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joetweedie | January 12, 2015

The Harding Perspective

Newcastle (H)

Saturday was the proverbial game of two halves. Chelsea moved through the gears after a mediocre first half display to finish comfortably against Newcastle. With Manchester City slipping up against Everton, Saturday’s result would see Chelsea move two points clear of their title rivals. City, amazingly, have not managed to win an away game without Yaya Touré for over two years. While this will not continue we can all hope that Ivory Coast go deep into the Africa Cup of Nations knockout rounds. If they make the quarter finals he misses our game at the tail end of this month.

With January flickering into life the transfer window moves to the forefront of football’s media circus. The most unlikely move in history sparked by Lionel Messi following Chelsea on Instagram was ludicrous from the outset. Messi is reportedly unhappy he is not paid as much as Cristiano Ronaldo and likewise has issues with the current manager. It all seems a bit Wayne Rooney-ish though. The Manchester United captain’s favourite negotiation tactic was to bat his eyelids at Chelsea.

A slightly more realistic move involves André Schürrle. The German is talented, tries hard but seemingly cannot make a telling impact in Mourinho’s first team. Frustratingly, Schürrle is conceptually the type of winger needed on the right to provide balance. Pacey, direct and unafraid to shoot, qualities that we need to mirror Hazard’s more considered approach. Where Hazard can stop and start, slowing the game down before accelerating and creating we need the opposite on the right: someone who gets the ball and relentlessly attacks his full-back. We are desperate for a player with a consistent end product – be that crossing, cutting the ball back, shooting or linking play. Whether through a lack of confidence, deterioration of his physical condition or the inability to choose the right option Schürrle is no longer that player. We cannot afford to carry someone and personally I do not think he is mentally tough enough to play for Mourinho.

Moving for someone in January to immediately occupy that right hand berth is going to be difficult. Marco Reus seems the obvious option, but in a "financially fair" world does it make sense to drastically overpay when he is available for €25m (~£19.5m) in the summer? Players of Reus’ quality do not come onto the market that often, particular for such a paltry sum. Poignantly, he has all the tools to balance an attack that heavily relies upon Eden Hazard’s metronomic brilliance. Reus is blessed with immense skill, the intelligence to play intricately, the work ethic imbued within any Borussia Dortmund player and he scores plenty of goals. A deal now would give us fantastic impetus in the title run-in, particularly if offset with the sale of someone like Schürrle. The only issue is that his injury record suggests he may be a risk.

Zouma and Terry

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Moving onto the Newcastle game it is difficult to look beyond the burgeoning performances of Kurt Zouma. I am always particularly buoyant about any youngster at the club, even if he was bought for a princely sum. Perhaps at times we can all get a little ahead of ourselves when praising their ability: in Kurt Zouma's case though it is entirely merited. The young French defender is far from being the shiny polished end product we all hope. I should make that clear. Yet, at twenty years old the promise and more importantly the development he is showing should be praised.

When Chelsea has possession Zouma will need to start taking better positions as we build up play from the back. We are a team that will often dominate possession, so this is something he will need to become accustomed to doing. He should always provide an option for our holding players that allow him to quickly shift the point of attack. Even something as simple as receiving the ball and quickly playing it out left to Terry/Luis can create the space we need to attack. However, given that many French coaches actively dissuade their centre-backs from crossing the halfway line it is clear that this is something Zouma can work on. Once his confidence grows we can extend this to his distribution. Defensively Zouma lacks experience (as you would expect) and you get the sense that at times he is not in tune with how athletic he is. The experience will come through playing and when he eventually fills out (quite a scary prospect) his timing/coordination should markedly improve.

These slight things aside Zouma is a beast of a prospect. I particularly like how he is aggressive in engaging the ball. One block during the second half in the centre circle allowed Chelsea to completely reorganise defensively. If he backed away the Newcastle player would have turned and started a dangerous counterattack. For someone so young the timing of his challenges is exceptionally good. We have to continually remind ourselves that he is just twenty years old. When a cross swung in from our left hand side Zouma crashed through the ball cleanly to clear. Rarely do we see him trying to overplay; if there is danger the ball gets launched as far away from goal as possible. He has all the makings of a proper centre back. We even saw him winning possession and driving forward with the ball in a slightly less kamikaze fashion than a certain Brazilian centre-back. It was somewhat comical to see him explode with the ball and having acres of space to burst into slow down and give a three yard pass. Baby steps Kurt.

