Abramovich will hope so, yet I have my doubts for this side.
Since the summer of 2003 when Roman Abramovich decided to make Chelsea a global force, the club have become a major player on the domestic and European game. And last season was one of the most unpredictable, chaotic and amazingly successful ones that Chelsea have experienced in recent years. As Di Matteo is given the reigns for the season and players like Hazard are being recruited, there are people suggesting that Chelsea could be challenging for the title next season. This article will look at the possibility of this happening.
The problem that Chelsea have faced in recent seasons is that they have lacked a certain level of longevity in regard to their managers, which has meant that as a team Chelsea have not evolved naturally. Instead each manager appears to be set on relying on the previous nucleus of players in order to keep Chelsea challenging for titles and cups. This method has worked for Avram Grant, Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti, where they simply retained the players and style that had been imbedded into the club from the previous “special one”.
Their logic was not flawed, Mourinho is a master at putting together a group of players, making them a unit, giving them belief and knowing what style is necessary to be successful. He brought success and adulation and thus it was a method which did not need changing.
However, that was until Roman Abramovich saw Ronaldinho rip his team apart and then witnessed Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Winning became only part of his desire, the rest was to see tiki-tika football played at Stamford Bridge, this time by the home side.
Ideology over realism?
What arose was a clash of ideology and pragmatism and last summer Andre Villas-Boas was brought in to implement this change of style. As we know he failed emphatically in his quest to give Roman what he wished. Now many may argue that Villas-Boas did get Chelsea playing a more “Barca style” way, yet it ultimately led to defeats and anarchy. Villas-Boas failed because he tried to do too much too soon, with a group of players not able or willing to change. He left too early in order to see if his “project” could ever evolve, yet the truth is he was failing, he was simply not the right man for the job and at Chelsea, failure, even when seeking the owner’s ideal, means the end.
Now we all know what happened after AVB left; Di Matteo came in, at first somewhat cautiously, with reports of dislike of him from certain players, and ultimately brought the players and the club around with doing something which any manager gets praise for, winning games. He brought about nights like the Napoli game in the second leg and made Stamford Bridge appear like the fortress it was under previous managers (remember Mourinho went undefeated at home throughout his whole Chelsea period).
He did what I had argued for months previously, the simple yet effective necessity, to change the tactics. Simply Chelsea did not have the players to play the high pressing game and were made to look like fools in many games, especially John Terry, who knew he could not play that way. Di Matteo reverted back to the deeper defensive unit, compact midfield and counter attack mentality which had served the side so well in previous seasons. Amazingly Chelsea would win both the FA Cup; outplaying both Spurs and Liverpool convincingly and by luck, fate or plain old hard work and determination, they overcame Barcelona and then Bayern Munich to win their first Champions League. It was not pretty, but nothing can take that away from Chelsea.
Di Matteo's problems
Di Matteo was given the manager’s job yet don’t forget however that Abramovich’s aim was to bring Guardiola to Stamford Bridge, and I am sure he sought out his old friend HIddink again too. With their rejections he was left with a choice of another potential AVB gamble, or a better the devil you know option in Di Matteo.
The problem that Di Matteo has is that he will expected to play much better this season than he did (against the better sides that is) last season. At times Chelsea were simply defending at all costs and luckily surviving, whether with 11 or 10 men. It was admirable and ultimately successful, yet plaudits are not won (something which Roman seeks and lusts for) for that style and Di Matteo will be tasked with improving the quality of the play, while being successful. The question is, is this possible?
To help him in this coming season Di Matteo has been gifted with new players (Hazard, Marin and potentially Oscar), this is to go along with attacking options of Mata, Torres, Lukaku and Sturridge, the signing from last season Kevin De Bruyne and also the impressive youngster Lucas Pizon. The potential for Chelsea to create goals and have flair is clear and what Chelsea’s policy appears to be is to emulate the Barcelona model of small, technical players, possessing speed, creativity and skill.
In some respects this is commendable, at the top of the elite levels we are seeing success coming from these type of players possessing technical quality. One needs only look at Barca, Dortmund and Man City to see small players dominating games and terrorising defences and now Chelsea have caught on and want to come into this new cycle of football.
In Eden Hazard I believe Chelsea have a real special player, reports of his performances for Lille these past two seasons regarded him extremely highly and for me he was the best player available this summer, therefore Chelsea have done very well to capture his signature. I expect big things from him playing a central role, with Mata on the left.
However, I do not expect much from Marin, he appears more of a squad player and his potential which was spoken of years ago has never been met, instead players like Ozil, Reus, Kroos and Schurlle have overtaken him in the national side. At £6m it is not a major gamble, yet Chelsea appear set on bringing in this type of player. However there are issues which will curtail Chelsea’s season and which appear set to prevent Chelsea being successful this season.
Di Matteo favours the 4-2-3-1 formation and for the players he has, it is the right tactic to use. It offers solidity in defence, allows the full backs to attack and gives licence to the three attacking midfielders to roam and create. It was played to good effect in Munich, especially with Lampard and Mikel holding. And it is what Chelsea will need if they have any chance of challenging this coming season.
With the option of Torres, Sturridge and Lukaku fighting for the No. 9 position, it leaves a combination of Mata, Hazard, Marin and possibly Oscar to play behind them. It resembles the setup of City, Madrid and Dortmund, all sides which won their respective leagues last season and thus is no coincidence then that Chelsea will seek to implement it too.
For me it is the modern tactic, improving on the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations of previous years. It is much better for Chelsea to use a 4-2-3-1 than attempt to emulate the Barca/Spain tactic which requires above all cohesion and understanding of that system, something those players have been developed with all their footballing careers. One cannot just say we are playing this way and expect to see Barcelona (take note Brendan & Andre).There are issues for Chelsea which will affect their chances of success.
