Yesterday we took a quick look at the play of new signing Nemanja Matic against Stoke City. The midfielder impressed, shutting the Potters down whenever they tried to attack through the centre, and showing considerable poise whenever Chelsea regained possession.
It's that last element which will be key for the Blues. For years, Chelsea have had problems with changing the momentum of games when the opposition begins attacking. A surprise breakout quickly becomes wave after wave of attacks, and even with elite players across the pitch we sometimes look powerless to hold onto the ball and catch our collective breath once the other team's tails are up. It's in those sorts of situations that mistakes get made.
The reason that this is an issue is because we haven't been very good at transitioning from defence to attack -- Chelsea often lose possession within a few seconds of winning the ball in their own third of the pitch. That prolongs pressure from the opposition; minimising that pressure is a crucial aspect of being able to 'outplay' opponents.
The transition game isn't simply about counterattacking after gaining possession in midfield. Managers focus on transitions because they have a huge impact on the ebb and flow of a match. The time immediately following a tackle, an interception or a clearance is vital in stopping attacking momentum and establishing a different regime*, and Chelsea have, over the years, been extremely vulnerable to disruption during this time.
*Which is why so many teams, including Chelsea use turnovers as a pressing trigger.
Defensive midfielders on elite teams aren't simply tasked with winning possession or preventing play going through key areas of the pitch. They have to be able to both secure the ball and then move it quickly (securing the ball alone, a la John Obi Mikel, is handy but tends to result in us being pinned very deep), ensuring that if their side reclaims the ball the attack is genuinely over and a new, more positive phase of play can begin. Chelsea haven't had a player who can do both for a very long time, and that's why Matic might be so important to us.
Mourinho is shaping the team to be as good at the transition game as possible. By employing a heavy, high press through the attacking trio of Oscar, Willian and Eden Hazard, he forces teams that are trying to build from the back or hold possession to make high-risk passes, disrupting their mode of play before it can even begin. And at the other end, he's seeking to avoid the same fate.
Matic could be the key, the man to turn the tide in the centre of the pitch when things aren't going our way. It's what Chelsea have been looking for for years, and it looks like we might have found it.
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