I asked Sébastien Chapuis (@SeBlueLion) for some thoughts on Zouma. I am posting them in their entirety as they were too good to pick and choose from:

"The best thing in regard to Zouma's development is that he hasn't been played as a full back in competitive games this season. The frequent interchange between centreback and full-back from game to game was clearly something that didn't seem to help him back at Saint Etienne. Mourinho clearly sees him as a centerback.

He seems more composed than I've seen in the past (in France and pre-season), less tense and more willing to play the ball forwards. He has room for improvement as a ball playing centreback. Namely to be able to get on the ball, get past the striker and play the first pass forward (at the moment, Matić and Fàbregas slide into the channels to play those passes).

This is down to the technical aspect (first touch, passing technique) - too many clearances or passes back to Terry for now. Also needs to improve in terms of movement when Chelsea have possession. Latter point has left me a tad disappointed in general recently. The centrebacks need to quickly split the pitch in two when Čech or Matić are in possession to make the recycling of possession really efficient.

Zouma has shown willingness to learn and improve, signs of a good mentality. Even if I feel there's aspects of his game that are still raw, I'm not overly concerned because of that. Really seems to have kept his feet on the ground.

It looks more like conscious awareness that he needs to keep it simple. Doesn't fall into overcommiting into spectacular challenges to please fans; diving in like players such as Mamadou Sakho or Micah Richards use to on a regular basis.

His reading of the game looks more and more to be one of his strengths, not only to head the ball away but to play the ball back inside first time. Did that efficiently at Derby County, made several interceptions that he played first time into Schürrle's path. (That's what top CBs can do, see Boateng and Benatia at Bayern).

Probably on his way to keep a John Terry-like track record in terms of scoring goals from set pieces, certainly seems able to score 4-5 a season in the league.

My opinion is that I'm more eager to forgive him his "faults" than I am to Cahill who has repeteadly shown his limits recently. But I'm also aware that Zouma's integration is part of a long term process. That is not of course to say that Cahill isn't warranting of a starting role anymore, considering that he's better equiped to deal with the accumulation of games and the fans' expectation than Kurt Zouma currently is".

There is much to work on and improve, but Zouma has the potential to be a Chelsea centre back for the next ten years. I cannot remember the last nineteen/twenty year old I felt that confident about. Mourinho likes his physical centre backs and Zouma fits that mould perfectly.

A note on Terry as well who is taking an active role in mentoring Kurt Zouma. The circular nature of Desailly mentoring Terry and now Terry mentoring Zouma is not lost. Terry had a shaky first half, largely due to César Azpilicueta having a torrid time. It looked like Azpilicueta was injured from the first minute as he rarely, if ever, gets turned inside out so frequently. Being half a step short cruelly exposed Terry leaving him 1-on-1 far too many times. There was a noticeable improvement when Luis stepped in at left-back.

John Terry is the greatest club captain in world football. For whatever people think about him as a person, you cannot question his commitment to this football club. The way he is with the younger players is exemplary and I hope whoever takes over the mantle when he is no longer playing keeps that link alive. Every academy player publicly and privately has nothing but praise for him. It will be his role in Zouma's development that could prove the most crucial.

There were several moments during the game against Newcastle where you could see Terry talking to Zouma. Terry was either instructing Zouma on his positioning or just ensuring his young partner remained focused. There is a genuine sense of encouragement there, not competition and I think Terry sees Zouma as part of his legacy at the club. After one bustling piece of play that involved Zouma winning possession and striding into midfield the Frenchman turned to Terry who promptly gave him a thumbs up. Terry will forever be a legend at Chelsea, but his legacy might eventually live through Zouma. Combining even a modicum of Terry's defensive nous with Zouma's physical talents is a frightening prospect. Zouma comes across as incredibly humble, quiet, hardworking and passionate about playing for this football club. We should all hope he makes it as despite his tender years he very much looks like he gets it and that is a rare thing.

Tempo, Tempo, Tempo...  

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It was quite a weird game from Oscar. In a performance where he seemingly could not find a blue shirt for the majority of the game he scored a goal and made another. Statistically he is having an extremely good year if you are looking at the goals and assists column. Admittedly I am rather fond of the Brazilian - when he is at his best we inevitably sparkle. However, his consistency can be scrutinised. I suppose the question is would you rather Oscar have one of those games where he knits the team together beautifully but does little in terms of scoring/assisting or play like he did Saturday?

