Now that he’s got the gig, Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo can start focusing on helping his evolving club try to get off to a good start and improve on some of the inadequacies that left the Blues with a disappointing sixth-place finish last year in the English Premier League.
Di Matteo started last season as assistant first-team coach under André Villas-Boas before replacing him on an interim basis for the final 11 weeks of the season.
Last month, the Blues and chief executive Ron Gourlay rewarded the 43-year-old Italian with the full-time manager's job by signing him to a two-year contract.
With the EPL season opener now almost a month away (Aug. 19 at Wigan Athletic), here are five areas I think Chelsea can improve on with the right direction from Di Matteo and set a positive tone for the future at Stamford Bridge.
Although defense has been the key element to Chelsea’s success in England and internationally over the last decade, the club has been fairly average clicking on offense lately and is a good place in which Di Matteo can start improving.
The Blues’ two biggest perceived goal scorers last season—strikers Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres—were both extremely disappointing in EPL action last season, scoring just five and six goals, respectively.
To put that in perspective, Newcastle United’s Papiss Demba Cisse scored goals in 10 consecutive league matches over one stretch last year.
Having lost the services of Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou and quite possibly Florent Malouda in the last year, Di Matteo will have to work to find new scorers and ways to score for the FA Cup and European champions.
The goal totals of the team’s two leading scorers in the league last season—Frank Lampard and Daniel Sturridge (11 each)—would suffice again this campaign but players like Torres, Juan Mata (6 goals), Ramires and Malouda, if he stays, will all need to score more goals than they did for the Blues last season.
It will also be very important for new acquisitions Eden Hazard (21 years old) and Marko Marin (23) to get into the offensive flow quickly, but adjusting to the high quality of EPL play may not be so easy at first for Chelsea’s two big transfer-window signings to date.
Adding a couple more scoring pieces to the puzzle still seems in the cards in the near future and the pursuit of Brazilian sensations Oscar and Hulk and Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani have been more speculation than progress for the most part, although reports of the Blues signing Oscar have just surfaced.
According to SkySports News, Chelsea have now reportedly landed the 20-year-old attacking midfielder from Internacional—beating out Tottenham Hotspur—signing him to a £25 million deal in principle late Monday.
But Hulk is still claiming he hasn’t talked with the Blues and Paris Saint-Germain may end up out-muscling and out-paying for the Porto star, according to recent reports while efforts to get Napoli star Cavani are still ongoing.
So landing at least two of these three in Oscar, Hulk and Cavani—who somehow sound better suited for Sesame Street or a designer’s studio with names like theirs—is possibly a stretch, so Di Matteo and management may have to start making the best with what they presently have in finding ways to open up the field.
The club, which exploded with a 103-goal season in the EPL three years back, scored 65 goals in 2011-12 and easily registered their lowest goal differential (+19) in well over a decade.
And to hang with Manchester City and Manchester United in the Premiership this season and in the future, Chelsea needs to score more goals this season than the 72.3 it has averaged over the last six seasons—the Red Devils have averaged 80.6 a season in that span—and will need to have at least four players with double-digit goals in my opinion to achieve that goal.
Teams that win the EPL and finish in the top four spots in the table and qualify for Champions League play simply don’t lose at home that much, so Di Matteo needs to stress the importance of always getting at least one point in home matches.
The last five league champions—Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester United—lost zero, zero, one, one and one games respectively on their home turfs in their title seasons, so for the Blues to improve in this respect, two losses at Stamford Bridge has to be the max.
Last year, Chelsea lost four matches at home—the same number as Stoke City, Fulham and Swansea—and to regain a top-four spot and fight with the Manchesters for the crown, Di Matteo needs to get his players to try to restore that pride and home dominance at The Bridge.
If the club cannot improve on that four-loss mark at home last season, then it will again run the risk of not making the Champions League tournament in 2013-14.
Also, more clubs will head into their matches with Chelsea in west London thinking they can come away with a win like Aston Villa and Newcastle United surprisingly did last season.
David Luiz might be a nice experiment at a midfield position this season.
Working with a limited roster in the Champions League final with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles all out, Di Matteo proved he is quite capable of putting the right guy in the right spot when needed.
