To classify this season under a single adjective would be unwise. There's plenty of verbiage that can be ascribed to this campaign- both 're-birth' and 'evolution' are frequently bandied about. Since capturing the Champions League title in May, the club have systematically gone about jettisoning spare parts in favor of shiny new toys. The end product? An approximately eighty million pound outlay, a significantly younger average age amongst the squad, an influx of technically-gifted players with bags of pace and trickery, and a step in the direction of possession-based football. Indeed, this new look machine is being modeled after the many legendary squads that have won while blending both beautiful passing with possession and pressing. This, in short, is the new Chelsea blueprint.
But to understand the growth on display would require a benchmark for comparison. Andre Villas-Boas, for all the scorn he can illicit around these parts, was recruited to London to engage in this very exercise. It was his mandate to bring the average age of the squad down, recruit young attack-minded playmakers, develop a new formation that emphasized the 'beautiful' elements of the game, and ultimately put a product on the pitch that our owner could smile at from afar. In the buildup to his appointment, many speculated the end of the 'Old Guard'- an idea as offensive as it would be proven unwise. Nevertheless, AVB used his press opportunities to underscore the 'project' he would undertake. He referred to it as a three-year commitment, to revolutionize the style and manner in which Chelsea Football Club operate. To begin, his efforts involved the recruitment of new talent to move the club away from the long-ball target-based approach toward a more cohesive style involving pass-and-move principles.
The key addition to his ranks, and perhaps the prototypical player to fit this ideal, would be Juan Mata. Signed just before the end of the summer transfer window, the diminutive Spaniard would become the focal point of an offense that suffered from an apparent identity crisis. Prior to his addition, Chelsea toiled to a season-opening draw against Stoke City, and a come-from-behind victory at Stamford Bridge against West Brom. The question marks surrounding who the leading striker would be, Didier or Fernando, would continue to dog AVB at every turn. Would he choose Didier, plenty would cry on Fernando's behalf- and vice versa. Picture Rex Ryan and his present Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow conundrum. Yeah, something like that. In the season's third fixture, a home tie against Norwich City, Mata would make his home debut, and enter the fray with style. In the space of ten minutes, Juan would instantly become a cult favorite, hero, and anointed savior of the blue revolution.
We have to talk about the high-line. Yes, we absolutely do. Look, I'm not a tactics expert by any stretch (I leave such things typically to the more seasoned members of our collective). But it was painfully obvious to anyone watching that AVB's insistence on pushing the defenders higher up the pitch in a row, to provide for the fullbacks to join in the attacking third, created havoc in the latter stages of his reign. Consequently, we began shipping goals at a staggering rate. In domestic competitions from August until September 26th of last year, we had conceded seven goals, including three at Old Trafford in what will forever be remembered as the game involved 'the miss'. Compare that with this season's performance, only two at the hands of Reading. High-line, my friends. High, bloody, line. But not everything in the early days was doom and gloom. Despite handing out goals like leaflets on the Vegas Strip, we were scoring goals in bunches. Two against West Brom, three against Norwich, two at Sunderland, and four at home to Swansea. Many of the problems that would ultimately provide the undoing of the AVB regime were pleasantly masked by our sudden abundance of goals.
Andre began his reign with a 4-3-3 formation, which was the hallmark of one Carlo Ancelotti's set-up. Initially, Juan Mata was used on the left of the attacking three, which required the majority of our attacks to come from that side of the pitch. Hence, we became somewhat predictable in our approach- with the right often woefully neglected. This imbalance would prove to be a major cause for some of our counter-attack induced pain, as teams would openly turn and fly down the unprotected byline vacated by Ashley Cole's involvement in the final third. One of the many criticisms hear during the early days was AVB's inability to make in-game tactical adjustments; often considered a key indicator of longevity and intelligence in the modern era. Those with the gift to understand how to stop the bleeding often prosper, but in Andre's case a combination of naiveté and defiance would come to haunt him. For the purposes of this article, we'll only focus on the matches that had occurred year-to-date, so we don't have to relive some of the more traumatic nightmares of his leadership.
By this time last year, we had won four, lost one, and drawn one in the League. We had also won our first Champions League fixture against Bayer Leverkusen and defeated Fulham on penalties in the Carling Cup. Compare that to our track record this year, four wins and a draw in the League, a draw in the Champions League to Juventus and a victory against Wolves yesterday in the Capital One Cup. On the surface, there appear to be limited conclusions that can be surmised from these relatively similar records. Yet in reality, the foundation for the progress that we're witnessing today was laid early last year under the tutelage of AVB, even if it came unstuck in the latter phases of his control. Indeed, his desire to see the club forward into a new direction of fast-paced, attacking-emphasized football is precisely the product we the fans are enjoying on a weekly basis. That this progress has come under the watchful eye of Roberto di Matteo speaks volumes about his desire to continue the development of our squad which he helped to implement early last year as AVB's right hand.
Today's Chelsea uses a 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot of defense and playmaking. The attacking trident behind the lone striker interchange places, and use a combination of guile and speed to connect passes previously unimaginable. Much of this credit can be given to the players themselves, who along with Juan Mata, now include Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin, Ryan Bertrand, Ramires, and Lucas Piazon. Of which, three are Brazilian, one Spanish, one German, one Belgian, and a lone English candidate. Rewind two years and you'd be hard pressed to find an equivalent set of talent across a similar section. Couple this influx of talent with an average age of around 22 and you're looking at the foundation of an approach that will only improve with years- and players who will grow in personality and understanding with one another. One of the many great things about Chelsea's recent forays into the transfer market has been on identifying young talents who can establish roots within the squad for many years- thereby forming understandings with their teammates on and off the pitch, which can be expressed effortlessly.
In reviewing the footage from yesterday's slaughter of Wolves, I was struck by the seamless ability of this season's Chelsea to move the ball from defense to attack. Transition football, as it were, is not something akin to the Chelsea vocabulary. Yet now, it appears to be the hallmark of our approach. While we often revert to the tried and true mechanism of long-ball football, we tend nowadays to look to build our attack through the middle, with passes flying side-to-side, players showing and moving off the ball, and runs and cuts happing in unison. Look no further than the give-and-go between Juan and Fernando for our third goal. Magic. Stockton to Malone. Simple, easy, relatively effortless, and altogether beautiful. Such play is precisely the development that Roman has expected of his million dollar toys, and clearly Roberto feels he has the right tools to implement this style. A more rigid rear-guard, shying away from pushing the attack too far up the pitch has helped as well. Despite being shredded apart by Atletico and coughing away a win against Juventus, Chelsea have looked much better in terms of their defensive coverage.
But the emphasis of the development is clearly at the top of the pitch. The interchanging attacking trio, the pivot of playmaking and control, and the predatory approach of our players has signaled the dawn of a new era. If last season was a primer in what was possible, this season, thus far, has been a demonstration in what truly can be achieved. No more evidence can be needed than the visual beauty of yesterday's comprehensive victory. Never mind the quality of the opponent, what we witnessed was pure beauty. Players fighting for possession, covering for one another, moving the ball side to side and forward, mixing short and long, running off the ball, cutting behind defenders, timing movement to perfection. It was the performance Roberto's been promising all summer. The question now, is simply how far this evolution can go. Certainly, there will be days where it doesn't come off, and there will be nights this season when it fails to materialize. Yet the foundation which we were promised a year ago appears to have finally been laid. Now, friends, we're starting to build the fortress of finesse.