The 2012-13 campaign was an interesting one for Chelsea supporters. Certainly the Champions League failure, Europa League success, displeasure at the interim appointment of Rafa Benitez/sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, third-placed finish and rumours—and eventual homecoming—of Jose Mourinho took much of the column inches in newspapers and on websites. Nonetheless, from a tactical standpoint, they were an equally fascinating subject.
Di Matteo's flipping of the script saw him turn the Blues from the stubborn, powerfully resolute outfit who claimed Europe's premier club crown in Munich in 2012 to one of the Premier League's most gung-ho outfits within a matter of months.
The attacking triumvirate of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar were given license to thrill. Which they did. But with creative license maximised, defensively they were overly exposed and found wanting and Di Matteo was dismissed, a 3-0 loss to Juventus securing his fate.
In came ex-Liverpool manager Benitez to an outpouring of negativity from the stands, bringing with him a more pragmatic outlook. The talents of the aforementioned attacking trio continued to be harnessed, but within more distinct parameters—another summer signing, Victor Moses, was also afforded far greater playing time—and defensively the side became more stable.
Europa League victory was just reward for Benitez's methods, as was Chelsea's eventual finish in the English top flight: Automatic Champions League qualification was secured, and only Manchester United scored more goals—even without strikers Demba Ba and Fernando Torres fully convincing—with only Manchester City and Arsenal conceding fewer.
Now, 2013-14 and the returning Jose Mourinho offer fresh hope. The most successful coach in the club's history returns after a six-year absence and differing levels of personal triumph at Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
With renewed optimism after Benitez success and the arrival of "The Special One," a title challenge is expected.
The general likelihood is that Mourinho will continue with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has for the most part been a staple of his respective teams over the past five years and which has also been in place at Stamford Bridge almost exclusively in the past two seasons.
And again, the attacking options available to the Blues will play a massive part in any potential success they may have, particularly in the third of the four positional bands.
While Di Matteo relied largely upon his magical trio in the early stages of last season, and Benitez relied on four players, the Portuguese is likely to have six players—all senior internationals—vying for three starting spots.
Last week I articulated how, despite rumours, the Chelsea manager and his supporters would be loathe to allow playmaker-in-chief Juan Mata to depart the club after a phenomenal last campaign: You can read that here.
Nonetheless, the rumour mentioned by Simon Jones in the Daily Mail article on Barcelona's interest in Mata suggests that Eden Hazard, on the back of an impressive first season in West London, is Mourinho's preferred selection to play as a No. 10. Last season, of course, saw the Belgian fielded largely wide on the left.
Nevertheless, the Blues now have far greater strength in that particular station: Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard's international teammate who has largely been used by his country in that role, has returned from a successful loan spell at Werder Bremen, and Mourinho has, according to the Telegraph, offered him encouragement ahead of the new season. Throw in new £18million signing Andre Schurrle, the tall, athletic 22-year-old who nominally played from the left in Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen's preferred 4-3-2-1 shape, and Chelsea are well-stocked in that area.
The pair's flexibility will offer the Blues options in other areas, De Bruyne is well-versed in playing centrally or on the right also, while Schurrle has at times been used as a No. 9 during his career. But it is down the left where both appear more natural and arguably do their greatest work. Thus, it isn't beyond reason that Hazard be offered a more central platform from which to display his considerable talents in the upcoming campaign.
On the right, the brilliant, hard-working Brazilian Oscar, on the back of international success at the Confederations Cup, is likely to be the No. 1 selection. But Nigerian international Moses offers a different proposition, all pace, power and direct running. While Oscar likes to venture inside and link play, creating central overloads, Moses is more devastating in isolation, closer to the touch-line.
Additionally, in a similar manner to that which sometimes saw Mesut Ozil patrol the right flank for Los Blancos, Mourinho may see fit to utilise the similarly left-footed Mata in that role on occasion.
All in all, the uber-talented sextet offers Mourinho and the 2013-14 Chelsea vintage a tremendous number of attacking options. With the Blues chasing five trophies, there is likely to be game time—albeit differing amounts—for all. Whether that is enough to keep each member happy, remains to be seen.
How the returning Blues boss juggles his pack, both with tactical and personnel changes, will make for engrossing viewing. The two-time Premier League winner's starting XI on the opening day of the season at home to Hull City will be particularly interesting also.
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