The post-Ancelotti era at Chelsea has been remarkable for the club’s lack of enduring identity. While the most illustrious powerhouses of European football, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have lovingly and devastatingly chiselled their own stylistic alcoves out of the walls of football’s great hall, the successive tenures of Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benítez resulted in a Chelsea restless, not quite knowing who they were.
They meandered without direction between Villas-Boas’ naïve, somewhat pioneering project, characterised by a high-line and ‘vertical’ football, Benítez’s inelastic style of play and the intermediate blueprint-less, occasion-dictated approach of the Champions League winning Di Matteo. Worryingly for Chelsea fans, any indication of direction came solely from transfer policy rather than from the pitch. Tricky, technical midfielders were stockpiled fuelling vague visions of a proto-Guardiola-style Chelsea.
However, as we near the run-in of the first season of José Mourinho’s second Chelsea tenure, a new and definite identity can be observed in the works; so definite in fact that we can begin to describe it in no uncertain terms despite its infancy. If we consider the powerful Chelsea of 2004 to 2007, what then opposition scout Villas-Boas called ‘a deadly machine of football’, we might see the emergent Chelsea we see in 2014 as its cousin. It is certainly similar in that it is a footballing machine, far removed from, say, the footballing orchestra that Guardiola’s 2008 to 2012 Barcelona side was. This is a different breed of machine however; the monolith of cogs and oiled pipework is a tad more sugar-coated this time around. Mourinho has started to successfully splice together silk and steel as he goes about creating a new fabric for the club.
The two components of this new fabric are personified by the silky Eden Hazard and the steely Nemanja Matić who act as the two integral fulcrums of the Special One’s New Chelsea. The duo are, without exaggeration, two players that are among the best in the world in their respective positions despite both being relatively early on in their careers, a fact that makes their integral status to the Chelsea blueprint that much more exciting. A team built around these two individuals is one that could, again without exaggeration, be capable of world domination.
Coming first to the talismanic Eden Hazard, it is impossible to think of a player of the same age or younger performing at the level that he is currently performing at anywhere in the world. While claims that Neymar’s debut season in La Liga has been a muted affair are in all honesty lazy and frankly false, the Brazilian falls short of the meteoric impact Hazard has had in the Premier League this season.
The Belgian’s sumptuous skill and ability to skip past defenders has been well documented (he leads the League in successful take-ons with 93) and it was this that had Pablo Zabaleta – a man who would feature as ‘Figure 1’ in a textbook of how to play right-back in the modern game – on skates for ninety minutes at the Etihad.
For all the trickery, the mercurial change of pace, and that trademark unleashing of a shot as he cuts off the wing, what is most exciting about Hazard is his movement. The way he runs is nothing short of sensational. Particular examples stick out in the memory. His run in the build-up to his first goal against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, when he looped behind Liverpool’s midfield, ghosting out of the game, before making a blindside run to arrive on site to score is one. The diagonal run in the build up to Branislav Ivanović’s famous goal against City, when he cut through the heart of the Manchester City backline is another. There are very few players who are watchable, transfixing even, without the ball at their feet but Eden Hazard is one. What’s more, there are very few players who are able to create for themselves without the ball at their feet. Again, Eden Hazard is one.
If we are to cast our eyes towards the not-so-distant future, it’s hard to supress the feeling of elated ecstasy that swells within. Not since Cristiano Ronaldo left these shores in 2009 has the English game played host to a player so capable of complete and utter dominance. Mastery of the Premier League surely beckons, as do Ballon d’Or nominations and triumphs, though the droll affair of a Zurich awards ceremony is no match for the excitement of even the simplest of Hazard’s darting runs on match day.
It’s easy to go into raptures about a player as sublime as Eden Hazard but as the player himself acknowledged following his hat-trick against Newcastle, he is nothing without his team. He may play football like Ayrton Senna drove a Formula One car, continually jinking this way and that but just as Senna would have been nothing without his car and pit crew, Hazard is nothing without the framework of the Chelsea machine and in the engine room of that machine is Nemanja Matić, "la Aranha" – "the Spider" – as they called him in Portugal.
Matić is quite simply the keystone of the new, emergent Chelsea. That in itself isn’t a reason to sit up and take notice of the towering Serb. John Obi Mikel, a competent player who has been severely underrated by a large cohort of fans, has performed the role in recent years in a way that has been by-and-large admirable without attracting the collective praise of pundits, more often unduly attracting derision. Why Matić has attracted a chorus of plaudits within a couple of games in a Chelsea shirt is that in replacing of Mikel with Matić, Chelsea have effectively replaced a perfectly functional V6 engine with a V12 aircraft engine that will allow the club to really take off.
Where Mikel allowed Chelsea to sustain possession playing as a midfield metronome, Matić allows Chelsea to sustain a relentless barrage of attack on the opposition by quickly recovering possession and feeding it forwards. In his 18 appearances in the Premier League this season, Mikel has amassed 21 interceptions. Matić, having played against both Manchester clubs and a West Ham side with no intention of posing a threat to the Chelsea goal in addition to Newcastle, has already amassed almost a quarter of Mikel’s total.
The significance of interceptions in determining the defensive ability of a player is huge. Defending for the most part is a reactive art. Defenders are constantly trying to react to and counteract what attackers do. In every good defensive player’s locker however is the power of anticipation. A good anticipatory defender is what interceptions represent – the ability to read the game and cut out the danger before it has even presented itself.
Moreover, the position on the field that Matić takes up to carry out his spiderlike work is far more advanced than that of Mikel, meaning that once he has recovered the ball, he is able to reach the talismanic Hazard or pistoning Willian far quicker than Mikel who often had to resort to lateral passing (though not nearly as much as some lead you to believe).
Unrelenting pressure aside, Matić is also representative of another characteristic of Mourinho’s new Chelsea machine. The arrival of Matić has prompted a newfound physicality in the way Mourinho’s team go about their business nowadays. The lack of physicality prior to his arrival was stark. Combinations of the various options in the much-discussed double pivot provided a level of solidity that ranged from the solidity of a curtain to the solidity of a picket fence. The addition of Matić has brought unwavering steel to the centre of midfield.
Of course, Chelsea’s newfound physicality isn’t limited to Matić alone – Gary Cahill has become a far more dominant centre half in 2014 and the January signing of Kurt Zouma surely indicates further defensive physicality in the future. This article attempts only to distil Chelsea’s new system down to the role of two of its components – there is naturally more to it than these two fulcrums.
While this all very exciting, Chelsea fans have to temper their expectations and avoid being swept away with the wave of excitement that they have ridden all the way to the top of the Premier League. This is still very much a work in progress. For all his talent, Eden Hazard has been found wanting on a few occasions this season. For a lengthy period against Hull and against West Ham he disappointed when the team and the fans looked to him to break the opposition line. It’s a harsh criticism but one that is reasonable to level at a player as phenomenal as him.
In the same cautionary way, Nemanja Matić should not be considered a cure-all for the Chelsea midfield. In the opening stages against Newcastle, Chelsea’s midfield looked woefully toothless, a problem that might be solved once Oscar really finds his feet in the number ten role.
While Mourinho’s talk of a little horse needing milk has rightfully been scoffed at in recent days (Chelsea are definitely title contenders if not title favourites), the various cogs of the machine are still clicking into place and it won’t be until the 2014/15 season that we really see Mourinho’s second ‘deadly machine of football’ at Chelsea. Regardless, it looks as if a new sun is on the horizon for Chelsea fans and the squad being assembled on the training pitches of Cobham seems to lend itself to this early labelling of Mourinho’s blueprint – silk and steel.