On 26 May, 1982, Aston Villa defeated Bayern Munich 1-0 in the European Cup final to win their first ever major European trophy and join Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool in England’s elite pantheon of European Cup winners.
Led by Tony Barton – a forty-five year old adopted (was from Sutton) hero, who initially joined Villa as an assistant to Ron Saunders in the summer of 1980 but then replaced Saunders in February, 1982 after he departed – Villa upset the odds in the latter stages of the 1981/1982 tournament. Centred on the unflappable, 1979/1980 league-winning backline of Jimmy Rimmer, Kenny Swain, Gary Williams, Allan Evans and Ken McNaught, Villa achieved narrow, surprising and heroic aggregate victories over talented Dynamo Kiev (2-0 in the quarter-final) and Anderlecht (1-0 in the semi-final) sides on their way to the final.
However, while undoubtedly an incredible achievement, Barton had relied heavily on an aged thirty or older core of Rimmer, Swain, Dennis Mortimer, Des Bremner and Peter Withe. From this, he neglected to strengthen the squad greatly in the summer of 1982 and although Villa defeated Barcelona 6-1 on aggregate in the European Supercup, they were comfortably (5-1 on aggregate) knocked out of the 1982/1983 European Cup quarter-finals by Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus and finished sixth in the league. It would prove to be the pinnacle in Villa’s history and they have not qualified for the European Cup since.
Manager: Roberto Di Matteo
Last Season: 6th
Transfers In: Marko Marin (Werder Bremen, £6.2 million), Eden Hazard (Lille, £32 million), George Brady (Cannes, £250,000), Thorgan Hazard (Lens, undisclosed) and Oscar (Internacional, £25 million).
Transfers Out: Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua, released), José Bosingwa (released), Salomon Kalou (Lille, released), Marko Mitrovic (released), Rhys Taylor (released), Jeffrey Bruma (Hamburg, loan), Patrick van Aanholt (Vitesse, loan), Tomas Kalas (Vitesse, loan) and Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid, loan).
The parallels with Villa in 1982 are stark, but it is clear that Roberto Di Matteo will not fall into the same trap as Barton. Firstly, obviously, Chelsea have strengthened their squad immensely in an attempt to stay competitive in the Premier League title race and even make a decent attempt at reaching a dream-like Champions League final at Wembley on 25 May, 2013. After all, often due to sentimentality and a lack of spending, many unexpected, but hard-earned, Champions League winners have failed to mount a serious challenge in retaining their title the following year. Red Star Belgrade (1991, but failed to progress past a Group A featuring Sampdoria, Anderlecht and Panathinaikos in 1991/1992), Porto (2004, but went out in the second-round to Internazionale in 2004/2005), Liverpool (2005, but were defeated by Benfica in the second-round in 2005/2006) and Internazionale (2010, but lost to Schalke in the quarter-finals in 2010/2011) all serve as dangerous precedents – even if Chelsea’s long-term strategy was centered, regardless of 2011/2012’s triumph being an undoubted overachievement, on winning the Champions League at least once in the first decade of the Abramovich era.
What made it a remarkable triumph was not only the fate-like luck the Blues had – whether it was Ashley Cole’s last-ditch block against Napoli on 21 February or the usually infallible Lionel Messi’s penalty miss for Barcelona on 24 April – but that after so many years of misery, the trophy win came at a time where the Abramovich core of Petr Čech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were/were slightly past their respective peaks. In sensing this, for once, Abramovich’s (who has, personally, handled transfer activity alongside Chelsea’s technical director, Michael Emenalo) lack of sentimentality must be applauded. After all, it could have been easy for the Russian – wearing a Grandfather-like cardigan – to have got caught up in the moment (instead, near-blanked Di Matteo as the Italian exclaimed, “I won it!” upon scaling the Allianz Arena steps), as he finally held aloft the trophy that instigated his love of football following the brilliant 4-3 quarter-final second-leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford on 23 April, 2003.
Abramovich, though, knew that the rebuilding that André Villas-Boas had instigated and had radically (Villas-Boas wanted to replace Čech with Rui Patricio and was open to offers for Lampard and Ashley Cole in the summer of 2012) planned to continue was needed, but at a slower pace; and, also, that the hyper-catenaccio, reactive style that Di Matteo employed in the latter stages of the Champions League was, ultimately, unsustainable as a Plan A. From this, Di Matteo will be able to revert back to the playing style that he embodied as a talented, free-flowing regista in his playing career, and will be able to build on an obvious infallible team mentality and mutual respect. After all, Di Matteo’s man management in the final four months of the 2011/2012 campaign was brilliant – with subtle, personal player meetings and a Hiddink-like Midas touch with the improvement of the form and morale of the likes of Čech, Ashley Cole, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Lampard, John Obi Mikel, Salomon Kalou and Drogba – and his Guardiola-like (2009 Champions League final) use of an emotional pre-match compilation of the whole of the squad’s exploits before the Champions League final was a psychological masterstroke.
