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joetweedie | September 15, 2014

The Harding Perspective

Chelsea's Perfect Start

Four wins from four – the perfect start. José Mourinho’s wishes regarding personnel were met in the summer and he will be delighted with just how well they are settling into life at Chelsea. Diego Costa looks like an animal in blue, leading the line in his own feral manner. Cesc Fàbregas has reintroduced himself to the Premier League by dictating play as well as any Chelsea central midfielder has ever done.

It has been an overwhelmingly positive start. We are unrecognisable from the perpetually tepid tempo of last season. However, this attacking intent has left us exposed. The adjustment in mentality from both the players and supporters must, therefore, be rooted in patience. Mourinho needs to find a better balance as he has mentioned on Chelsea TV. How he achieves this while retaining attacking fluidity will be fascinating. We have seen patches where the balance is fantastic, but a 90 minute performance has not yet materialised.

Diego Costa

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It would be impossible to talk about the opening weeks of the season without touching upon Diego Costa’s introduction to English football. His impact has been quite simply sensational. Defenders are terrified of him. His awkward dribbling style is difficult to defend against. He uses space instinctually to drag players out of position and his link up play looks surprisingly refined. I vehemently argued that he was the striker for us. Conceptually he was perfect and the reality is even more pleasing.

The novelty of seeing a Chelsea striker look threatening still has not worn off. A Chelsea striker regularly scoring goals seems a bit too fanciful to truly comprehend. Costa, despite his awkward style, is much better than he looks. There is something unearthly about how he obtains space in the penalty area. He is hardly inconspicuous, but it is incredible to see him just ghost into pockets of space at a perfect angle to receive the ball for a first time strike.

Arguably the most positive thing about his arrival has been the way the team plays with him spearheading proceedings. Players actively overlap him when he drops deep to receive possession. They know that he will invariably retain the ball and use it intelligently. When the team have confidence to play the ball into Costa’s feet in tight spaces it says a lot about the perception of Costa amongst his teammates.

His adaptation to the league has truly been staggering. Concerns over his temperament are yet to surface. He flirts with boiling point, but rarely strays into that territory. Unfairly booked twice so far, he has kept his cool for the most part. That is part of the deal; Costa plays well on the edge. One would hope that Chelsea’s exceptional medical team can make the necessary adjustments to keep him fit for the majority of the season. If he plays this well in a perpetual state of injury we might need to employ someone to drop kick him in the hamstring every Monday morning.

Being Open to Being Open

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Results are all that matter in football. Yet, over the course of a season, the way you obtain results is likely to impact your overall league position. This current version of Chelsea is quintessentially the antithesis of a "José Mourinho Team™". Aggressive in possession, with gung-ho full-back play and emphasis on attacking tempo. There have been periods of play during this season that can be argued as some of the best football Chelsea has played under Roman Abramovich.

There are tangible caveats to playing a more attacking style of football. Creating the balance between attacking flexibility and defensive stability will be difficult. Many of the tactical nuances that Mourinho has tweaked this season have natural side effects.

Pairing Matić and Fàbregas in midfield is one of the biggest changes. In possession there is an incisiveness and quality that is unmatched in domestic football. However, defensively the pair does not work as well. Matić is often tasked with doing too much work and the space in front of Cahill and Terry is being patrolled by no one. Mourinho was unhappy that we did not press correctly during the first half against Swansea and the midfield imbalance was obvious during this period.

Ivanović’s rebirth as a 1970s Brazilian full-back has been both surprising and exciting to watch. The Serbian remains one of Chelsea’s most loyal players and his work rate is exceptional. However, his raids down the right and instruction to provide width are causing issues for our back four in general.

The gaps that were not there last season are suddenly appearing. It will take time to adjust properly, but in the meantime we have to become accustomed to being a more open side as we pursue optimum balance.

Terry and Cahill

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With the above changes in mind there has been a tangible impact on both Terry and Cahill’s defensive roles. Cahill, in particular, appeared to struggle badly against Gomis for Swansea. There has also, previously, been more of a defined positional deployment for Mourinho’s defensive midfielder.

Terry’s phenomenal season last year was in part due to the tactical configuration that Mourinho deployed post-Sunderland. His decree that we "had to win in another way" saw us adopt a defensively sound structure. Full-backs tucked in, wingers dropped back deeper, both holding players were tasked with screening the back four and the slightly higher line dropped 10-20 yards to form a more compact base.

Terry excelled with the pacey Azpilicueta covering on his left flank and Nemanja Matić sitting resolutely in front. He adapted his game to sweep and read play, rather than be the aggressor. This season he is being exposed more and it remains to be seen whether he will receive as much cover going forward. With the introduction of Fàbregas, Chelsea’s midfield no longer sits deep and reacts to play. Ramires’ goal against Everton saw both of Chelsea’s holding players in the Everton penalty area. When was the last time this occurred?

This would partly explain Nemanja Matić’s up and down form during games. He is expected to do a great deal in midfield and without much assistance. With Ivanović pushing forward and Fàbregas not exactly a defensive juggernaut, Matić has to attempt to cover two thirds of the pitch. This definitely leads to teams, like Swansea, being able to dominate central areas against us with apparent ease. We could not get near them for 30 minutes as our "pressing references" (per José Mourinho) were out of sync. Once Ramires was introduced at half-time to fill that old Michael Essien destroyer role, the game changed.

