“Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s too much cr*p talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes“, Brian Clough had once said. The legendary English manager did indeed have a point, as irrespective of how many hours a manager spends contemplating tactics that best suit his team, an individual error is enough to negate the tactical battle that he may have won over the 90 minutes of football. Tactics remain a fascinating aspect of football nonetheless. Managers deploy various formations to get the best out of their teams. Roberto di Matteo, however, hasn’t strayed away from his preferred formation at Chelsea; the 4-2-3-1 system. Fascinatingly, the same shape has yielded in three different tactical systems by merely tweaking the third band, the three players behind the centre-forward.
Chelsea became the Champions of Europe by virtue of an extremely defensive 4-2-3-1 setup while playing against far more attack-minded teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich. At the time di Matteo took over the reins at Chelsea, Mata was perhaps the only creative player on the roster, so to speak. The manager played him through the middle and flanked him primarily with Kalou and Ramires, behind Drogba. The strategy was clear; Chelsea were to sit back, absorb all the pressure without bothering about possession, and hit on the counter whenever an opportunity presented itself, howsoever rare that may be. 4-2-3-1 sometimes resembled a 4-4-1-1 shape with the wide players playing as deep as the double pivot with only Mata slightly ahead of them, accompanying Drogba.
The wide players were not flashy, knew their roles clearly and put their heads down to focus on the enormous task at hand. The most potent weapon in the armory in such a strategy, in addition to the finishing capabilities of their Ivorian striker, was the speed of Ramires which enabled him to remain deep yet quickly make his way to goal on a break. The shy Brazilian defended the flanks resolutely, ran his heart out and with Chelsea a goal and a man down in the tie against Barcelona at Camp Nou, he audaciously chipped Valdes after a lung-busting run from half way across the goal.
Then summer came; after Chelsea had added enough to the squad, change was surely on the horizon. In the first few games of the season, di Matteo opted for a balanced approach by fielding a defensive winger on one flank and attacker on the other side of the player deployed behind Torres. The defensive wingers were Ramires and surprisingly Ryan Bertrand, who started the season from where he’d left off in the last campaign, by playing ahead of Ashley Cole on the left wing. The decision on which wing to reinforce by playing a defensive player further forward was based on the threat posed by the opponents in wide areas, and later by the deteriorating form of Ramires.
The fact that Mata was tired after a season in which he started almost every game for Chelsea, and was involved with the national team at the Euro and Olympic and that young Oscar had just arrived might have forced the manager’s hand, but when di Matteo started both Bertrand and Ramires on either side of Hazard against Queens Park Rangers, the move did raise quite a few eyebrows.
The presence of Bertrand no doubt made the left flank secure and allowed Cole to contribute more offensively; a position he rarely found himself in with Mata, who seldom contributes defensively, playing ahead of him. But, at the same time, Chelsea lacked the incisive edge on the left, as the young Englishman was rarely involved in moves in the final third.
What didn’t help matters was the performances of Ramires on the right. The Brazilian, who turned out to be a revelation in a counter-attacking, defensive system last season, was struggling to come to terms in games Chelsea were expected to attack from the onset. He isn’t known for his passing or for his finishing and appeared to be clearly lost on the pitch. When your player of the previous season starts looking mediocre, something is surely not right. For Ramires to excel on the wings, Chelsea have to sit deeper and rely on counter-attacks; a strategy one may yet see if they were to again face, say Barcelona in Champions League, but in the Premier League, this clearly wasn’t working.
The fading influence of Ramires coincided with the dip in form of Lampard, and with the double pivot malfunctioning, di Matteo moved Ramires further back to play alongside Mikel in midfield, while finally fielding the mouth-watering combination of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata in the third band, as seen in games against Stoke, Arsenal and Norwich to bring about the third incarnation of the 4-2-3-1 at Chelsea under Roberto di Matteo.
After Mata had had his break, after Oscar was ready and after Hazard had enough of playing between primarily defensive players, Chelsea unleashed their creative trinity. Quite a few had wondered whether they can play together. Initial impressions suggest that they can certainly play, and play together at that. Although Hazard and Mata played though the middle, their preferred position, in the season preceding their transfer to Chelsea, they’d spent the major part of their career on the wings. Moreover, the fact that Oscar is deployed in the centre despite the presence of Hazard and Mata only goes on to show what a quality player he is. In the present setup, Hazard plays on the left, Oscar through the middle and Mata on the right.
On paper the three players may appear very similar to each other and they are in terms of their versatility, but on the field each brings something different to the table. Hazard is the fastest; his initial acceleration, ability to change direction at will and his trickery make him the hardest to mark; a fact all defenders who have conceded a penalty against the talented Belgian can attest to. Mata perhaps has the best vision of the three, as his ability to spot an opening for a pass is second to none. Furthermore, his set-piece deliveries are sheer class. Oscar provides a distinct tactical edge which none of the other two provide; a reason why he plays in the centre. In addition to what he brings to the table offensively, his positional sense when given the job to mark a deep-lying playmaker (Pirlo/Arteta), his willingness to track back, drop deep to regain possession and help the midfield by bridging the gap between the pivot and the attacking band, make him an invaluable asset for Chelsea.
In the games thus far, none more so than against Norwich, the trio displayed remarkable understanding and exchanged positions at will, often leaving their markers perplexed. Hazard and Mata, particularly, have already forged a palpable chemistry that allows them to see passes well before the others and link up beautifully in and around the box. What may be more heartening for the Chelsea fans is the fact that these two, in their limited capacities, have looked eager to help their full-backs as well; a problem that first made di Matteo look for defensive alternatives further forward, and he may still do so in future to counter a particular threat out wide or a particular club, but the developments have been promising at Stamford Bridge this season.
Roberto di Matteo will tweak Chelsea’s tactics on the basis of the challenge at hand; he has an option to park the bus in an away tie in Europe or opt for a balanced approach to nullify a tricky winger in the league, or he can let his band of merry men create magic on the pitch!
On the 20th of October, Chelsea will travel to White Hart Lane to take on a Tottenham side on the rise, led by a manager who has a point to prove and having fiery wingers in the form of Bale and Lennon. The most interesting aspect of that game may lie in the kind of team di Matteo picks for this usually fierce London derby.