Also, unlike Villas-Boas, it is not a one-way relationship: the players clearly admire Di Matteo and the disrespectful murmurs of player rule (seemingly encapsulated in an injured Terry trying to aid his team’s cause from the bench against Napoli on 14 March, 2012 in a simple instruction to Michael Essien to move into central defence, while David Luiz received treatment) rather than co-operation have long since abated with the Italian’s tactical prowess and professional framework. Perhaps, an intriguing example of this was on 21 July when Chelsea, travelling from Seattle to New York for a pre-season friendly against PSG, began an impromptu aerobic session on the tarmac of Tacoma International Airport instead of relaxing and listening to their Ipods. Judging by the players’ body language and enthusiasm, this was far from an enforced order (player motivation has clearly been re-instilled, as Di Matteo, like many Italian managers, is a believer in double training sessions and tough drills) from Di Matteo. Rather, he has re-instilled the perfect balance between Carlo Ancelotti’s minimum (Terry once remarked that “Carlo was surprised when he saw how much we want to train every day”) and the squad’s motivation to remain amongst Europe’s elite.
Philosophy wise, Di Matteo will have Chelsea playing in a more confident and proactive style – but much more solid and ‘English’-paced than, say, Villas-Boas – that was evident in his previous spells with MK Dons and West Brom. With unrivalled creative talents like Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar – not to mention not having the irresistible temptation to use the unrivalled hold-up ability of Drogba – this should not be a problem. Admittedly, despite it being more of a case of philosophical tweaks rather than revolution, it may take time as, initially, Chelsea are likely to struggle for big-game goals without the Ivorian (nine goals in nine cup finals during his eight-year Chelsea career from 2004-2012) until they find their new rhythm. The other thing that stands out in the delicate shift from Di Matteo’s job title of glittering, trophy-laden interim first-team coach to untried and potentially era-defining first-team coach is that he, and indeed Eddie Newton, can count on something that no Chelsea manager – not even the brilliant playing talents of Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli – had and that is his status as an undoubted club legend as both a player and manager.
Sure, there were the cup-winning goals against Middlesbrough and Aston Villa in the FA Cup finals in 1997 and 2000 respectively, but Di Matteo represents so much more than that. After all, one of Chelsea proudest images of the previous decade was that of an injured (fatally, for his football career, from a horrific triple-leg fracture against Saint Gallen on 28 September, 2000) Di Matteo leading Chelsea out in the FA Cup final against Arsenal in 2002. Perhaps, Di Matteo’s inspirational time as a player at Chelsea is partly why Terry – Chelsea’s last major Academy graduate, in 2000 – was so quick to pay tribute to the Italian’s managerial abilities, recovered so ‘miraculously’ from his knee surgery (took just a two-day break and returned to action four weeks ahead of schedule) and went on to play on for the Italian with broken ribs. Equally, Di Matteo is the most instantly likeable and humble Chelsea manager since Claudio Ranieri managed the club between 2000 and 2003. Rather than this being down to sympathetic, near-inevitable speculation about the Italian’s future, amid Guardiola’s year-long sabbatical – like Ranieri suffered when Chelsea’s then chief executive, Peter Kenyon, publicly met Sven-Göran Eriksson in March, 2004 – it goes much deeper.
The Italian has achieved his managerial popularity (excruciating, but winning, tactics divided some neutrals but certainly not Chelsea fans) with the restoration of the club’s proud image. This was not only encapsulated in his bold selection of Ryan Bertrand (homeplace of Southwark is just sixteen minutes, 10.5km, from Stamford Bridge) in the Champions League final or the appointment of Newton as his assistant, but the one-time forgotten – amid the furore, uncertainty and in-fighting Villas-Boas’ reign momentarily instigated – club principles of unity, honour and teamwork. It may all sound so simple, but it was the perfect evidence for Morten Olsen – the longest-serving coach in international football at the moment, who will have served his fourteenth year as Denmark’s manager by 2014 – and his stressing of the importance of co-operation, camaraderie and friendship in leading to remarkable results and longevity at the highest level:
We are not only team-mates, we are mostly friends. And you run harder, work harder for your friends than people who are only your colleagues.
From this, given how hell-bent Abramovich has been on creating his own dynasty with the development of world-class training and youth facilities at Cobham, multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Adidas and Samsung, a near-inevitable 60-000 arena Samsung Arena away from SW6 and the acquisition of Europe’s biggest superstars over the years – including the likes of Arjen Robben, Drogba, Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko, Ashley Cole, Fernando Torres and managers such as José Mourinho and Ancelotti – it seems a dramatic shift in policy. However, Abramovich was well aware of the club’s recent heritage when, in his first official move as club owner, he aimed to keep the thirty-eight year old fans’ favourite and club legend, Gianfranco Zola, at the club in the summer of 2003. Zola had previously agreed a dream swansong in his native Sardinia with Cagliari, but Abramovich offered Cagliari £1.3 million (the two years of Cagilari’s two-year contract) and dangled a significant wage increase – up to £60,000 – for Zola to back out of the agreement.
