Chelsea Transfers: What Roman Abramovich's Buys Mean for EPL, Champions League
How do you make sense of Roman Abramovich's signings for Chelsea, unless Pep Guardiola is lined up to be manager in 2013 or Edinson Cavani or Hulk are about to arrive?
And let's be clear, these are the work of the Russian oligarch, not his "hired hand" Di Matteo. Roman collects classy footballers like some of us collected cigarette cards or stamps as a kid. Someone else has to mold them into a team.
Roberto did a pretty good job of that last term by re-installing the influence of the senior players, but some of those have gone.
Andre Villas-Boas was supposed to oversee the "re-engineering" of Chelsea to a younger model, but took things too far too fast. Now, with Drogba, Anelka and others gone, there is no alternative, starting with midfield.
So right now, if you discount Daniel Sturridge (who has serially under-performed his potential, as we shall see for Team GB,) Fernando Torres is the only top class striker. Compare that to Manchester City, who have Aguero, Dzeko, Tevez, Balotelli, Adebayor and Santa Cruz on their books and Mancini is moaning about not signing Robin van Persie.
Is Barcelona the model?
Looking at how Chelsea won the Champions league last season, that can't be right. They brought in the old guard, shut up shop, hit on the break and stunned the football world.
What was most amazing was that they won the trophy playing a way that is anathema to Abramovich's dreams of Fantasy Football.
But then, the end justifies the means.
And which would you prefer anyhow, the blood and guts of Chelsea's diehard resistance, or the stultifying boredom of Spain versus France?
Lots of coaches have sat up and taken notice of how Barcelona (and indeed Spain) have reinvented football. But how many of them overlooked the way Jose Mourinho won La Liga with Real Madrid?
So at first sight, it looks like Chelsea are going the Barcelona way. Let's look at who they've signed:
Oscar, Eden and Thorgan Hazard and Marko Marin have all arrived while, inter alia, Kalou, Drogba and Bosingwa have gone.
That's certainly packing the midfield unless more departures are imminent. According to Sky Sports, here are all the listed Chelsea midfielders at present:
Essien, Romeu, Ramires, Lampard, Oscar, Mikel, De Bruyne, Malouda, Meireles, McEachran, Piazon, Clifford, Mata, Eden Hazard, Thorgen Hazard, Marin, Benayoun
Although Clifford is unlikely to feature in the EPL or CL this season, Piazon has shown good enough form to be considered as a star of the future and should get his chance (if there's room).
So either RA's policy is to make his buys first and then ship out the surplus, or there's going to be a lot of jostling for positions this season.
It would be a great pity if the likes of McEachran or Piazon were to see a brighter future elsewhere, as Pogba and Fryers seem to have done at Old Trafford.
Thoughts from preseason
Chelsea were beaten 3-2 by MLS All-Stars and there were precious few pointers, with players still returning from Euro 2012. Manchester United have previously won two matches against MLS All Stars by an aggregate 9-2.
This loss was despite their probable first choice defence being on duty; and a strong midfield of Marin, Ramires, Essien, Lampard and Benayoun, with Lukaku on his own up front.
Not surprisingly, there was precious little coverage of the match in the UK media. Lukaku was playing a Drogba-style role, but will surely have to go on loan this season.
Despite having all their experience available in defence, it was this aspect that was least impressive. Essien looked poor and the middle of defence was cut open by an inferior line-up for all three goals, even though Johnson's injury-time winner had a touch of fortune.
Beckham, Henry, Donovan, De Rosario and Johnson provided more highlights than Chelsea in this match, despite Terry and Lampard putting them 2-1 up. How much will they have to rely on these two stalwarts Cech and Cole this season?
The match against Seattle gave some early indications about new signings and old hands. Chelsea started with Mikel, Hazard, McEachran, Marin and Benayoun in midfield, with Lukaku up top. The latter scored, as did Marin and Hazard on debut.
Although early in preseason, the match showed why McEachran would benefit from going on loan. While he has displayed maturity especially at England representative level, he needs a season in the cut and thrust of the Premier League or a top Division One side to sharpen him up.
The problem is that with so much talent being signed in, will he get a chance when he returns?
The obvious need, based on this match and the MLS run-out, is in defensive or holding midfield. Essien may never again be the player he was and Mikel, despite showing some form last season, continues to frustrate.
The question is, however, with all the attacking talent at his disposal and "the Boss" at his elbow, whether Di Matteo will play a more offensive style this season? While that would seem inevitable against lesser sides in both the EPL and Champions' League, a six attack and four defence could be risky against top sides.
John Terry continues to defy Father Time, but made at least one gaffe against MLS; Frank Lampard has been excellent and some of his stuff turned back time, but how many matches can he play? With players like Hazard and Oscar signed for big bucks, how many can he expect to get?
Of course, RDM may pursue a similar route to Sir Alex at Old Trafford, in eschewing the need for DFM. After all, what is the defence for; and if you can play the Barcelona way, you only need three at the back anyhow.
It would be entirely reasonable to assume that Abramovich wants Chelsea to emulate Barcelona in style and achievement. Whether or not he has a "pre-contract" with Guardiola, the squad is beginning to resemble Barca in personnel at least.
