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joetweedie | October 21, 2014

The Harding Perspective

Crystal Palace away

At Selhurst Park on Saturday Chelsea faced the prospect of starting a Premier League game without the talismanic Diego Costa. Despite being without our top scorer, the mood amongst the support seemed optimistic. This is largely down to the quality of Loïc Rémy as a “back-up” (I use the term loosely as he is likely to play quite a lot this season). The Frenchman fits in seamlessly in a central striking role and although the dynamic of the team changes, it does not hinder our performance level.

Can we keep this rather sensational run of form up over the course of the season? One of the unique things about supporting Chelsea is that at some point “typical Chelsea” will rear its head. Whether your memory of Chelsea starts in the 1970s or the Roman era, you will be familiar with the concept. Always capable of playing superbly well against top sides or in big games, the proverbial banana skin of relegation fodder or a mediocre mid table team always awaits. Our start has been exceptional and with our hardest fixture already played, we should be quietly confident with regards to the rest of the season.

Rémy – Quality and Continuity

Adrian Dennis / AFP

What an incredible feeling it is to have Loïc Rémy in reserve this season. Not since Nicolas Anelka so ably deputised Didier Drogba have we had such quality to call upon if required. What was extremely interesting to see is that Rémy is capable of mimicking Diego Costa’s role in this side. There were naturally concerns about how he might slot in given Costa’s intrinsic role in our style. However, these should be dampened somewhat after Rémy’s excellent appearance.

The popular perception of Rémy is that he is a striker who likes to play on the shoulder of defenders. He constantly looks to get in behind with well-timed runs, utilising his pace to great effect. One of the universal truths in football is that you never really understand a player until you watch him for ninety minutes. People salivated over Mario Balotelli, largely because of some highlight wonder goals. The reality is far less convincing as his struggles attest to. Rémy has largely been compartmentalised in the same fashion – a pacey striker in the Henry mould.

During the game what actually occurred was encouraging to watch. Rémy dropped deep, linked play well and held the ball up superbly. He drew the foul that saw Delaney rightfully booked for a second time. Most impressive was his ability to play on the half turn. One example during the second half saw a wonderful feint and turn on the halfway line that gave him an opportunity to run. Rémy worked tirelessly, stretched Palace in a way that Torres never could last season and showed power when required.

The way he smashed Martin Kelly to the ground in the build up to Cesc Fàbregas’ goal was reminiscent of Didier Drogba in his pomp. What I enjoyed most about his role in the goal is something that probably went unnoticed. Rémy manoeuvred himself into a perfect area to receive a ball from Fàbregas if the Spaniard had opted to pass. We now appear to have two strikers who actively want to be in a position to score goals. It was a very imposing cameo from Loïc Rémy and I would personally have confidence in him if the worst should happen to Diego Costa this season.

Matić, in the middle of our pitch

Paul Gilham / Getty Images

Nemanja Matić is the best central midfielder in the country. That might be an extremely bold claim, but given how Matić is performing of late I cannot see beyond the commanding Serbian. He is becoming as intrinsic to this Chelsea side as Claude Makélélé was to José Mourinho first time around: considering Makélélé’s mastery of the holding role that is a statement in itself. In Nemanja Matić I believe Chelsea have their next captain after John Terry. Not as vocal, but equally commanding, I think Matić represents a long-term option as a leader of this young group of players.

In an age where it seems increasingly popular to try and convert performance into a single statistic, Nemanja Matić is a perfect riposte. A slight tangent, but the sloppy analysis of statistics by most writers in the pursuit of some unobtainable “moneyball” standard is increasingly infuriating. Just because someone completes 90 percent of their passes does not mean they have had a good game. What about the quality of the pass? Was the pace of the ball perfect? Did the player pick the right option? What did he do after he passed the ball? Actually watching the game has benefits. I work with data every day, so I understand its inherent worth. However, when people assume correlation between being statistically good and actually playing well there are issues.

What makes Matić such a wonderful midfielder is nothing to do with statistics. For what it is worth, he measures extremely well statistically if you use the basic metrics of ball retention and pass completion. However, what they do not tell you is how perfect his distribution is on a regular basis. Matić has a rare understanding of the flow of this Chelsea side. He plays attacking passes that almost always allow his teammate to play at pace. Instead of firing the ball into feet prompting several touches, Matić pings the ball into an area that means less touches are required for his teammate to do something with the ball. It is a subtle nuance of play, but given the tempo of the Premier League if you can do something in fewer touches you should theoretically have more time and space.

When Matić needs to keep things simple, he quickly passes and repositions himself at an angle to receive the ball again. His ability to keep things calm and simple sits wonderfully alongside his ability to advance play when in possession. A specific pass in the second half where he crisply hit the ball out to Eden Hazard was a prime example of Matić choosing not only the best option, but a difficult one at that. If you want to boil down that pass to a simple completion, then you are losing sight of the beauty of the game. He orchestrates midfield with power and precision; he is certainly the best midfielder in the country on present form. A superb signing in January and someone who is contributing way beyond merely having a high pass completion percentage.