Of course, Zola did not go back on his word and, perhaps, this stung Abramovich in hindsight of his callous actions with the likes of Steve Clarke (Mourinho threatened to resign when Abramovich planned to replace Clarke with Avram Grant as the Portuguese’s assistant manager in the summer of 2007) and Ray Wilkins (bizarrely not handed a new contract in October, 2010) years later. From this – even if it might be tempting to suggest that the Italian will struggle with a degree of long-termism and the pressure of challenging week in, week out for the title – Di Matteo represents much more than a risky appointment or, indeed, a figure who is merely keeping Guardiola’s seat warm. Instead, he could be the perfect figurehead to not only handle Chelsea’s near-completed, and previously delicate, three-year transition, but, more importantly, he could bring Chelsea a degree of inter-twined stability, likeability, attractiveness and success that has been near-unprecedented in the Abramovich era.
It seems, yet again, that Abramovich has carelessly overlooked Financial Fairplay, with UEFA beginning its stringent analysis of clubs’ 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 during the 2013/2014 campaign in just over twelve months. Like all other European clubs, Chelsea, theoretically, will not be able to spend more than they earn and if they do, punishments will range from initial fines and the withholding of prize money to transfer bans and disqualification from Europe. Initially, it remains to be seen how strictly UEFA will enforce the framework, though, with, currently, 60% of European clubs in some form of debt but the semi-loophole of ‘exceptional items’ (investment in youth development, profit affecting fixed assets, investment in club’s community scheme, career ending injury costs, losses from a major sponsor defaulting, etc) will lead to clubs aiming to curb, rather than dramatically cull, their spending. Still, even with Chelsea’s recent expenditure, their Champions League victory earned them significant leeway – with £49 million, without even mentioning increased gate receipts and FFP’s “accepted deviation” of a loss of upto £36 million – but, even with Villas-Boas giving up his £10.8 million severance fee, this will eventually (amortisation) be counter-balanced by the £98.5 million net spend on the likes of Hazard, Marin, Courtois, Gary Cahill, Raul Meireles, Mata and Romelu Lukaku.
Unlike the £25 million acquisition of Oscar, all of the above-mentioned arrived in the period between 30 June, 2011 and 30 June, 2012 and, subsequently, will all be addressed in the club’s accounts for the 2011/2012 period. So, while it may seem dangerous to have spent yet more money on the likes of Hazard and Marin this summer, their transfer fees will be divided over the period of their long-term contracts. Given how Chelsea’s wage bill will also be lessened with the likes of Alex, Bosingwa, Drogba and Nicolas Anelka departing in the same period, Ron Gourlay, Chelsea’s economical chief executive, may be the reason – rather than Abramovich’s sole thirst for another dynasty and a prolonged legacy – for Chelsea’s average age overhaul and push for a bigger stadium or, if failing that, renaming of Stamford Bridge. This is also why Chelsea have been so key to establish seemingly innocuous partnerships with Sauber, Delta Airlines and Gazprom.
Equally, Chelsea’s signings have been sensible and long-term of late, rather than the beyond peak-aged Andriy Shevchenko and Deco in the past, and in assessing Chelsea’s key players – Čech (Courtois), Terry (Cahill, David Luiz and Nathaniel Chalobah), Cole (Bertrand), Lampard (McEachran, Ramires and Oriol Romeu) and Torres (Lukaku and Daniel Sturridge) – the Blues may well have long-term replacements already on the club’s books. Even if financial self-sufficiency seems, at least, a few seasons away, Chelsea’s target of showcasing to UEFA clearly dwindling expenditure will not be as difficult as it seemed when Financial Fairplay was first announced in September, 2009.
Youth Prospects (aged twenty or younger)
Unlike with Villas-Boas, youth assimilation rather than veteran banishment looks to be Di Matteo’s mantra and this delicate process was aptly summed up recently by Lampard, a man Villas-Boas so clearly underestimated:
We proved to be a great team and a great unit in the second half of last season. This year, maybe we are slightly different because we have more new young players coming in.
There might not be the settled togetherness that we had on the pitch at that side because we had been together a long time, but there is an excitement about our team as well and that’s probably the main difference.