Chelsea’s greatest ever centre-back is not getting any younger. Never blessed with pace, the fact he is being asked to cover more space and theoretically push higher up the park does not bode well. This will not be AVB mk. II in how readily Terry was exposed. Yet, he now lacks a fundamental skill required for a centre-back in this system.

How this develops over the course of the season will be interesting. I anticipate Chelsea have two 1st XI’s in mind for various scenarios. Terry is likely to be asked to play a higher line against mid-to-low calibre opponents and may not be that exposed. Against teams with more firepower and quality, we may again adopt a counterattacking mentality. This could see the back four drop slightly deeper and Terry being offered more protection.

It is Cahill who should perhaps be most worried in this system. Arguably the finest penalty box defender in world football at the moment, Cahill’s ability to read and react is impeccable. His timing of the tackle and ability to block seemingly anything are wonderful assets. However, he is expected to be the proactive defender when paired with Terry. This is precisely where he struggles.

Cahill looked incapable of dealing with Gomis’ physicality. He also has an alarming tendency to allow his striker to turn and then back away from the ball, waiting to block the shot. I am unsure whether these are things that can be worked upon. Cahill would likely excel in Terry’s sweeper role when he can be more reactive and use his excellent instincts. As it stands he is not looking as assured as last season when being asked to do far more. A slight worry at this point.

Ramires Reborn

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Now that John Obi Mikel’s role as Chelsea’s starting anchor-man has ended, Chelsea fans latest marmite player appears to be Ramires. The much maligned Brazilian frustrated many last season with his insane Jekyll and Hyde performances. Apparently incapable of hitting a five yard pass into space, but absolutely nailed on to beat five players and chip the goalkeeper, Ramires is a unique footballer.

The problem last season was in fact Ramires’ deployment as the ball playing midfielder. In many ways his use there mimics Michael Essien’s. A midfield destroyer entrusted with the most technical aspect of midfield play was rarely going to exceed expectations. Essien, to his credit, had many days where his radar was switched firmly on. However, when his passing was off key the parallels with Ramires’ game were stark.

Ramires is never going to become a cultured central midfielder capable of dictating play with artistic distribution. The frustration boiled down to the frequency upon which Ramires would cede possession or destroy a counterattack with poor end product. It is perhaps obvious at this point, but for those who still like to berate him, it was not his fault that he was being asked to play that role.

What we have seen this season is Ramires at his most effective. When Chelsea switched to a 4-3-3 against Swansea their midfield could not cope. Ramires’ introduction, slotting into the old Michael Essien box-to-box destroyer role, was crucial in this respect. Having someone behind him that can pass (Matić) and someone ahead of him who can really pass (Fàbregas) removes the creative burden from his shoulders. He can do what he does best and what he does best is win midfield battles.

There is not a player in the league with Ramires’ capacity to work, to relentlessly press and to hunt the ball. Where there was space in the first half, Swansea now saw Ramires. He was everywhere and more importantly he was using his world class acceleration and pace adroitly. In the 4-3-3 system Ramires is a huge asset and arguably the player that makes it work.

Two 1st XIs?

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The last point of discussion gravitates around the idea that Chelsea now has two purpose built strongest XIs:

1. for teams that we can dominate technically and tactically;
2. for teams on an equal footing with us where we need to be more solid

Last season we had to play solidly regardless of opposition. The relentless attacking onslaught that overcame Swansea and outscored Everton was not present last season. It is no surprise that playing a regimented system led to so many dropped points against opponent’s intent of parking the proverbial bus.

Defending deep with ten men behind the ball simply presents a "when" scenario rather than an "if". The familiar "if Eden Hazard beats 4 men and sticks it into the top corner we might beat x" is a thing of the past. Now we are looking at multiple final third threats. We see the value of having a striker who commands attention. Even for Hazard the amount of space he is getting against defensive teams is unheard of and he tore Swansea to pieces at the weekend.

We can easily transition to a 4-3-3 using Ramires and Willian as the hard working elements against tougher opponents. Yet, you feel even this dynamic has changed by the mere fact that our striker (be it Costa or Rémy) is actually a consistent threat. It will be interesting to see how we line-up against Manchester City, but you would have to fancy a counterattacking performance that has Costa leading the line. Ramires and Matić centrally, with Fàbregas floating between a distinctive number ten role and filling in as an auxiliary body. I would be surprised if we went with the gung-ho Matić/Fàbregas midfield two.

As things stand there are things to improve upon. However, the silver lining this season is that Chelsea finally appears to have the attacking flair to simply blow teams out of the water when required. A balance is needed to properly address some of our defensive concerns. I feel Chelsea will look to buy a central defender either in January or at the end of the season, and I do have concerns about Terry and Cahill in this current system. Thankfully, if anyone can look to resolve the issues we are currently seeing it is Mourinho. It may well be that Matić has a slightly more defined holding role or that he switches to a 4-3-3 more regularly. However José looks to achieve it, I have high hopes that, if corrected, Chelsea look like potential title winners. It has been a while since I've been actually able to say that.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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