A November slump, a racism row, a loss at the Hawthorns, a defeat on Italian soil…Chelsea’s story seems to be working in some pre-meditated cycle, but that betrays the very different predicament that has befallen Roberto Di Matteo, who is a victim of Chelsea’s summer playmaker surge.
The definitive characteristic of the ‘new’ Chelsea is versatile attackers, creative minded players able to play on either wing or through the middle, and it was with the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin that a new style of football was to be built around. This was a radical change of strategy – Andre Villas-Boas signed Juan Mata but the Spaniard was a rare specimen: a technically gifted player who thrives on drifting into space and opening up defences. Chelsea hasn’t played a probing style of football in a long time: despite the promises of new managers, the default strategy always ended up revolving around power and strength, with Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba key.
But Drogba moved onto China, and Lampard is on the decline (despite some outstanding performances in Chelsea’s stunning Champions League triumph), and their more physical, powerful running is markedly different from the subtle craft of the new Chelsea breed.
On face value, this seemingly contradicted Di Matteo’s footballing ideals: the remarkable turnaround after he took over from Villas-Boas was based on supreme organisation and outstanding, if not last-ditch, defending. Clearly, this conservative approach wasn’t going to maximise the abilities of Chelsea’s enormous outlay, and a strategy similar to the cavalier approach adopted by Di Matteo at West Brom was expected.
Chelsea started the new season in scintillating form, with one small caveat: Oscar played at the Olympics and didn’t participate in any pre-season preparation, while Marko Marin suffered a recurring hamstring injury and Victor Moses wasn’t signed until late in the transfer window. Di Matteo was essentially limited to just Mata and Hazard – not a poor hand to be dealt by any stretch of the imagination – but the absence of Chelsea’s other summer signings was crucial. It meant the Italian elected for the more conservative options of Ryan Bertrand or Ramires to play on the opposite wing to Mata, freeing up the Spaniard to combine with Hazard.
The result was spectacular: the two were free to interchange down one flank, with Hazard excelling in a central role behind Fernando Torres, while Bertrand or Ramires offered defensive security for the full-back directly behind him. The former was particularly effective in neutralising the dangerous Hatem Ben Arfa in Chelsea’s impressive 2-0 win over Newcastle, but the results hid the early signs of an emerging trend. Chelsea’s playmakers are fantastic going forward, but are defensively weak, which, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, leaves the full-back isolated.
Moses has already made his mark for Chelsea with a vital late winner in the Champions League against Shakhtar Donetsk, but his performance while still at Wigan was the first warning sign. The Nigerian was a menace down the flank as Wigan played in an unusually large tally of 29 crosses against Chelsea. Chelsea conceded their first two goals of the season in their next Premier League fixture against Reading, both stemming from out wide, and it was telling that it was down the left, Juan Mata’s flank, that the cross for Pavel Pogrebnyak’s superb header originated. Chelsea had minor problems defending one side of the pitch, but balance is more important that symmetry: with one side effectively marshalled by a defensively-inclined player, Mata and Hazard were able to conjure up some spectacular phases of free-flowing creativity, the sort of play you would never have expected from Chelsea six months ago. "It’s going to be paramount to keep a good balance," said Di Matteo, and he appeared to have struck it.
But then his initial shape was disrupted by the availability of Oscar. He handed the Brazilian a first full debut in the Champions League, where two magnificent goals disguised how well he disrupted Andrea Pirlo’s usual calm passing.
The following Saturday, the three playmakers were selected together for the first time when Chelsea welcomed Stoke to Stamford Bridge, with Oscar bisecting Mata and Hazard, who were on the right and left respectively. Although the game was relatively insignificant, a hard-fought 1-0 win, it felt like a defining moment for Chelsea’s new era. "It's the first time we've tried that lineup," acknowledged Di Matteo. "It certainly needs more work and practice to tactically integrate them perfectly into our system, but it's just a question of time, and them getting to know each other better."
He was referring to Chelsea’s unexpectedly flat performance, with the three playmakers struggling to find space in central zones given the congestion created by their tendency to move inside, a problem compounded by Stoke’s preference to pack their midfield with fierce ball-winners. The result was extreme narrowness, and Chelsea struggled to find their rhythm.