Unlike his predecessors, Di Matteo – in part owed to his understanding of Chelsea’s cherished history of producing young players like Peter Bonetti (1960-75 and 1975-79), John Hollins (1963-75 and 1983-84), Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris (1961-80), Terry Venables (1960-66), Ray Wilkins (1973-79), Alan Hudson (1968-74), Bobby Tambling (1959-70), Jimmy Greaves (1957-61) and Peter Osgood (1964-74 and 1978-79) – clearly wishes to give the younger members of the squad an opportunity throughout the season. This was encapsulated in his telling opening press conference as official Chelsea manager on 5 July:
We have a lot of youngsters like Lukaku, Josh McEachran, and Ryan did well last season.
They will all be here pre-season with us. I’ll be looking at them and see how they are developing and progressing. It’s down to them.
Even without considering his bold (sure suspensions played a part, but Di Matteo could have plumped for Malouda or Paulo Ferreira) selection of Bertrand in the 2011/2012 Champions League final on 19 May, Di Matteo went one step further than, say, Carlo Ancelotti in selecting a youth-filled XI in Chelsea’s final Premier League match of 2011/2012, against Blackburn Rovers on 13 May. While Ancelotti fielded a youthful side against Newcastle in the Carling Cup 3rd round in 2011/2011, he failed to implement the quality youngsters at his disposal in games that badly needed their freshness and enthusiasm. Ancelotti never had the courage, even when Chelsea had nothing to play for – such as the games against Newcastle and Everton at the end of 2010/2011 – to drop any of his underperforming first-team players. McEachran and Sturridge, for example, made just three starts each in the combined two seasons under Ancelotti. Equally, the Italian’s successor, Villas-Boas, due to immense, short-term pressure, did little (Sturridge apart) to improve this situation – epitomised in him banishing Academy players from Cobham – and Bertrand and McEachran made a combined three appearances outside of the Carling Cup during the Portuguese’s eight-month reign.
Crucially, though – without even addressing the likes of Sam Hutchinson (incredible mental strength following a career-ending knee injury in August, 2010), Bertrand and Sturridge – Di Matteo, arguably, has the most quality array of youth options in Chelsea’s recent history. However, regardless, he has been bold even in just squad selections: sending a message in bringing Todd Kane and Nathaniel Chalobah on the trip to Munich for the Champions League final, even though he knew it would be unlikely that they would be required; and ‘calling-up’ Jamal Blackman, Chalobah, Kane, George Saville, Lucas Piazón and Patrick Bamford for the tour of the U.S. While, to outsiders, the tour’s young squad may seem, at best, down to the absences of the likes of Ashley Cole, Terry, Meireles, Mata and Torres, the act, itself, illustrates how keen Di Matteo is to assimilate younger players with the more illustrious members of the squad and how he wants them to have a taste of the experiences that they could soon enjoy as first-team Chelsea players if they continue to impress.
The twenty-one year old Kevin De Bruyne is above that level, though, and recorded eight goals and fifteen assists in thirty-eight first-team matches for Genk in 2011/2012. While guilty of over-elaboration in Genk’s 5-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 20 October, 2011 – as a natural left winger – he will be a welcomed addition. The Belgian needs to improve this natural fitness, though, and a loan move to, say, Werder Bremen could be the perfect step-up from Belgium. While lacking an element of composure, De Bruyne showed a willingness to track back and possessed great enthusiasm in his second-half performance against Seattle on 18 July – even if he was fairly anonymous against PSG on 22 July. Although somewhat premature, his display against Seattle was reminiscent of the type of shuttling player Chelsea have not quite had on the flanks for seven seasons: Damien Duff. Interestingly, it was Abramovich, rather than Villas-Boas, who earmarked and finalised the deal in January, 2012 – reflecting the fact that the Russian does not ‘just’ care about pursuing big-name signings like Hazard and Torres.
Twenty year old Oriol Romeu, at just £4.2 million, was one of the discoveries of the 2011/2012 season and it was no coincidence that when Romeu was introduced to the first XI, Chelsea’s splitting of centre-backs, a la Barcelona, worked effectively under Villas-Boas. The Portuguese, though, did not remain wholly convinced and he seemed unable to decide between the metronome instincts of Romeu, the lack of presence yet tidy distribution of Mikel and the lack of screening but all-round harrying ability of Meireles. Therefore, Romeu’s confidence suffered, as was seen in his nervy substitute appearance against United on 5 February, but as long as he is committed to the club, he will soon become a major part of Chelsea’s rejuvenation and will resist Barcelona’s potential overtures in luring him back to the Camp Nou as a squad player (Sergio Busquets is just twenty-four years of age).
