There are some serious concerns regarding this team and a serious possibility is it will be a future without success
Chelsea’s New Style Exposes Their Defensive Frailties
In the summer The Whitehouse Address wrote an article regarding Chelsea’s title credentials. With £80m spent in the summer, the European Champions were showing some serious intent to invest in the team and provide the manager Roberto Di Matteo the players capable of challenging for the title and retaining their European Cup. After eight games in the league Chelsea lie top of the pack, they are undefeated and playing some very impressive football. And yet, there are some serious concerns regarding this team and a serious possibility is it will be a season without a trophy.
The reign of Villas-Boas came unstuck very soon into his time at Stamford Bridge and one can make accountancies for Chelsea’s poor performances based on the “inexperience” of their young manager. They had shown their quality against the lower sides in the league, yet against those sides who are seen as their equal, they were very much second best.
Last season’s Premier League started in a similar vain to this years. Chelsea overcame inferior opposition like West Brom, Norwich, Sunderland, Swansea and Bolton with relative ease. It made the new manager Villas-Boas start look like a positive one. However, with the defeat to Man Utd and then the losses to Arsenal and Liverpool indicated a recurrent problem for Chelsea and their new manager.
As has been well documented, AVB was given a clear remit when he came to Chelsea to change the style of play in to a style resembling that of Barcelona. As this blog has said before, Abramovich’s vision was not always going to produce results.
Since Chelsea had been bought by Abramovich and especially under Jose Mourinho, they had been successful, yet had always played in a style which had never truly captivated the fans. In fact, before Man City, Chelsea were very much England’s hated side, super-ceding Man Utd’s number one position as public enemy. Chelsea’s arrogance, financial investment and style of play were not always the most aesthetic. They were seen as a bully, in terms of transfer of playing style. Yet it was effective.
However for many years Abramovich has believed Chelsea needed to play with a new style which would captivate fans and importantly portray Chelsea in a positive light in terms of the media and fans. The problem was that you cannot just change a style so ingrained into players, this was AVB’s failings. He tried to do too much too soon. In 2011 Chelsea were not ready for change.
In the summer of 2012 however, they were. Had Villas-Boas come in this summer one thinks that he would have been much happier about what he was working with. Players like Hazard and Oscar to link up with Mata. No Didier Drogba to contend with in the dressing room and a more injury prone Frank Lampard. Yet AVB was not patient enough to allow that first season to be a transition period. He attempted revolution and was "beheaded".
When Di Matteo was given the reigns to Chelsea to see their season out, It was an admission from the board that the season was a “write off”. And yet, Di Matteo would go and win the Champions League and the FA Cup. It was one of the biggest shocks in many years.
The key to Chelsea’s success was Di Matteo’s (or other more “influential” players) decision to revert their style back to a deeper, counter attacking style which had served them so well for so many years. Chelsea needed more Mourinho and less Guardiola, and it worked. Whether it was fate, luck, or good management, Chelsea became European Champions and Di Matteo earned his permanent job.
The present day, Chelsea 2.0 and many concerns
This summer saw a huge change for the club; their talisman, their most important player for many years decided his time was up at the club. Didier Drogba has been arguably the best forward in the league for the past five/six years. His strength, skill and finishing ability (especially in the big games) has been a big reason for Chelsea’ constant success. With Drogba leaving (fittingly his last touch would be the goal which secured the Champions League) Di Matteo and Torres were given more freedom to express themselves
With the signings of Hazard and Oscar, Chelsea’s new style is evident. A 4-2-3-1 with the creative talents of Hazard, Oscar and Mata behind Torres had the look of a very potent attacking threat. And in the Premier League this attack has proved very effective.
In the Premier League Chelsea have impressed, overcoming sides like Wigan, Reading, Newcastle, Stoke and Norwich. Yet the concern was that in these game Chelsea did not look solid. The results against Reading and Stoke in particular did not tell the whole story of the games, where Chelsea were very much under pressure. One can argue that the true test of a strong side is getting a result from an abject performance. Yet there has been something concerning regarding Chelsea's resilience and defensive solidity
For me, the true test of Chelsea’s strength comes against the top sides. Although the games against Arsenal and Tottenham were better for Chelsea, one wonders if the standard of the opposition, apparent “top clubs” was actually true. For me Chelsea have failed to impress when up against strong opposition.
This week Chelsea faced Shakhtar Donetsk in the third game of their Champions League group. Shakhtar are no pushovers and were undefeated in the past eight European games. It was never going to be easy for Chelsea. The game would allow many to gauge how good this Chelsea side really are. The outcome, performance and mediocrity of Chelsea were all very worrying for a side with aspirations of challenging for trophies this season.
Shakhtar pressed Chelsea, especially in midfield, they allowed Chelsea no time on the ball and played a high tempo attacking style which Chelsea simply could not handle. A 2-1 result did not justify Shakhtar’s superiority and dominance; they had 15 shots in the first half alone. Petr Cech was required to have one of this better performances to keep the score respectable.
