalou- a squad player at best- occupying the wider positions. Florent Malouda wasn’t at a 100%, but even he doesn’t quite match up to Bayern Munich’s wingmen Arjen Robben or Franck Ribery.
The Wide Players – It has led to Chelsea signing two players who can play wide – Marko Marin and Eden Hazard. They are also strongly being linked to another wide player in the form of Gianvildo Vieira De Souza aka Hulk. After having played Shaun Wright Phillips, Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou, Yuri Zhirkov and Nicholas Anelka for the best part of the last five years, the Chelsea.F.C frontline is expected to get a facelift.
Chelsea are widely expected to line up with Fernando Torres leading the line with Eden Hazard playing behind him, while Juan Mata and Hulk occupy the left and the right forward positions respectively. Should Hulk eventually arrive at Chelsea, Marko Marin would be expected to fight for a spot from the bench and the nippy German winger is exactly what Chelsea need during the later stages of a game.
Drogba’s Replacement – Chelsea now have three recognized forwards in the team in Torres, Daniel Sturridge and Romelu Lukaku, with the young Belgian expected to go out on loan. Is there a strict need for a striker to replace Drogba? Maybe there isn’t. But Fernando Torres has played in 67 games and scored just on 12 occasions, while Daniel Sturridge can ably deputize for the Spaniard, a long term injury of sorts to either player puts the team in a precarious position. Hulk too, however can fill as a striker and therefore, IF at all Chelsea do wish to buy a forward, a moderately priced young player with potential would be the way to go about it – Andre Schurrle or a Thomas Muller like signing would be ideal, as they can also play wide and their versatility would aid with squad rotation.
For anyone baulking at the number of forward player names sprinkled across this read, one only has to look at Chelsea’s title rivals Manchester United or Manchester City who each have seven or more players in attack. In comparison to their title rivals, Chelsea managed last season with significantly less quality and depth in attacking positions.
Is Luka Modric needed? – Considering it looks like Roberto Di Matteo will take charge next season, one can assume that he will continue to play his preferred 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 formation and Modric fits into the formation like a glove. Both Luka Modric and John Obi Mikel would give Chelsea frightening control in midfield due to their passing and ball retention capabilities. But Modric’s arrival would have to be cautiously managed, as Chelsea then risk overcrowding their midfield spots. It is a signing that isn’t strictly necessary. If it were to happen, then perhaps either of Essien or Meireles or maybe even both of them, would have to leave. On the face of it, it looks like Chelsea may not pursue the diminutive Croatian pass master this summer as there are other areas to strengthen.
The Ramires Conundrum – His versatility continues to be his boon and bane. While one can’t deny the combative Brazilian’s influence upon the Chelsea team last season, the coming season blurs the picture somewhat at first glance. Ramires is not a natural born fit for the 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 formation. Neither is he disciplined enough to play as part of the deep lying double pivot and nor is his good enough with the ball to play as an attacking midfielder. Under Di Matteo last season, he was deployed on the wings for this very reason. But, his versatility means that Ramires will be used and heavily too.
Chelsea cannot get through an entire season using a luxury playmaker like Hazard or Mata in central midfield. There will be combative games against teams like City, United, Liverpool, Everton et al and in the Champions League where there would be a need for more legs than guile and rest assured Ramires’ presence would be necessary in these games as part of central midfield. His ability to play in wide positions also comes in handy because of his effective tracking back qualities. Ramires is a manager’s dream – great attitude, can play multiple positions, never stops running and gives one hundred percent every game. Such a player will be of use eventually, even if not at first.
How does Chelsea F.C shape up? – With the addition of a competitive Right Back and the some of the above mentioned players, Chelsea for the first time in a few years now could have a bench with players who can challenge the first eleven for a spot. This sort of competition hasn’t been anticipated since the early Mourinho years. Some of the players among Essien, Ramires, Malouda, Marin, Sturridge, Cahill, Luiz, De Bruyne, One of the Right Backs or a new striker could all be fighting for a spot in the first eleven depending upon the INs and OUTs. Also the option of having so much quality on the bench gives a plethora of tactical options for the manager to try.
Tactical Set Up – Does this mean a return to pressing and the high line? It most definitely doesn’t look like that may happen. This team still doesn’t have the necessary tools in midfield to cope with that tactic. Mikel isn’t the most mobile of midfielders and certainly doesn’t possess that terrier like tenacity to go after the ball. His defensive play is based largely on smart positional interceptions and tackling, while Lampard is too used to the old Chelsea way of patient ball retrieval. In addition to this Chelsea are expected to play with a player in the Number.10 position and neither Juan Mata nor Eden Hazard are particularly well known for their defensive contributions.
It is a team that is likely to keep possession against weaker teams in midfield
and peel defences open sooner or later thanks to the improved quality in attacking positions. There will be times when Chelsea are frustrated by resolute teams determined to park the bus and it is when the manager will be expected to make use of vast resources on the bench.
By and large the set up and the formation is expected to suit one man – Fernando Torres. One of the biggest reasons he has failed at Chelsea so far is because Torres is a player who likes running ‘onto’ the ball instead of ‘with’ the ball. A quick look at this video showing his 81 goals for Liverpool tells us the story of a man who likes to find space behind the defenses before latching onto balls played from deeper positions, taking a touch or two and rifling them in.
The counter attacks in particular should prove to be very dangerous for their opponents and in difficult games, it would be reasonable to suggest that Chelsea will at times sit deep, and look to play the ball behind opposition defenses for their attacking players to make use of.
This season brings with it the hope for every Chelsea supporter that the days of a lack of cutting edge are well and truly done with. By the end of the summer transfer window, one expects Chelsea to have invested significantly and there are renewed hopes of a title challenge this coming season. Now that the Champions league has been won, the team that finished sixth last season would want to be taken more seriously back home.
The expected Chelsea first team next season – Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill/Luiz, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Hulk and Fernando Torres.