The game’s only goal hinted at Di Matteo’s solution, with Ashley Cole bursting forward to pop up in the penalty area to bundle the ball across the line. That wasn’t an isolated event - Cole and Branislav Ivanovic had both been bombing forward at will to provide width higher up the pitch, and Chelsea effectively defended with a back four of Mikel, Ramires and the two centre-backs.
That, of course, tended to leave space down the sides, something Tony Pulis tried to take advantage of by introducing Matthew Etherington late on. In football, everything comes at a cost: if you want to attack more, the trade-off is more difficulties defensively.
Di Matteo clearly saw Chelsea’s future containing the harmonious interplay of his three playmakers, a predication indicated by his bold selection for their away trip to Arsenal. Oscar, Mata and Hazard were all selected, and although there was more fluency, there was notable space behind Hazard on the left, and Gervinho equalised from a low cross down that side. It was easy to blame Chelsea’s defenders, but the problem stemmed from more deep-rooted issues, namely the defensive vulnerability that their playmakers created.
Chelsea continued to field the band of three, and a good run of form followed, with three impressive wins in their next three games, and they scored four in each one of those games. But the defensive vulnerabilities were clear: the full-backs were constantly undermined by a lack of defensive protection, and also by their instructions to provide width on the overlap higher up the pitch.
This clear fallacy of Di Matteo’s tactics was brutally exposed in Chelsea’s first major defeat of the season, the 2-1 loss away in the Champions League to Shakhtar Donetsk. Hazard worked manfully to track back, as work ethic isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the inability to actually defend that is the downfall.
The obvious solution is to play a more defensive player ahead of Bertrand (filling in for the injured Cole), but Lampard’s injury necessitated Ramires’ presence in the pivot, and although Moses is capable of a defensive winger role, Hazard simply offers more to the attack with his direct dribbling and sinuous runs. Besides, Chelsea had already gone behind: they needed to be forcing the issue. That is the clear downfall of Di Matteo’s starting strategy, and the problem became even more strikingly obvious following their controversial 3-2 loss to Manchester United.
Although the Clattenberg drama would later overshadow it, the first twenty minutes demonstrated Chelsea’s clear weakness, as poor defensive work on the flanks would allow United to score two early goals, with crosses from the left the source for both goals.
As Chelsea began to slump, an interesting trend began to emerge: the full-backs were more conservative, less inclined to move forward at every opportunity. It’s unclear whether this comes from change in personnel – Bertand and Cesar Azpilicueta were called upon to fill in for the absence of Terry and Cole – or from direct instructions from Di Matteo. Chelsea didn’t lack width – thanks to Torres’ dwindling form, they simply lacked the ability to make use of it, but they were still vulnerable to simple overloads in the full-back zones, as was apparent when, after Brendan Rodgers’s experimentation with a 3-5-2, Liverpool switched back to their regular 4-3-3, which meant they had two natural wide players and were better able to manipulate Chelsea’s defensive weakness.
Now, following two successive defeats – the former a 2-1 loss to West Brom where James Morrison and Shane Long drifted to the flanks to find space – Di Matteo has been sacked. Tactically, he’s been very difficult to define: he’s gone from a strategy that relied on wingers tracking back and creating near-impenetrable lines of defence, to a more cavalier strategy that is, in basic terms, too attacking. "I think the way we play sometimes; we're very good going forward," said John Obi Mikel, "but when you lose the ball you need to defend, and you can't do that with six men, you need it to be the whole team." There are, of course, other extenuating factors, including a lack of options in midfield and up front, but this sums this season up neatly.
The positioning of the wide players has been the key feature of the past twelve months at Chelsea. Villas-Boas wanted them to press high up the pitch, before reverting to a more cautious approach which didn’t suit his preferred wing combination of Mata and Daniel Sturridge. This lead to his sacking and Di Matteo’s promotion, which prompted a radical adoption of the ‘two banks of four’ approach, before his own attempts to implement a more proactive game ended up being undone by the positioning of his wide players, something any new manager will immediately seek to rectify.
A different manager, different players, but the same problem. Now Di Matteo has been sacked, the cycle begins again.