Clearly, the raw talent of Lukaku, then eighteen years of age and behind Drogba and Torres in the pecking-order in 2011/2012, was not going to have a breakthrough season (made just one start outside of the Carling Cup) immediately but his enthusiasm, strength and acceleration suggest a very bright future for the £15 million signing. With Drogba’s departure, too, his selection prospects have improved dramatically and he offers Chelsea a very different option to Sturridge or Torres. However, like Sturridge did in the second-half of 2010/2011 with Bolton – despite his hype and protracted move from Manchester City – Lukaku may need an apprenticeship season as a starter in the Premier League and under Martin Jol at Craven Cottage, where the Belgian’s underrated astuteness and hold-up play will prove as important as his mature strength, he may have find the perfect environment. However, his two goals and impressive determination against Seattle on 18 July suggest he may yet have a big role to play for Chelsea in 2012/2013 – despite awkward showings against PSG and Milan on 22 July and 28 July respectively.
Lukaku’s fellow countryman, the twenty year old Courtois, already looks like he could make a serious claim for a first XI spot at Chelsea in 2014/2015 or 2015/2016, not least because of Čech’s near-annual early season inconsistency. Having already established himself as Belgium’s youngest ever international goalkeeper, the future looks bright for the talented shot-stopper, who kept an impressive twenty-six clean sheets in fifty-three appearances for Atlético in 2011/2012. Also, perhaps, Chelsea’s seemingly petty refusal to prohibit Courtois playing in the UEFA Supercup on 31 August, 2012 reflects just how much they value him. Jeffrey Bruma, like Courtois, is about to begin the second-part of an unofficial two-year loan deal, with Hamburg. Already capped four times by the Netherlands, Bruma is sure to be considered by Louis van Gaal as a feasible replacement for either John Heitinga or Joris Mathijsen. Still, publicly, Bruma has not disguised his disappointment at a lack of game time at Chelsea so, like Michael Mancienne and numerous others before him, it may not be a surprise if he eventually departs the club due to a lack of first XI opportunities.
It really is a make or break season for McEachran, even at just nineteen, as despite some encouraging displays – such as his home debut against Newcastle on 22 September, 2010 and his remarkably mature performance against Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome on 8 December, 2010 – McEachran’s progress has stagnated somewhat. His still-evolving ability was encapsulated in a paradoxical performance against Seattle on 18 July, where McEachran brilliantly set up Lukaku on 2′ before giving the ball directly, and sloppily, to Freddy Montero for Seattle’s equaliser on 13′. Remarkably, a January loan move to the proactive and attractive Swansea – which led to just four appearances – did little to aid his game and when one compares his development to, say, the similarly deft, twenty year old Jack Wilshere, it appears worrying. Still, though, McEachran remains highly-valued by Chelsea and as a fantasista, that is, a player who sets up the assists before the actual assists, he could prove a very useful option alongside Romeu and behind Oscar in the years to come.
It is a similarly pivotal season for Gaël Kakuta, the man Chelsea nearly received a double transfer window ban for in 2009. Kakuta really looked impressive in some Chelsea appearances, like against Wolves on 21 November, 2009 and against APOEL in his Champions League debut on 8 December, 2009. Ancelotti was a massive fan, describing him “as the future of Chelsea”, but, like McEachran, going out on loan to English clubs (Fulham and Bolton in 2010/2011) did not led to league starts or any more minutes than he would have had at Chelsea. Despite a fairly poor showing in the pre-season friendly against PSG on 22 July, his spell at Dijon from January, 2012 was an undoubted success, with Kakuta biding his time and eventually breaking into Dijon’s first XI and scoring four goals in fourteen appearances. The fact that his fellow countryman, Malouda, is likely to depart could aid his case but, even then, Di Matteo, at best, is likely to keep only one of De Bruyne or Kakuta at the club with Hazard or Mata – depending on who plays in the trequartista role – as his first-choice left winger.
The eighteen year old striker, Bamford, arrived from Nottingham Forest and after scoring five and setting up three goals in a 9-1 Forest win over Wigan in the FA Youth Cup on 19 January, along with netting four goals over Southampton the following week, Bamford was snapped up by Chelsea for £1.5 million (a huge fee, given that there were just six months left on the eighteen year old’s contract). Bamford continued his goalscoring exploits for Chelsea and scored six goals in seven reserve matches in the second-half of 2011/2012 and if he can keep up this form and remain injury-free, the poacher could yet break into the first-team squad for the Carling Cup circuit next season. A fellow teen, nineteen year old Thorgan Hazard, could well follow in his brother’s, Eden, footsteps in, at least, becoming a first-team left-winger or trequartista. Although Thorgan’s move to SW6 bears no relation to helping Eden assimilate – even if the unique marketing opportunities will be welcomed by Chelsea – he started just five games for Lens in Ligue 2 in 2011/2012 and has yet to play in a top division or at an Under-21 level for Belgium. The reason why this is worth mentioning is because the nineteen year old is unlikely to get any more opportunities at Chelsea, where competition is so fierce, so one hopes his talent blossoms within the eighteen months before the inevitable stagnation that has gripped so many ex-Chelsea Academy imports kicks in after numerous loan spells.
