Football season is knocking at the door, with the Community Shield curtain-raiser between Premier League champions Manchester City and FA Cup winners Chelsea due to take place this weekend. After their unprecedented success last season, Chelsea have moved swiftly to strengthen the team in the summer transfer window but have faced problems in the pre-season. The amount of importance that the defeats against AC Milan, MLS All-stars, and Brighton warrant is debatable, but there’s reason enough to closely observe how things transpire in the game against City.
Formation and Tactics
That 4-2-3-1 is Roberto di Matteo’s preferred formation is no secret, as was evident in the second half of last campaign. Chelsea have also, more often than not, taken the field in a similar system in pre-season. However, the results haven’t been even remotely similar, with Chelsea looking fairly lackluster on the field. There are enough reason behind the less than optimal performances by the Blues, but looking from merely a tactical point of view, there’s one major difference this term.
While using this system last season, di Matteo preferred defensively solid, tactically astute players out wide in the final third. Kalou has left, Malouda isn’t good enough, and although Ramires is still present, Chelsea are looking to add an attacking option for the right-wing. Even though Mata, Hazard and Marin are superb options in the final third, neither of them offers the same kind of protection like Kalou or Ramires.
Hence it’ll be interesting to see what the manager does against a team as strong as Manchester City. At the same time there’s no pressure, so to speak, in a Community Shield game, so will Chelsea still approach the game defensively or will di Matteo give his players the license to thrill?
Is a change in formation on the horizon? Will Chelsea deploy two strikers or an inverted midfield triangle with a solitary defensive midfielder? Will the manager play a system that best suits the talent available to him? Or, will he continue to stick to the tried-and-tested?
Performance of Fernando Torres
Didier Drogba has left. Meanwhile, Fernando Torres is the only established centre-forward at Chelsea, and has meanwhile won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012 despite playing a peripheral role in Spain’s triumph. This season, or perhaps till January, will surely be the Spaniard’s final chance to resurrect his stature in world football.
The transfer window is open till the 31st of August, so Chelsea will look at his performances in this match against City and in two subsequent fixtures in the Premier League and based on that, may take a final call if they are confident enough to go into the new season relying primarily on him to get them goals. What he does on the pitch may turn out to be the difference between a versatile (right-wing, striker) signing such as Moses or Hulk and an out-and-out centre-forward such as Cavani.
Positions of Juan Mata and Eden Hazard
Oscar notwithstanding, Chelsea have two phenomenally talented players, who both prefer to play in the central attacking midfield role. Juan Mata was signed from Valencia last summer and he adjusted to life in the Premier League superbly to play a defining role last season. Although he’s capable enough to play on either wing, he’s most effective while playing behind the striker. Eden Hazard, arguably one of the most talented young player in the world, was signed from Lille amidst strong interest from all top clubs in the world. He also, like Mata, can play across the final third, but prefers to play through the centre.
Towards the end of last season, Mata appeared tired, having started majority of matches for Chelsea so a creative cover for him was desperately required. Chelsea, however, brought more than merely a cover. Hazard is a world-class player who will start for the club more often than not.
Presently, Mata is tired because of a prolonged summer while Hazard may need some time to settle in England; so initially di Matteo may shuffle between the two of them. However, after a while both of them will warrant a start. Although the players are capable of swapping positions while playing, it’ll be interesting to keep a close eye on their starting position, if both start against City. Although a single game is an extremely small sample to generalize, the position in which each of them starts may give us an idea of where the manager’s preference lies.
If Chelsea indeed operate in a 4-2-3-1 system, they’ll have three options for the right-wing (RAM), assuming Mata and Hazard will take the LAM and CAM positions – Ramires, Daniel Sturridge, and Marko Marin.
Ramires was di Matteo’s first choice, especially in bigger games at the end of last season. His defensive skills, coupled with his speed on counters not only helped Chelsea keep the opposition full-back in check but also offered an incisive advantage while breaking forward. Ramires, however, isn’t a good passer of the ball and his crossing ability isn’t spectacular either.
Now, City is a tough team but the match isn’t a big one. So, who the manager fields this Sunday is anyone’s guess. Neither Sturridge himself nor the manager has been too inclined towards him starting on the right-wing; centre forward is where his heart lies.
That leaves us with another new signing at Chelsea, i.e. Marin. In his career, Marko has played on either wing and is known for his dribbling skills and for his ability to beat defenders in a one-on-one situation. He is expected to offer Chelsea an option from the bench whenever his skills are the order of the day or start against lesser teams. So the right-wing is another position which is far from settled presently, and deserves to be kept an eye on. However, irrespective of who starts this weekend, we may see a reinforcement arrive sooner rather than later.
First Choice Centre-back Partnership
The usual suspects for Chelsea in the centre of defence are John Terry, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic. At some point this season, Terry may be banned by the FA for a few games; David Luiz hasn’t performed all that well in pre-season thus far, while Cahill has become much more than a squad player since his move to Stamford Bridge. Ivanovic is also the first-choice starter at right-back, so he is clearly the fourth choice in the centre. Moreover, the Chelsea defense has leaked in goals liberally thus far in pre-season.
Out of three possible partnerships, i.e. Terry-Luiz, Terry-Cahill and Luiz-Cahill, which one would be first choice for di Matteo is debatable but we may see more of the Luiz-Cahill pairing than usual, as Chelsea many shuffle between playing their captain and preparing for life without him this season. So, this is another position to keep an eye on not just this season but also through the first half of the campaign.
It’s not like all positions and aspect with respect to Chelsea are unsettled, as there are quite a few certain starters on the team, especially against Man City. Petr Cech will start in goal, while Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic will be the full-backs in all likelihood. The double-pivot is expected to comprise of the first choice pairing of last season, i.e. Mikel and Lampard.
The Community Shield is only an extension of pre-season for big clubs, but generally managers end up unraveling quite a few mysteries before the Premier League begins. The case may be no different for Chelsea and Roberto di Matteo against Roberto Mancini’s men in the curtain-raiser this Sunday.