Chelsea have just lost their most influential and dominant forward, a player arguably the best forward in England for the past five or six years and who when asked upon, especially in finals, has come up with the goals again and again. You cannot just lose a player like Drogba and expect to be okay, this is a major loss to Chelsea, the players and the new manager.
Drogba offered much more than goals, he destroyed defenders with strength and power, his movement was top class too and it is no surprise too that he assisted many goals as well. Questions must remain over Torres and his ability to consistently perform in a blue shirt and he will need to do more to help Chelsea, he needs to vary his movement and become a bigger part of the game, too often he is only waiting for the chance to score, he will need to involve himself more now.
Lukaku has impressed in Belguim and yet was seemingly ignored by AVB last season, is he mature enough and good enough to challenge Torres and become the “new Drogba”? I have my doubts in all honesty and see him as another Di Santo. Drogba therefore will be a major loss to the side and will damage their chances of success.
When Roberto Mancini arrived at City he made sure to address their defensive issues first and build from the back. Di Matteo addressed the defensive issues when he came in and made Chelsea stronger. However, although Terry and Lampard have been simply excellent servants for Chelsea this past decade, and have pulled the club through difficult times and matches, they are the both past their best, both have lost the speed they had and although their experience and positioning has improved, Lampard particularly adapting to his deeper role, these players will struggle with another full season and importantly will struggle against the better sides in the league.
Just last season John Terry was pulled apart by Andy Carroll against Liverpool in a 4-1 loss and he showed signs throughout that he was past his best. It is interesting to note that for the majority of the Barcelona game and the Bayern final, Terry was absent and Chelsea appeared arguably better (of course, very different if Messi or Gomez take their chances), yet the truth is that Terry is past it at the top level, similar to Carragher at Liverpool, both have lost their sharpness and although Terry’s leadership and courage are admirable, I would be worried as to his ability to handle the speed of the game now. From Cahill, Luiz and Ivanovic Chelsea have a better defensive pairing, yet through sentiment and not wanting to unsettle such an influential player, Di Matteo may be forced to continue with Terry, which may be too the managers downfall.
In midfield Lampard is best suited now to a deeper role, similar to Gerrard at Liverpool, age has caught up with these dynamic box to box midfielders and they need to adapt their game if they wish to continue at this level. Lampard’s scoring record is simply phenomenal yet he will be expected to break up the play and provide passes to others if he wishes to continue at Stamford Bridge. Next to him is Mikel, a player who promised so much yet has not as yet achieved that potential. He appears languid and casual and too often lacks the ability or willingness to get on the ball. The talk was that he would be the heir to Makelele yet he lacks the speed, bite and anticipation to rival such a great player.
Unfortunately, the player who Chelsea need in this role is Michael Essien, and it is such a shame therefore that injures have destroyed what was one of the best midfielders to play in the Premier League. For me Essien had it all, his versatility meant that perhaps he was not regarded as highly as he should have been. Yet quite simply, five years ago, Essien would be the first name on my world XI, he was that good and important to the side. And although I hope for Chelsea that he has recaptured his old form, I worry that his career has been cut short, a shame for the player and importantly the club.
Added to this players like Mereles and Romeu, and Chelsea really do lack real quality in their midfield. If they wish to have the slight technical players interchanging and creating ahead, then they need real quality behind them. City have players like Yaya Toure and Kompany and because of these City are favourites to win the league. Chelsea have gone from having the best midfield in the league to being only a top six one, it is here also where issues will arise.
Attacking flair and creativity are all great to watch and excite over, yet the key to being successful is defending, Mancini knows that and his side were victorious, Mourinho the same, Barcelona too. Dortmund have an excellent defence built on the quality of Hummels and Subotic. It interesting therefore to see managers like Wenger neglect this key aspect and win nothing because of it. Ferguson has been hit by injuries yet has not sought to improve his side with genuine quality in defensive positions, instead seeking to enhance his strikeforce over defence, a suicidal move. Chelsea must learn sooner than later that improving the defensive side of the team, will mean more success.
A New Era
Chelsea are embarking on a new period of the club, as one of the big three in Drogba vacates and Terry and Lampard enter perhaps their final season, Chelsea are certainly in the midst of transition from Mourinho to the new era. As Roman seeks to replicate a Barcelona model, he is risking the potential of his club to win titles and trophies, which this past nine seasons have brought. Although the club has been through many managers and turmoil, success has come from the strong foundations of defensive security, these foundations cannot be abandoned in the search to become Barcelona.
I believe Di Matteo is more pragmatic than this, yet when his boss is expecting beautiful football, will he be able to balance ideology with pragmatism?
As this new era dawns, I worry that the “new” Chelsea will not be as good, as dominant and thus as successful as this past era was. They have a manager who stills has questions hanging over him and he will have a difficult task in evolving the side while staying successful. Perhaps Di Matteo is merely a stop gap until Guardiola decides he is ready to step in. However I am very apprehensive about the possibility of Chelsea becoming anything like Barcelona; all replication appears to bring is failure, and any new manager at Chelsea, Liverpool or Spurs should be conscious of trying to not seek ideology and replication and instead assess the squad and find the best possible style and tactic to suit the players, not theirs or their owners wishes.
Can Chelsea be successful this season? Can they retain their European crown and challenge for the title? Abramovich will hope so, yet I have my gravest doubts for this side. I would argue that United and City have better attacking options than Chelsea and would say that Chelsea’s new vision for the future is flawed, remember their success came from dominating teams with strength and physicality and my worry is that they are neglecting these attributes which made them such a force this past decade.
The question was, are they title contenders, the answer is no.
What do you think? Will Chelsea be competitive in the league and in Europe? Can Hazard be a revelation and Torres recapture his form? Leave me your views below.