Oscar's Evolution

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The Brazilian maestro is back to his best this season, thriving in a team that utilises his technical brilliance with a tenacity befitting that of a midfield enforcer. With the World Cup looming last season Oscar’s form tailed off after January. This left many Chelsea fans feeling ambivalent towards him. The sale of Juan Mata in favour of keeping Oscar also provided ammunition for fans who felt the Brazilian did little to become Mourinho’s first choice number ten.

Amidst rumours of his sale in the summer to Paris Saint-Germain, many fans would gladly have seen the back of him. However, one man was absolutely steadfast in his commitment to the Brazilian and I think everyone can see why given Oscar’s form this season. José Mourinho has perhaps always dreamed of having a player of Oscar’s ability to use in his system. His work rate is unbelievable, but we are also seeing more of Oscar’s artistry in the final third this season. Oscar is a new breed of number ten.

The free-kick Oscar scored was majestic and eerily reminiscent of Gianfranco Zola. The symmetry between this strike and his goal against Stoke was tangible; it is clearly a technique that Oscar has worked on repeatedly. Undoubtedly the Brazilian needs to start to add more goals to his game, but his contribution is transcending that of a mere playmaker at present. Oscar’s relationship with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fàbregas has been particularly fruitful.

What is patently clear about Oscar’s growth this season is his sheer capacity to outwork any opponent. In this alone he is rewriting the rules about what to expect from a number ten. Having a maverick player capable of sublime moments is no longer acceptable. This is the difference between Oscar and Juan Mata. The Brazilian may never generate Mata’s goals or assists, but his overall contribution to the team is miles ahead of anything the Spaniard could deliver.

Oscar adroitly knits together the attack, operating as a link between all facets of play. The way he rotates in and out of the number ten spot with Fàbregas is extremely difficult for teams to counter. Likewise, when he drifts out wide and allows Hazard or Willian/Schürrle to move centrally he causes so many problems. It is this attacking rotation that has redefined our team and Oscar is the trigger for all this movement. He is intelligent beyond his years and the trust Mourinho has in him looks well placed.

Mourinho Magic

Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

Cast your mind back to the beginning of the season and remember how open Chelsea was in games. Yes, we were outscoring teams but looked culpable of conceding almost every time our opponents attacked. Our midfield looked porous, the previously robust defence resembled Arsenal’s and the whole shape of our team looked haphazard. What has transpired since then is a true testament to José Mourinho’s ability as a coach.

Cesc Fàbregas recently gave a fascinating insight into how Mourinho has tactically transformed the entire structure of the team. He has, remarkably, managed to keep us potent in attack and also far more solid defensively. Fàbregas spoke of his own transition from playing in Barcelona’s pressing game to Mourinho’s and also to playing deeper in midfield once again. Often Fàbregas would press and leave huge spaces which sides like Swansea exploited. After weeks of work Fàbregas stated that Mourinho had almost reengineered him and our defensive shape. The results have been amazing to witness.

One of the most difficult things in modern football is to create balance. Buzzword charlatans like Brendan Rogers, who over complicate matters to the point of lunacy, rely so heavily on one player that nothing else really matters. Luis Suárez almost won Liverpool the title last season, not Brendan Rogers. The Liverpool manager is now being exposed for what he is and his comments about defensive football being easy to coach seem particularly poignant given his sides woeful defensive ability. Mourinho recently told Gary Neville that he works to fit his style to his players. Rogers appears intent on replicating his success last year without the two most important components – Luis Suárez and no midweek football.

Mourinho is often labelled pragmatic as some sort of barb by the moral arbiters of football aesthetics. However, is there actually a better quality in football management? To be pragmatic is in the eyes of these footballing deities akin to boredom. Yet, it is Mourinho who currently sits atop of the Premier League with a side that now features more players who fit his typical mould (Diego Costa) and some who perhaps do not (Cesc Fàbregas). Blending the “typical” Mourinho with a more expansive one in such a smooth fashion should be receiving more plaudits than it has at present.

We are incredibly lucky to have a manager like Mourinho running the show. His game planning and also in-game management are exceptional. You feel that with this group of players Mourinho has solutions for anything that could potentially crop up this season. The option to go big and powerful in midfield remains, while we have seen that playing with a more creative edge is working for us repeatedly. Credit must go to Michael Emenalo and his team for assembling the final pieces of Mourinho’s jigsaw so early into the market.

Final thoughts

Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

The Fàbregas goal is up there with anything Chelsea has scored in years. Circulating the ball from the back four all the way up to that rapturous crescendo between Oscar, Hazard and Fàbregas was mesmeric. The weight of pass, the movement and the finish were beyond anything Crystal Palace could cope with. It was a significant departure from last season where we were second best all afternoon.

Should we be worried about Gary Cahill? The change in system has left our back four more exposed this season and the requirements of our centre backs have shifted. We were lucky to not be 2 or 3 goals behind in the first 10 minutes, all of which came through Cahill. There might not be a better defender when the entire team sits deep and looks to counter. However, with a more proactive approach from Mourinho Cahill is getting exposed time and time again. This was Frazier Campbell and not Sergio Agüero running at him. Teams of all abilities are seemingly targeting him and his channel. I thought after last season that Cahill would continue to develop and take over from Terry with JT gradually being phased out of the team. However, it is Terry who appears to have reacted best to the adjustments. I really like Cahill, but he is looking like the weak link in a side with few flaws.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.