Looking for pointers in that direction from the Seattle match didn't help much. Marin, Hazard and De Bruyne looked good on the ball; Hazard particularly seeming able to ghost past players at will.
Essien subbed for Mikel and as neither had a particularly good match, this again begs the question how often Chelsea will play a defensive midfield this season? With a full roster to pick from and assuming Oscar can replicate his international form, might it not be more pragmatic to sit Ramires or Lampard in front of the back four and let the youngsters have their head?
Prospects for the coming season
It will be interesting to see how some of these young recruits will make out in the Premier League. There isn't any team that is going to give Oscar the time on the ball he will have had in Brazil. At least the other midfield recruits have some experience of playing in a more combative, North European league.
Hazard won the French League's Player of the Year award two seasons running, and there is no doubting his talent. Marin looked impressive tearing the PSG defence apart earlier this summer.
So it may be that the key is staring us in the face: creating chances for Fernando Torres. The latter will have to have a better season than last time and it is to be hoped that all this attacking talent, through the middle and down the wings will mean he stops hunting for the ball far from goal.
Juan Mata would seem to be key to Torres' success. They know each other's game inside out. But if Mata plays in the No. 10 role, where will that leave Eden Hazard? He made it clear he was signing for Chelsea partly because he thought he would get more game time than at Manchester United.
So its clear that Chelsea will have a simply awesome bench, dominated by midfielders of one kind or another. Attack is said to be the best form of defence. But if the attack breaks down, are players like Hazard, De Bruyne and Marin going to be tackling back? Torres certainly isn't.
And who will deputise for Torres when necessary? What happens if he gets injured? Are Cavani or Hulk still on the radar?
Barcelona have shown that you can have six midfielders and no No. 9 and still win everything (until last season). Is the mystique broken? Or does Abramovich want Chelsea to emulate Barcelona.
The team will look very different if he does. The side that started the Champions League Final was:
Cech; Bosingwa, Luiz, Cahill, Cole; Mikel, Lampard, Kalou, Mata, Bertrand; Drogba
And the substitutions were: Malouda for Bertrand; Torres for Kalou.
Kalou, Bosingwa and Drogba have gone, which creates opportunities anyhow.
Roman Abramovich was clearly delighted with the win, no less than the fans. It was a magnificent achievement. But his signings and the departures say more bout the style of football he is still hungry for Chelsea to play.
In some senses the Champions League win papered over the cracks. Chelsea could easily have gone out to Napoli but for the first of their great fight-backs. Barcelona should have beaten them in both legs if Messi could have hit a barn door.
That is to take nothing away from Chelsea's achievement.
To put it in some sort of perspective, they finished 25 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League, scoring only 65 goals but conceding 46.
That says just as much about the midfield as anything. While Torres could and should contribute more, to win a League you need goals from all over the park and especially midfield. The new signings have the potential to make a material impact here, if they find their feet.
But 46 goals conceded is not just down to Terry, Cole and co. Bosingwa has gone (thank goodness) and modern teams defend from the front.
Brazil's match against Egypt was much more open than even a Champions League match, let alone the Premier League. Oscar won't get time on the ball he has for the international side and he can't be dawdling back as he was for one of the Egyptian goals.
He wears No.10 for Brazil, which means there are potentially at least four players for that role now at Chelsea. Hazard wants it, Lampard has had it in the past, Mata and Oscar both routinely play it.
So far, none of Oscar, Hazard, De Bruyne or Marin look spectacular at defending.
Despite winning the Champions League, the rebuilding continues apace. Abramovich is taking something of a gamble. Although some high earners have gone, Hazard, Oscar and any other high-profile signings won't come cheap.
Taking the amortisation of the players' fees, plus wages, one is struggling to understand how Chelsea will meet the FFP guidelines this season, let alone next time when they really begin to bite. Of course the ECL win must have increased their prospective revenues, but what if they don't win anything this time round?
Although talented players like Hazard and Oscar can be expected to "hit the ground running", prospectively 60 matches in a season is a tough call. With so many young players to bed in, ordinarily you would expect a team to need a couple of seasons to find their feet.
Chelsea can't afford that. City and United aren't going to go away. Even without Van Persie, Arsenal should be there or thereabouts. Brendan Rodgers may wring a transformation at Liverpool and AVB might just get it right at Spurs. Meanwhile, Newcastle don't look they'll be pushovers either.
With more time on the ball in Europe and a breadth of relevant experience, we can expect Chelsea to do reasonably well in the Champions League Group stages, but they are unlikely to even reach the Final.
With all the changes, they don't much resemble a Cup side either. Remember they folded against Liverpool in the League Cup despite their deserved FA Cup success.
It is in the Premier League, however, that Roman Abramovich may have to be most patient. With players like Essien and Mikel waning, other possible departures still to come and the age and inexperience of the revitalised squad, he may have to wait at least another year to be serious contenders.
In the meantime we shall all no doubt be entertained by wonderful football. We said it last year and the year before, but this season could veritably be the best ever in the Premier League.
The big question is, can Di Matteo make the most of this panoply of midfielders, or is he simply keeping the seat warm for somebody who can?
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