Perhaps the most exciting Academy prospect Chelsea have is the highly-rated Brazilian second striker, Lucas Piazón, who was instrumental, with his three tournament goals, in their FA Youth Cup run and victory in 2012. Piazón has made remarkably quick progress since his 18th birthday on 20 January, 2012 and as well as appearing in Chelsea’s Premier League matchday squads on three occasions, he was named their Young Player of the Year in 2011/2012. The Brazilian, too, took his goal brilliantly in the pre-season friendly against PSG on 22 July and will certainly be an intriguing option for the future. Chelsea’s captain of that 2012 Youth Cup triumph, and a man who was on the bench for the Champions League final on 19 May, was Nathaniel Chalobah. The Englishman captained England at the 2011 Under-17 European Championships and was one of the players of the tournament with his brilliant ball-playing ability, mature reading of the game and composed displays. From this, a loan move to Gianfranco Zola’s Watford could be the perfect tonic for a Chelsea first-team squad place in 2013/2014 or 2014/2015. Another classy defender, nineteen year old Tomáš Kalas, arrived for £5.2 million from Sigma Olomouc in the Czech Republic in 2010. Undaunted by his price tag, Kalas is known for his last-ditch tackling and one-on-one defending but has gone out on loan to Viteese again, having played a major part (twenty-nine league appearances) in Vitas finishing 7th in the Eredivisie in 2011/2012.
With the signings of Marin, Hazard and Oscar, it may be tempting to suggest that Chelsea will radically shift their tactics and basic footballing principles for 2012/2013. However, each one of these players fit into Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1 perfectly and many hallmarks of the second-half of the 2011/2012 campaign remain. Firstly, regardlees of whether César Azpilicueta eventually arrives from Marseille, Branislav Ivanović stays as Chelsea’s undoubted first-choice right-back – which was not consistently the case under Villas-Boas. The Serb, arguably one of the greatest right backs in Europe despite being a natural centre back, may not possess the attacking instincts, pace or technical ability of a modern-day, top-class right back, but his set-piece threat (headers and trademark drilled throw-ins), positioning and stamina are near-unrivalled.
Then, it is likely that Di Matteo will stick with David Luiz alongside Terry, with Cahill a gallant reserve. While Villas-Boas was a staunch defender of Luiz, amid pundits’ ridicule in the first-half of the 2011/2012 season, the Brazilian had his most consistent, and mature, four months in a Chelsea shirt under Di Matteo. After all, who would have thought that a hallmark like booting the ball into touch could be engrained in the fearless Brazilian when he tried to control a dangerous high ball sent in from Paolo Cannavaro, leading to Edinson Cavani leaping to the ball from Luiz’s blindside to slip Ezequiel Lavezzi in to put Napoli 3-1 up on 21 February, 2012. Equally, the Brazilian’s discipline and timing have improved, and, to a greater extent to Ricardo Carvalho, a rough introduction to English football may have served Luiz’s once-lax defensive abilities brilliantly.
Now, to the real signs of Di Matteo’s tactical ingenuity: Mikel and Lampard. Both were figures that were frozen out (allbeit Mikel to a slightly greater extent, following a terrible showing against Liverpool on 20 November, 2011) by Villas-Boas, but Di Matteo has found them the perfect zone to harness their strengths. Firstly, the myth that Mikel was the perfect heir to Claude Makélelés’ position has long since departed as the Nigerian does not always possess the patience, temperament or passing range (yes, Makelele’s, too, was limited, but the consistency of his metronome-like offloads was remarkable). However, last season, Mikel was crucial to Chelsea’s success in the latter rounds of the Champions League. Against Barcelona, for example, he played with great tactical positioning (was, somewhat surprisingly, not over-zealous in pressing and tackling) in a midfield three alongside Meireles and Lampard. Then, in the final against Bayern, he gave, arguably, his greatest performance in a Chelsea shirt with remarkable deftness (360 roulettes) and confidence, despite intense harrying (Mikel, in Bayern’s eyes, was one of Chelsea’s supposed weak links) from Bastien Schweinsteiger.
Lampard’s tactical evolution is just as profound, which is somewhat incredible given his undying hunger (unlike, say, Ryan Giggs, Lampard does not believe age plays a part in fitness over the course of the season and, therefore, takes being benched extremely personally) despite his thirty-four year age. Interestingly, Lampard once complained of Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 diamond, which allowed him play at the influential tip but, in turn, saw him easily marked out of games. The Italian adapted, partly due to Lampard’s protests, with a 4-3-3 but Lampard has been re-innovated under Di Matteo in a 4-2-3-1. The Englishman’s disciplined, deep-lying position – rarely breaking into the box anymore, leading to the use of his stamina for screening purposes more than once trademark swashbuckling bursts – has seen him make numerous effective tackles for the first time in his Chelsea career and give Chelsea’s midfield much-needed presence. This means that Lampard is not so consistently involved in forward play, eased by Mata’s exploits, but, instead, the Englishman picks his opportunity on a counter-attack – which means that it is still likely (186 at the moment) that he will break Bobby Tambling’s all-time goalscoring record of 202 for Chelsea well within the next eighteen months.