After half-time the tempo picked up and it was unsurprising that Diego Costa looked back to his cantankerous best. Costa scored his fifteenth league goal of the season in style, an even more impressive feat considering he does not take penalties or set pieces. After charging down an impending hoof Costa slightly blocked the flight of the ball. Play moved swiftly between Luis, Hazard and Oscar before finding Costa again. Oscar's flick was delightful and had it come from Fàbregas or Hazard we would have heard much more about it. Costa's ability to ghost past defenders in the area again was magnificent. He skulked into a yard of space before some extremely clever dribbling and feinting enabled him to reverse the ball back past Tim Krul.

In his first full season in English football you cannot fail but be impressed by Costa. We are a slightly less direct team than Atlético Madrid and as such Costa has had to get used to playing in a team with a more patient philosophy. He gets frustrated when he sees us delaying the pass into him, but it never deters him from making those runs. Costa is underrated technically, as the magnificent dribble that almost led to a wonder goal showed. His hold up play, particularly in the air, has improved a lot over the season. He is never going to be the most aesthetically pleasing of strikers, like Agüero, but stylistically he suits this team much better. Costa is a predator and a finisher, someone who scores goals and fights defences. He is the key to the title.

Our possession in the final third is definitely the mark of a good team. Moreover, the second half showed in particular how we should treat a team like Newcastle when we play well. Newcastle barely registered on the threat monitor after the interval. Nevertheless, in terms of our use of the ball I am unsure why it takes a Mourinho rollicking for us to pick things up. The difference was so patently obvious that the first half seemed like another team had been playing.

Teams will pack the edge of their area and invite us to move the ball laterally in a patient fashion. This is where we need to be braver and more aggressive. Eden Hazard is excellent at coming in off his flank to quicken the pace of our ball circulation. Either by finding clever little passes like the one to Oscar for Costa's goal or quickening up the game by accelerating into one of his dribbles, it destabilises the defending team. Likewise when Fàbregas starts to play short and sharp wall passes around their area, it draws defenders out from the comfort of playing six at the back. We need to see more of this intensity. Our interchange of passing in the second half was great, the rotation of our midfield far better, the use of wide areas drastically improved and ultimately we finished much the better side. Not perfect, but certainly enough to warrant three points. Mourinho apparently asked for more "sustained attacks" and pressure - he certainly got that.

Final Thoughts

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

A game that had plenty of scary moments in the first half ended up being somewhat routine come the conclusion of the ninety minutes. Had we conceded first it would have been interesting to see what Mourinho would have done to reverse a game where we had been second best for virtually forty minutes. I am still worried that we are not beginning games playing at a pace that consistently creates chances or pressure. Nevertheless, the second half showing was much improved.

Our right hand side looked stronger on Saturday, but could still benefit from a top class winger who maintains width. Again, I am a big fan of Willian, but his tendency to come inside when Hazard does the same narrows the game far too much. An addition on the right and Willian rotating with Oscar as a number ten would be an exciting prospect. Willian and Ivanoviæ’s role in the first goal were crucial. Extremely quick thinking from Willian and Ivanoviæ made the decision count by picking out a final pass of real quality. These flashes of intelligence can be the difference in tight games.

What is next for Gary Cahill? Kurt Zouma should not lose his place because he did not put a foot wrong. Has Mourinho simply given Cahill some time out of the first team after a torrid game against Tottenham? Is he rewarding Zouma for his development? The biggest fear for Cahill was that Zouma stepped into his shoes and played well. Where Cahill looks tentative to make a challenge and affords his opponent space Zouma looked assured and aggressive. In fact, Zouma’s athleticism and willingness to attack his forward seem a far better complement to Terry. If Zouma continues to improve at the rate he has from pre-season, Cahill’s place could very well be in jeopardy. I am unsure if Zouma is ready to step up permanently, but there is only one way to find that out.

It felt quite odd to see a team timewasting from about the fourth minute into the game. Newcastle had us on the run for almost the entirety of the first half yet saw fit to waste time at every opportunity. The referee did not punish them and his inconsistency when dealing with the cynically systematic fouling of Eden Hazard was baffling. At times I am unsure what the Belgian has to do to get a foul. Players crashing through the back of him, pulling his shirt and blocking him are apparently fine. After embarrassing Jack Colback the ginger haired runt almost resorted to rugby tackling Hazard in the penalty area. If the Belgian had gone down would the referee had awarded a penalty? He already missed a rather obvious handball. Mourinho has raised some pertinent points about the media’s undue influence on the perception of players. Not once did he criticise the integrity of referee’s. The fact Chelsea are still not getting decisions is not news, but perhaps the outcome of this FA hearing will be if Mourinho can get his point across succinctly.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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