Against Bayern Munich, with Malouda out with a hamstring injury and Ramires and Meireles banned, Di Matteo started 22-year-old left-back Ryan Bertrand—who had never even been a substitute in the tournament—in the midfield to provide defensive support for Ashley Cole on the left side and the move ended up working out perfectly.
Another guy the new manager may want to experiment with and move back and forth between positions is right-back David Luiz. The Brazilian seems itchy at times staying back in his position and definitely has proven he has a pretty strong shot.
And with players like Gary Cahill, Paulo Ferreira and Bertrand more than capable fill-ins on defense and guys who deserve more playing time, I’d love to see Luiz get some starts somewhere in the midfield against clubs where defense isn’t necessarily paramount to see what he can do there.
Sturridge has loads of potential as he showed again last season but it still seems he’s off a beat and that his confidence could be better. Why not try him out on a wing instead of at striker once in awhile when the situation warrants?
With so many games and tournaments on the horizon because of its Champions League win, Chelsea will have plenty of games to experiment with different players and formations until it finds the right mix.
And if Di Matteo is smart, he will use these games in August and September, as well as the upcoming preseason tour in the US, to see who can do what where and then work it into his future game plans.
One area Di Matteo can really make a mark in is giving some of the club’s younger stars chances to play and even start in the coming months.
With talented players like Lucas Piazón (18 years old), Kevin De Bruyne (21), Josh McEachran (19), Romelu Lukaku (19) and Yossi Benayoun (32), among several others waiting in the wings, it’s important for the former Chelsea midfielder to quickly see who can perform at this highest level and deserves more minutes on the pitch or an occasional start.
The good thing for these players, as well as Di Matteo and us fans, is that all five of the aforementioned youngsters are on Chelsea's roster for the upcoming US tour and should get their fair share of playing time.
Di Matteo and management may have a pretty good idea after the US tour which of these players deserve more playing time with the first team and which ones may be candidates to go out on loan as Benayoun (Arsenal) and McEachran (Swansea City) ended up doing last season.
With Didier Drogba (right) now gone, Roberto Di Matteo can start Fernando Torres.
Despite losing club legend Drogba to Shanghai Shenhua this summer, Di Matteo doesn’t have to worry anymore about Torres’ complaining about not starting and can now put the Spanish striker in his starting lineup as much as he pleases.
This will benefit the club and RDM in that he will have three substitutions to work with instead of the two he basically had last year knowing that both Drogba and Torres wanted to play in every game possible.
With a handful of new players and so many young ones ready to show their mettle, this creates the perfect storm in which Di Matteo can effectively use his talented and deep roster and give guys a chance to show what they can do on the big stages of the EPL and the UEFA Champions League.
All this should serve Chelsea and the players well as if they do shine when called upon and show they have developed then they will prove they deserve to stay and if they don’t, well, then better to find that out now and sell them or let them go elsewhere.
And the same holds true with backup goalkeepers Henrique Hilário, Ross Turnbull and Jamal Blackman who need to show who is the best guy to start in goal when veteran Petr Čech needs a rest or is unable to play.
After leading the Blues to their first European Cup title and getting a two-year deal, Di Matteo is now in a position where he knows he has the job and can start showing upper management and his players why he deserved this shot and is a better man for the position than Villas-Boas or someone like former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
We’ll all get a good chance to see some of the younger prospects and backups play when Chelsea is in the United States for four games (all televised) including its July 18 opener (Wednesday) against the Seattle Sounders (ESPN2/ ESPN3/ESPND, 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT) in the Emerald City as part of the World Football Challenge.
Chelsea will also face Paris Saint-Germain from France’s Ligue 1 at Yankee Stadium in New York City on July 22 (FSC, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT) in its second game in the World Football Challenge before heading to Philadelphia on July 25 to play the Major League All-Stars (ESPN2/ESPN3/ESPND, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT).
The Blues wrap up their US tour on July 28 in their final World Football Challenge match when they take on AC Milan from Italy’s Serie A at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium (ESPN2/ ESPN3/ESPND, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT).
As well as an entertaining opportunity for Chelsea fans in America, the four-game tour should serve as a nice proving ground for the club’s new and younger players as well as the perfect chance for Di Matteo to see exactly what he’s working with heading into August.
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