Let's start at the beginning
For a team that is the reigning Champions League and F.A. Cup winners, Chelsea have been quite busy in the transfer marker in the last several months.
It all kicked off in January 2012 when the London-based club purchased Kevin De Bruyne from Belgian club F.C. Genk for around £7 million. De Bruyne was immediately loaned back to Genk for the majority of the season.
The Blues then followed up by a swoop for the underrated Marko Marin of Werder Bremen in April, and then came the big one—French club Lille's young superstar Eden Hazard for a whopping £32 million. Hazard had been one of the most coveted young player's in Europe, a genuine superstar at just age twenty-one, and his purchase seemingly signaled a clear message that Chelsea had arrived.
Except they already had.
Just weeks earlier, Chelsea completed a remarkable double, winning the Champions League title in Munich to add to their F.A. Cup win. In fact, it had been that win in Munich that convinced the Lille star to pick the Blues. "I've made up mind," Hazard told his followers on Twitter. "I'm signing for the Champions League winner."
For almost any team surrounded by such resounding success, Hazard's signing would have been seen as a kind of re-loading of talent, another coat of wax on a well-polished vehicle. But coupled with the dramatic signings of Marin and De Bruyne—and, eventually, the securing of Brazilian youngster Oscar—Eden Hazard's move to Chelsea was anything but a simple makeover.
It was a seismic shift.
Hazard, Oscar, De Bruyne and Marin all point at a colossal sea change in the footballing philosophy of Chelsea. The brutish, counter-attacking old guard that had just raised the European Cup were seen as a kind of last hurrah, a swan song for the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry.
And while Lampard and Terry are seen very much to be in the plans for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's new footballing project, they're envisioned as embodying a playing style that's to be slowly shied away from by the incoming young, creative talents.
The new look
In the preseason, coach Roberto Di Matteo has flirted with how to accommodate this transition. Against the MLS side Seattle Sounders, the new faces of Marin, Hazar and De Bruyne were sensational going forward, with Hazard and Marin picking up a goal and an assist each.
Hazard played in a central attacking role, furiously driving at the defense in a way somewhat similar to how Argentina have used Lionel Messi in recent years. Marin and De Bruyne both took up positions wide, frequently trying to cut in, link-up play with the central players and, ultimately, switch over to their favored right foot for a crack at goal.
However, the overall structure and identity of the squad was misshapen. For one, Chelsea were constantly playing like a "broken team," with five attackers and five defenders. The absence of Cole and the attacking naiveté of Branislav Ivanovic were certainly factors here, but overall the squad seemed confused as to what kind of team they were supposed to be.
The other question was the role of Eden Hazard. A terrific athlete and dribbler the former Lille star may be, but he's unfortunately not the type of player who dictates tempo and controls games. His brilliance comes frequently from his penetration, not his distribution—which is not the same as saying he's a "poor distributor" (his tally of 15 assists was the most in Ligue 1 last season).
However, with Hazard in the central attacking role, Chelsea were dynamic but had no discernible tempo; the Belgian youngster constantly wanted to make plays and showcase his fantastic talent, but the team's overall control of the match suffered. Hazard found more success when he moved outside, and his goal came when he beat the fullback on the left flank and came back inside for a low shot.
Against a mismatched Major League Soccer team, Chelsea can play stretched and end-to-end, but what would happen when they would play a tougher opponent?
The Community Shield and what lies ahead
And so we fast-forward to Sunday's contest against Manchester City in the Community Shield. A 3-2 defeat with a ten-man team when scoring first perhaps preserves the narrative that Chelsea were "unlucky" or "the better team," but the actual gameplay showed otherwise.
Chelsea set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Torres as the striker, and Hazard, Mata and Ramires behind—LM, CAM, and RM—and the other seven players were positioned as expected (if you're curious: Cech, Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole, Mikel, and Lampard). With the notable exception of Hazard, this was a starting XI that was replicable last season.
At first glance, Chelsea's set-up was not all too different than last season's under Di Matteo. Their back line sat relatively deep, the left side of Cole-Hazard was obviously the more creative—while the right side, with Ivanovic and Ramires, was slightly more industrious but also more direct—and there was an overall tentativeness to commit too many men forward.
Three problems arose, however:
1. Firstly, City began seeing more and more of the ball. Last season's approach would have been to retreat deeper as a unit, to "park the bus," and compete entirely on the counterattack, but Chelsea and Di Matteo didn't look entirely comfortable with this approach.
Perhaps it was the fact that it was a preseason friendly or that Chelsea was looking ahead to accommodating smaller, more creative talents into the side, but nevertheless the Blues were neither attacking/possession-based nor counter-attacking. They were both and none.
2. Secondly, Terry and Luiz seemed somewhat uncomfortable with not attacking, and when the Blues did get men forward they were inevitably vulnerable with the pace in behind of the City forwards, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, particularly the latter who was a little unfortunate not to have done better.
3. Finally, Chelsea lacked a true playmaker. Juan Mata isn't the same type of player as Eden Hazard but he's still more of a creative winger—which is, unsurprisingly, where he's been pigeon-holed for Spain—than a central orchestrator.
And yet, Chelsea reached half-time ahead. Down a man (Ivanovic was sent off for a cynical challenge on Alexander Kolarov), but ahead.
Thing fell apart in the second half.
In a way, the sending-off should have been an excuse for Chelsea to put more men behind the ball. And they did (sort of), but this gameplan was suicidal against a team like Manchester City who is both adept at striking far away from goal (Carlos Tevez) and getting midfield runners into the box (Yaya Toure).
Chelsea's response at 3-1 down can be seen as a testament to their fighting spirit, yet the overwhelming consensus was that City were still the top dog in the Premier League.
So what's the solution?
Certainly, it's unfair to draw too many conclusions from preseason friendlies and a fairly irrelevant cup match. Nonetheless, Chelsea have to take a giant look in the mirror.
The "spine" of the squad is aging, and to a point the replacements are simply individual talents—"features"— rather than focal points—"nodes"—that evolve the identity. (Manchester United is having a similar problem in their neglect to seriously replace Scholes and Carrick). The solution is to bring in players who can shape the new identity.
A player like Oscar.
Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior, or "Oscar," is kind of a throwback midfielder for Brazil. He's creative, sure, but he's also a rare box-to-box talent that is very rare to find nowadays.
Compared to, say, Santos's Paulo Henrique Ganso, Oscar is less flashy (as some would say, "less Brazilian") but he's more mobile; there's not only a significant defensive phase to his game, there's also a simplicity and structure that makes him something more than just a playmaker.
In short, what Lampard was to the counter-attacking Chelsea team, Oscar is to the new attacking Chelsea team. The quicker he gets situated in West London, the quicker the team is going to move into its next era.
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