Chelsea ended the 2011/12 season making club history: by winning the holy grail that owner Roman Abramovich had always desired, the UEFA Champions League. Did it matter that Chelsea were crowned the champions of Europe after some astonishingly ultra-defensive displays against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich? Especially after Abramovich had spent countless millions of dollars on players and managers such as the now-retired Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack, Fernando Torres, Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas-Boas – personnel who were brought to London to help Chelsea play more attractive football.
It’s difficult to imagine that Abramovich would value his coveted Champions League trophy any less purely because of the manner by which it was won, but what is undoubted is how the Russian billionaire is currently determined for his Chelsea team to tighten their grip on ‘Big Ears’, as seen by how he’s rubber-stamping the purchases of new players. Chelsea may have spent an approximate of £63.5 million so far, but what’s more important is the identity of the players Stamford Bridge has welcomed.
The capture of Eden Hazard, arguably the most sought-after young footballer after setting Ligue 1 alight with his dazzling skills, helping his former team Lille win the domestic double in the 2010/11 season and winning himself Ligue 1’s Player of the Year award for two consecutive seasons at just 21 years of age – represents a major coup for Chelsea.
The Belgian was reportedly a target for top clubs around the world, and to have beaten off interest from the English champions (Manchester City) and one of the most dominant club sides in footballing history (Barcelona), is a massive statement of intent from the London club.
He may have had a disappointing competitive debut as Chelsea lost the Community Shield to Manchester City, occasionally looking isolated down the left flank, but Hazard remains a huge talent and maybe just needs more time to familiarise himself with his new teammates.
Hazard’s arrival was followed by the signings of speedy German winger Marko Marin from Werder Bremen and lanky Brazilian playmaker Oscar from Internacional, and this is where Chelsea fans have every right to be very excited by their new players.
Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo may have employed some incredibly defence-first, direct long-ball tactics en route to winning the Champions League, but footballing fans with more than a passing interest in the game would be acutely aware that before returning to Stamford Bridge as Villas-Boas’ assistant, Di Matteo was actually sacked as West Brom’s manager for adopting a footballing philosophy that was deemed too offensive and lacking defensive nous.
The Italian seems to have at least learnt partially from his past mistakes, having recognised the importance of keeping it tight at his own team’s end – although critics will argue that he’s simply swung from one tactical extreme to another, or that his previous short-term deal required such practical measures for him to land the Chelsea job on a longer contract.
In any case, he had successfully tweaked Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation – a looming shadow of a relic from Jose Mourinho’s time – into an admittedly more defensive 4-2-3-1 shape. If Di Matteo continues with a 4-2-3-1 formation as many expect him to, then Chelsea looks quietly impressive with a potentially electrifying starting XI along with a squad blessed with strength in depth across almost all positions.
There won’t be much shake-up in Chelsea’s rather sturdy defence: captain John Terry is still an automatic starter, and he formed a very good understanding with January signing Gary Cahill, so much so that England manager Roy Hodgson had planned to carry over this central defensive partnership to England’s Euro 2012 campaign till injury struck Cahill. David Luiz provides an adequate if slightly erratic backup, and Ashley Cole remains a world-class left-back with Ryan Bertrand his understudy.
Petr Cech enjoyed a renaissance last season as he returned to top form, and the only issue remaining in defence is the problematic right-back position. Branislav Ivanovic is more than capable of playing there, but reportedly desires to play at his most comfortable role at centre-back. Having released Jose Bosingwa, Di Matteo’s only other option apart from Ivanovic is the ageing (and frankly poor) Paulo Ferreira.
As such it’s little surprise that Chelsea have been strongly linked with right-backs all this summer, from Marseille’s young Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta to the rampaging Swiss international Stephen Lichtsteiner of Juventus. It’s highly likely that Di Matteo would get at least one new right-back this transfer window.
In midfield, the re-positioning of Frank Lampard, from his advanced midfield position to a deeper passing role, had been criminally overlooked after the more highlight-worthy efforts of Ramires and Didier Drogba had stolen the show.
Having just turned 34, the long-serving Englishman is no longer able to bomb into the box like he used to, and has now seamlessly slotted beside a ball-winning midfielder like Jon Obi Mikel to form the midfield ‘2’ in front of the back 4. Lampard’s game has since evolved to be much more patient and simple, similar to how Manchester United’s 37-year-old Paul Scholes has adapted his style of play.
Other than Lampard and Mikel, Chelsea have plenty of options in that particular area of midfield: though Michael Essien has never returned to his previous standards since being plagued by injuries, he still retains a strong physical element that few other Chelsea players can rival; despite being linked with a move away, Raul Meireles is nonetheless an extremely versatile squad player; while the young Oriol Romeu is the most naturally-defensive midfielder alongside Mikel.