The truth however, is that Chelsea have struggled this season and have been found out against the better sides. In previous games against sides like Man City in the Charity Shield, against Atletico in the Super Cup and in the game against Serie A champions Juventus, Chelsea were outplayed. In these three games Chelsea have conceded nine goals, add in the Shaktar game and it’s 11. The defensive solidity which overcame Barcelona and Bayern has gone. The new Chelsea are not strong enough defensively, are too weak in midfield and are simply too open to overcome Europe’s better sides. This must be a concern for the manager and for the owner.
The new Arsenal?
The Whitehouse Address anticipated that Chelsea’s desire to play a more Barcelonaway would lead to a period without success. When Di Matteo took the reigns, he took Chelsea back to the style which suited them, with Drogba as his key targetman. It worked and Di Matteo was praised. Yet in getting the permanent role, Di Matteo has been enforced to carry on AVB’s mission and radicalise the team.
One cannot doubt that Chelsea possess some real talent in attacking areas, yet they lack the strength and defensive solidity which served them so well during the Mourinho era. Based on what I have seen of Chelsea this season, they have become the new Arsenal. A desire to play a shorter game, involving creative play and imagination has made Chelsea more enjoyable to watch and to be entertained by. Yet it has meant they are more vulnerable defensively. They have forsaken defensive solidity for attacking flair and for that they will not win anything.
When comparing Chelsea to the top sides they have faced, they are not the force they have been in recent years. Ironically, Abramovich’s decision to change styles in order to be more successful will for me, lead to a barren period of no trophies.
The strong spine has got old & tired
Under Mourinho and Ancelotti Chelsea had a spine consisting of a fit and focused Cech, a faster more mobile Terry, a strong and dominant Essien, a creative and healthy Lampard and the most dominant forward in England and perhaps Europe in Drogba. This spine struck fear into many managers hearts, especially Guardiola. It was a formula which was effective.
Yet as Chelsea abandon a winning formula, they turn themselves into merely one of many. Although they possess some very creative talent they lack the defensive strength which made them such a force. Their decision to play a 4-2-3-1 makes them similar to sides like Man City, Real Madrid and Dortmund. The worry for Chelsea fans is that these sides are more organised, defensively strong and would overcome Chelsea, especially in midfield. How can Chelsea look to retain their European crown with this style and these players?
If Chelsea wish to make this style work for them, they need many more new players to improve the squad. The “3 amigos” as they are called are not enough for Chelsea to be a force in Europe. I wonder if Luiz an Cahill are a good enough partnership to deal with some of Europe’s top strikeforces.
Many have noted Mikel’s improvements this season, yet personally I see an attacking midfielder turned into an average defensive one. He does not master the role like those before him like Makelele and then Essien. He is not as good as Busquets and especially Yaya Toure. As Chelsea play a more open style, Mikel has been more exposed and thus shown his failings in that position. He looks best when his side defend compact, as Chelsea abandon this way, Mikel will continually be overran and exposed by the better sides.
The Torres project has failed
And then there’s Fernando Torres. Roman Abramovich has purchased a striker based on his desires before in Andriy Shevchenko, a decision which frustrated Mourinho and effectively forced him to leave the club. When Torres arrived it was clearly a decision not made by Ancelotti and it proved to be a massive mistake. It effectively lost Ancelotti his job as he struggled to make Torres “work”. The Drogba effect was always going to be a factor, quite simply they miss the presence of the Ivorian.
With Drogba and Anelka exiting the club and Chelsea not buying another striker, Abramovich has effectively attempted to mould the team to suit Torres. He has brought in players behind him who can feed and supply him with the balls he likes. If Chelsea’s new style is solely to bring out the best in Torres, then it is failed approach. Torres is not the striker that was at Liverpool. Chelsea has made him look tired, he appears to lack the desire and certainly has lost the turn of speed which made him so prolific at Liverpool and Atletico. His admission that he did not care about Chelsea when he was sub shows his dislike for the club and how they have affected his performances. He plays like a player under pressure to perform and it has thus affected his decision making and technique.
The Torres project has failed and with only an average Daniel Sturridge to come in, Chelsea require a world class striker to compliment the attack. At £60m and at Atletico Madrid, Radamel Falcao is Europe’s most prolific and available striker. A swap deal for Torres is not an impossibility also. Chelsea will need to make something happen in January if they are serious about getting anything out of this season. Yet perhaps they have the answer to their Drogba problem in Romelu Lukaku? He has impressed while at WBA and at 19 has clearly the potential and power to be a force for Chelsea in the coming years.
The future for Chelsea still appears unsure. A new style and desire to play a more aesthetic style of play is a dangerous approach to an owner who judges his managers on their trophy haul. Will Roman afford his manager time to build a new team in his new style or will he judge Di Matteo on his results?
For me Chelsea are a dysfunctional team with an owner who reneges on his decisions and promises far too often. Personally I see Chelsea struggling to get out of the group stages of the Champions League and a third place finish in the league is their best outcome. Will this be enough to keep Di Matteo in the job? Perhaps not. Yet was not this always the plan, begin to build a side for the future and then next summer a rejuvenated Pep Guardiola will be ready to step in? If this is Roman's plan then my advice for Pep is to stay away from this dysfunctional club and owner.