Last season was one of the most unpredictable, chaotic and ultimately successful ones that Chelsea have experienced in recent years. As Di Matteo is given the reigns for the season and players like Hazard and Oscar 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.
Lack of Evolution?
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 embedded 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 play at Stamford Bridge and then witnessed Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Winning became only part of his desire—he wanted to win playing the kind of football of Barcelona.
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 come to fruition, yet the truth is he was failing—he was simply not the right man for the job. 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 by doing something which any manager gets praise for: winning games.
He changed the tactics of AVB and made the side more effective. 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 to the deeper defensive unit, compact midfield and counterattack mentality that had served the side so well in previous seasons.
Amazingly, Chelsea would win the FA Cup, outplaying both Spurs and Liverpool convincingly. 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 was given the manager’s job. 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 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 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, Oscar and less so Marin). This is to go along with attacking options already of Mata, Ramires, Torres, Lukaku and Sturridge, 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 style 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 types 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.
I expect big things from Hazard playing a central role, with Mata on the left and Ramires on the right.
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 that won their respective leagues last season, and thus is no coincidence 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.
Abramovich needs to realise that one cannot just say we are playing this way and expect to see Barcelona (take note, Rodgers and AVB). These things take much time to implement if you wish to achieve success.
There are issues for Chelsea that will affect their chances of success, however.
Chelsea have just lost their most influential and dominant forward, 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 and it is no surprise 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, they are the both past their primes. 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 more importantly will struggle against the better sides in the league.
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). The truth is that Terry is past it at the top level, similar to Carragher at Liverpool. I would be worried about his ability to handle the speed of the game now.
From Cahill, Luiz and Ivanovic, Chelsea have a better defensive pairing, but through sentiment and not wanting to unsettle such an influential player, Di Matteo may be forced to continue with Terry, which may be the manager's downfall.
Issues in the Middle
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, but 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 too languid and too casual and often lacks the ability or willingness to get on the ball. The talk was that he would be the heir to Makelele, but he lacks the speed, bite and anticipation to rival such a great player.
Unfortunately, the player Chelsea need in this role is Michael Essien, and it is such a shame that injures have destroyed what was one of the best midfielders to play in the Premier League.
Five years ago, Essien was one of the best in the world. He was that good and important to the side. 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 the club.
Attacking flair and creativity are all great to watch and excite over, but the key to being successful is defending. Mancini knows that, and his side were victorious.
A 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, but when his boss is expecting beautiful football, will he be able to balance ideology with pragmatism? Chelsea are reportedly seeking two more players, which must be too bolster the defensive part of the team.
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.
Perhaps Di Matteo is merely a stopgap until Guardiola decides he is ready to step in. However, I am very apprehensive about the possibility of Chelsea becoming anything like Barcelona.
Can Chelsea be successful this season? Can they retain their European crown and challenge for the title? Abramovich has invested heavily with the intention to be successful this season, but I have my doubts about 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. My worry is that they are neglecting the attributes that made them such a force this past decade.
What do you think? Leave me your views below, or find me for a discussion on Twitter @The_W_Address