Beyond the midfield ‘2’ is the more attacking band of ‘3’, where Chelsea now have, on paper at least, a huge embarrassment of riches. Ramires was deployed very effectively as a defensive right winger last season as part of the ‘3’, and he can also play in his usual role as a shuttler in the middle of the park. For a bigger goal threat, Chelsea have the pacy Daniel Sturridge who scored a good number of times by cutting in from the right wing when Villas-Boas was in charge but saw very little game time under Di Matteo who perhaps found Sturridge’s defensive awareness wanting.
Down the left, new signing Marin offers width and unpredictability, being a right-footed player who can cut into the central attacking third of the field and who is also equally willing to take on his opponent and bring the ball to the byline. Hazard is a fearsome dribbler who has a strong eye for goal and is capable of playing anywhere across the ‘3’. If Di Matteo wants genuine creativity, the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar are superb playmakers who are both comfortable starting at either wide or central positions.
Oscar may be a little more familiar to Premier League fans and players after playing in a starring role in Brazil’s Olympics campaign, and if he continues to reproduce such performances, then Premier League defences are going to have their hands very full.
The Brazilian is an immensely unselfish player, always keeping his head up looking out for that killer pass to a more advanced teammate. During the London Olympics, he demonstrated an unexpected ability to dribble in spite of his lanky frame, displaying the surprising strength to shake off challenges, glide past opposing players, and pick the right pass all at the same time.
These attributes have already led to him to being compared to Kaka, although unlike the Real Madrid player, Oscar is unafraid to drop very deep into midfield to initiate attacks if required – a little like Madrid’s Mesut Ozil at times.
Up front, Di Matteo is slightly light on numbers for the sole striking spot. Fernando Torres is the most senior striker left on the books, and though he did win the Golden Boot at Euro 2012, there are still questions marks over whether he can rediscover his original red-hot goalscoring form at club level that convinced Ambramovich to splurge £50 million on him.
Belgian youngster Romelu Lukaku has left for West Brom on loan to gain some valuable playing time, and it remains to be seen whether Sturridge would be handed a chance to make his favoured striking position his own. Chelsea have been reportedly chasing Wigan’s Victor Moses who can play either down the wing or spearheading the attack, a clear indication that Di Matteo wants at least one more striking option.
On the whole, Chelsea are in the process of building an extremely talented, exciting young team – Marin is 23-years-old, both Hazard and Oscar are 21 and transfer targets such as Moses is 22 and Azpilicueta is 23. These players aren’t just prospects for the future, they’re ready to step into the first-team and are expected to stake a claim for a regular spot in the starting XI. Add in the other young adept players on the fringes of the first-team (Romeu, Lukaku, Bertrand, winger Kevin De Bruyne on loan at Werder Bremen, highly-rated goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who has already won a Europa League medal on loan at Atletico Madrid), and one can easily see how committed Abramovich is to rejuvenating his Chelsea team.
More interesting is the type of players Chelsea are purchasing: they are moving away from the counterattacking instincts and physically dominant features of Mourinho’s era, towards a more possession-oriented team focussed on interchanging positions and playing with grace and style.
The departure of Didier Drogba – a brilliant targetman who thrived on aerial support and relished the physical battle – is wholly symbolic of this change: instead of making the finding of his replacement the number one priority, Chelsea sought to quickly wrap up the signings of elegant playmakers like Hazard and Oscar, players who would hopefully bring the best out of Torres with their supply of through-passes.
In other words, Chelsea are continuing Villas-Boas’ ideas with Di Matteo at the helm. Di Matteo may have said “I repeat myself – I don’t think there’ll be radical changes overnight here”, but it just looks like an attempt to play down expectations of the media and fans before the start of the new season, or acknowledge that he has no plans to force a whole new tactical plan upon his Champions League-winning team, opting to slowly and subtly change Chelsea’s style of play, step by step.
The Community Shield loss to Manchester City made for interesting viewing as Chelsea lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Mata playing off Torres with Ramires and Hazard down the flanks. The team didn’t look particularly cohesive (a clear indication that Di Matteo still has some work to do), and was handicapped very early on when Ivanovic was sent-off from a straight red card. Hence, it’s difficult to ascertain the default tactical mindset that Di Matteo wants his team to play with, as they were forced onto the back foot after being reduced to 10 men.
Nonetheless, it’s clear to all the type of team Chelsea have assembled this summer, and they have the potential to be a real force this season if they can get accustomed to the changes that Di Matteo seems inevitable to make.
It looks like he has learned from Villas-Boas, whose mistake was trying to change too many things at once, choosing revolution instead of evolution. Maybe Villas-Boas can take consolation in the fact that at least some inklings of his philosophies are likely to live on at Stamford Bridge – a year too late for the current Tottenham Hotspur manager.