Ramires stands as the ultimate encapsulation of Di Matteo’s tactical shift, with the Brazilian offering Chelsea a unique tactical option. The club’s greatest athlete and Player of the Year last season, Ramires is naturally a dynamic central midfielder, but Di Matteo has taken Ancelotti’s use of the Brazilian on the right-wing in the very latter stages of 2010/2011 to a whole new level. As well as giving invaluable defensive cover – in pinning back an attacking full-back – which was crucial to Chelsea earning a 1-0 victory over Barcelona on 18 April, 2012, Ramires offers a spring counter offensive with remarkable composure in possession and in finishing. Due to his unbelievable stamina, acceleration and pace, this explosiveness is near-impossible to hinder once he is in stride (2-2 draw with Barcelona on 24 April and 2-1 FA Cup final victory against Liverpool on 5 May spring to mind). Even though it may be tempting for Di Matteo to start with the more deft, inverted (cuts inside often) and creative Marin, Ramires will be a crucial link to the equally disciplined Mikel and Lampard, and will act as a foil for an otherwise ‘lightweight’ front four.
The trequartista/left-wing position is, arguably, the only new quandary Di Matteo has to deal with. Hazard wants to play in the position, but given that he was not granted his favoured number ten shirt, already, it seems likely that Mata will retain his slot. This makes sense for three main reasons: firstly, Mata was near-banished and ineffective on the left-wing at times for Chelsea, not just under Villas-Boas, as was seen against Barcelona in the Camp Nou on 24 April; the Spaniard enjoys a brilliant relationship with Torres and is the main reason why Torres goalscoring opportunities increased so markedly for Chelsea last season; and, finally, Hazard offers the explosiveness, delivery, athleticism, hurdling and accelerative running that is not such a pivotal part of the petite Mata’s arsenal. The two are likely to near-instinctively rotate and inter-change throughout games, regardless, and, as well as giving Chelsea’s play an unpredictable element, this will lessen the creative burden on Mata. Ashley Cole, though, will have to continue his impressive consistency under Di Matteo, as Mata and Hazard offer little protection.
Then, there is Oscar, who was, undeniably and effortlessly, the star of Brazil’s 0-2 victory over Great Britain on 20 July and the 3-2 win over Egypt on 26 July. £25 million for a twenty year old may seem excessive, but his footballing maturity, technique, pace, passing ability, movement and bravery – in his undying will to take on his defender – make him an incredibly exciting prospect. Equally, he will have a season to bed into the squad, whereby scrutiny and pressure will not be a weekly occurrence due to him not yet being a first-choice starter. Instead, he offers a much-needed alternative to Mata, who, without exaggeration, played 45% (out of fifty-three club matches plus eleven international games in total) of 2011/2012 jaded. Equally, in being a much more direct runner into the box and goalscoring threat (from open play) than Mata, Oscar will also be a key option from the bench for Di Matteo as outside of Marin and Sturridge, there are few explosive substitutes for Chelsea.
While it is certainly tempting to suggest the likes of Hazard or Mata for selection, both are near-certain to have stellar seasons – even if Mata might suffer from initial post-tournament (intense training for Euro 2012 and Olympics) fatigue and the Belgian, like Arjen Robben from 2004 – 2006 and Sturridge in 2011/2012, may, initially, take time to adapt to being a thoroughly unselfish individual as part of an international-laden, top-class XI. From this, particularly given how important Drogba’s big-game goals were for Chelsea in their recent history, Fernando Torres will be Chelsea’s focal point. Chelsea could not have put more faith in Torres, which – despite his late season resurgence and Golden Boot winning showing at Euro 2012 – is still a risk of sorts. After all, even if Torres’ confidence seems to have returned – and his work-rate, unselfishness (twelve assists for Chelsea last season), fitness and movement are, arguably, as good and mature as they have ever been in his career – the Spaniard netted just eleven goals in forty-two matches for Chelsea in 2011/2012.
This will have to improve as while Lampard, Hazard, Mata, Ramires, Oscar, Lukaku and Sturridge are certain to chip in with up to sixty goals between them, Chelsea have lacked a seriously prolific and consistent centre forward since Drogba’s awesome thirty-seven goal showing in their Double-winning campaign in 2009/2010. 2012/2013 will be the ultimate test of Torres, who has not reached his incredible, prolific and big-game (scoring openers) exploits since his twenty-two goals in thirty-two matches for Liverpool in 2009/2010. Even though he looked unsurprisingly rusty against Milan on 28 July, at least he will soon have everything in his favour: the eventual full trust of his manager, following Di Matteo’s daring decision to not let Torres take a penalty in the Champions League final shootout against Bayern Munich on 19 May; the undying support of Chelsea’s fans, which Torres cited as the most cherished memory of his entire career after the fans chanted ‘Torres, Torres’ when he was on the bench against Wolves on 2 January, 2012; and a fast-paced, proactive gameplan that will not lead to horribly unsuited direct play.
Wigan (A), Reading (H), Newcastle (H), QPR (A), Stoke (H) and Arsenal (A)
Pre-seasons and starts of the seasons have been particularly misleading in the past two Premier League campaigns for Chelsea. In 2010/2011, following poor results in pre-season, Chelsea cruised to the top of the table after opening with West Brom (H), Wigan (A), Stoke (H), West Ham (A) and Blackpool (H), scoring a whooping twenty-one goals and conceding just one. However, of course, Chelsea stagnated greatly in their “difficult moment” under Ancelotti as the season progressed and did not achieve five Premier League victories in a row again until 30 April. Then in 2011/2012, Andre Villas-Boas – who was under immense initial pressure due to his success in a ‘poor’ league like Liga Sagres and his £13.3 million compensation fee – began his campaign with Stoke (A), West Brom (H), Norwich (H), Sunderland (A) and Manchester United (A). Performing well in pre-season, and given his more competitive opening games, Villas-Boas, and his philosophical tweaks, performed encouragingly on paper (incredibly last-gasp wins over West Brom and Norwich) and claimed ten points from a possible fifteen. However, like Ancelotti, Chelsea’s form never kicked on from the beginning of their season and it was not until 17 December that they again achieved ten points from four Premier League matches.
Di Matteo seems to have a happy medium of both his predecessors, with tight, but ultimately winnable, home games and two testing derbies to go with an opener against a slow-starting (claimed three points from twelve in opening four fixtures in 2009/2010; four points from twelve in 2010/2011; and five from twelve in 2011/2012) Wigan outfit. It is vital, though, given how Chelsea claimed just eighteen points from a possible thirty-three in the league under Di Matteo last season, that Chelsea start the campaign well. Reading are sure to be a stern test and Newcastle have been Chelsea’s bogey team of late (winning just one of the past four Premier League matches), but nine points in the opening three games is a must for Di Matteo as he handled elevated expectations brilliantly when 2011/2012 neared its historic end. Then, of course, comes QPR, which will, undoubtedly, be an ill-tempered – regardless of Joey Barton not participating – match due to the fall-out of Terry’s racism trial and it could be said that the wheels of Villas-Boas’ regime started to loosen, even with a fairly admirable performance and adapted gameplan, after Chelsea’s ill-disciplined, nine-man 1-0 defeat at Loftus Road on 23 October, 2011.
Chelsea then play Stoke at home and Arsenal away, so a realistic target – if the opening four games go well – could well be staying unbeaten and amassing, say, fourteen points, given how hotly-contested the derbies are certain to be.
Where Will They Finish?
Previewing where Chelsea will finish in the Premier League is a real paradox: on one hand, Di Matteo clearly has the club pedigree, placidness and affinity, and crucial control of the dressing-room; but, on the other, how will he adjust to the pressures of ‘long-term’ planning, the differing dynamics of a league structure and the handling of journalists’ incessant speculation over Guardiola’s future when the Italian has to ride an inevitable rough patch? Still, Di Matteo oversaw an incredibly delicate and cut-throat (knockout competitions) situation brilliantly last season and, clearly, he relishes intense pressure:
Those weeks were the craziest and most amazing of my life. We were fighting for fourth place, the FA Cup and the Champions League. We had to switch from one competition to another and the pressure was so intense. It was just crazy.
[On a 2012/2013 title charge] Manchester City have raised the bar. That is our challenge, to make up the twenty-five point gap in the league.
They are doing what Chelsea did in 2004, in terms of how they have come on to the scene, signed a lot of players and tried to build a foundation. That’s the challenge.
Di Matteo’s chances of succeeding have certainly been boosted by Abramovich’s clear backing in the signings of Marin, Hazard and Oscar. From this, the Italian is blessed with Chelsea’s most proactive, dynamic and fresh (only 29% – Čech, Hilário, Ashley Cole, Ferreira, Terry, Essien, Meireles, Lampard, Malouda and Yossi Benayoun– of Chelsea’s current twenty-nine man panel are aged twenty-nine or older) playing squad for eight seasons. Subsequently, Chelsea will be well organised, dynamic and resilient, but Di Matteo may, yet again, perform better in the cup competitions, so a much-improved 3rd is a realistic finish for a still-evolving squad.