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joetweedie | January 19, 2015

The Harding Perspective

Swansea (A)

What an unpredictably brilliant weekend for Chelsea. A first half performance as good as any Chelsea side have ever put together was wonderfully capped by Arsenal’s discovery of a backbone at the Etihad. It was like pulling out your winter jacket after a year of hibernation to find £50 tucked into the inside pocket. Unexpected bonuses are always the best.

To put this weekend into context we start with our opponent Swansea. The Welsh side have only lost once at home this season and typically prove a mixed bag for us to deal with. We were outplayed, briefly, at home by their midfield and their style of possession based football with extreme pace in wide areas is tricky to contend. Therefore, gaining three points was a huge result as this was our trickiest away fixture remaining outside of the obvious trip to the Emirates. Three points were a great return and the football played was exceptional.

Mourinho has created a side capable of playing in a robust, technical and aesthetic manner. While modern coaches are obsessed with having a “football philosophy™”, Mourinho is concerned with winning. If he can do that while playing like we have for most of the season, so be it. Saturday was fantastic because it continued on the improvement we saw in the second half against Newcastle. The malaise seems to have subsided for now and we march into an important period full of confidence.

Psychological Pressure

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Saturday was important because it allowed us the opportunity to exert pressure on Manchester City. From memory it was the first time this season we have played before our title rivals and their fixture was relatively difficult. Without Yaya Touré, City is not the same side. They can cope without Sergio Agüero and David Silva, but the domineering Ivorian is a huge loss. City knew they had to win the game, but they put in a performance of abject quality.

This result does not signify that City will be that bad when they play us. We cannot fall into a trap that allows a level of comfort to creep into our preparation. City knows they have to beat us. Nevertheless, I do feel that their level of performance and the result reveals something about City’s character. With little bravado the title is ours to lose. If we are not crowned champions in May then we have done something very wrong.

Watching Vincent Kompany berating the referee and completely losing his cool repeatedly said much about City as a side. Do they have the mental capacity to fight for a title? Our implosion last season coupled with Gerrard’s slip (which José thankfully has asked us to no longer sing about) handed them the title. This season is going to be a scrap and City has an opponent that will not have many bad days at the office. Chelsea’s young guns are maturing at the right time and a league title will help cement their mentality. We must turn the screw and prey on City’s fragility. This loss does not prefigure the City we will see at the Bridge, but it does intimate that they are feeling the pressure. Who better to crank it up then José Mourinho?

Peaks and Troughs

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For many Oscar is a polarising player. He can play incredibly well and not create or score. Likewise, he can play below par and score and create. Oscar remains one of my favourite players, someone with an inordinately high ceiling in terms of potential and a fulcrum of this Chelsea side. My only critique was that he was not doing enough in the final third. However, after contributing fourteen goals this season already (seven goals/seven assists) his impact is becoming more noticeable.

Oscar is one of Chelsea’s most important players; I firmly believe that. He is not a conventional number ten, therefore defining him by what a conventional number ten does is odd. Our success against Swansea stemmed from a ridiculously formidable press when out of possession. This press was led by Oscar and he conducts this side of our game well. Without Oscar’s ability to press the game takes a different path to the one that played out. Swansea could not breathe in the first half. We were fantastic in possession but amazingly even more impressive without it.

Oscar’s first goal was delightfully taken highlighting his excellent awareness. Utilising Diego Costa’s run and Ashley Williams’ reticence to tackle, Oscar drives towards the goal and spots a perfect opportunity to fire a low shot into the corner. The shot was crisp and perfectly placed leaving the goalkeeper with little chance of stopping it. He visibly grew in confidence from thereon and watching him in the first half was a pleasure.

Oscar is just twenty three years old. The scope for further development of all areas of his game is vast. Tactically, when he is fit, he is as close to perfect as you could ask anyone to be. Mourinho boldly claimed that “Oscar is my number 10” and since then has worked on evolving the Brazilian into this hybrid role. The passing angles that Oscar presented the man on the ball, his touch and use of possession were brilliant against Swansea. This is patently what Mourinho wants – his ten to rotate deep, wide, centrally and even ahead of Costa at times. It was a complete performance.

Consistency is going to be only thing that stops Oscar from truly reaching his potential. Although he scored and assisted a goal against Newcastle, his performance was subdued. To follow that up with a two goal haul and a commanding display was Oscar in a nutshell. A precocious talent with the ability to facilitate play and change games, but whose sharpness (possibly fitness) means he is not at full capacity every game. If we can find a way of keeping Oscar fresh he will realise his potential. Expecting him to put in this type of performance every week is a bit much.

Diego Costa – None Better

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When Chelsea signed Diego Costa I wrote a lengthy piece on him over at my old stomping grounds. It outlined, in essence, what Diego Costa was and was not about as a footballer. Even now people are still expecting an entirely different skill set from him, despite seeing him for half a season. Social media is awash with Agüero versus Costa threads, with the consensus being that Agüero is “far better” than Costa. Why people drive themselves mad with these inane sorts of debates is beyond my comprehension (see Alexis Sánchez vs Eden Hazard).

People can talk themselves into a daze around the intricacies of their play and statistical outputs. Yet, would you swap Costa for any striker in the Premier League? I can imagine City fans watching yesterday wishing they had a centre forward who could bully Arsenal’s back four and come up with a goal – any type of goal. In big games, where you are closely guarded, Costa’s pugnaciousness gives him an edge. If you get physical he will give it back and then score (hello Martin Skrtel!). This Chelsea side needs a physical striker – the perfect complement to the fleet footed attackers behind him.

We finally have a player up front who gets this football club. When things are not going his way he charges about the pitch chasing lost causes, harassing defenders and generally looking for trouble. All his effort and endeavour lead to him scoring, even when not at his best. Costa may never score a goal from thirty yards, or be overtly “technical”, but everything from his unconventional dribbling to his indomitable will to win are driving this Chelsea side onwards.

Costa’s two goals and an assist were noteworthy moments in a whirlwind performance. Williams repeatedly tried to get under his skin and was riposted with Costa’s movement and finishing. We have not had someone this deadly since Drogba in his peak and perhaps even back to Hasselbaink. If he gets a chance he invariably finishes and the pressure he exerts on defenders is astronomical. His second goal was a perfect example of Costa in motion. Realising that Swansea was under duress Costa gambled on the ball returning to the keeper. If you watch closely he skulks into position before the defender even thinks about passing backwards.

Costa is an apex predator who lacks the artistry of some of his contemporaries. This notion of picking style over substance is only going to matter on YouTube highlights packages. Until football awards additional points for artistic merit I will pick the goal scorer with a mean streak over any player on the table. Viva Diego.

Vamos Anti-Football

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I take a significant amount of pride in Chelsea’s ability to suck the life out of any football match using anti-football® tactics. The fact you are only allowed to win playing beautiful football irks me. Anything below that threshold has the moral arbiters frothing. Think of the outrage at Chelsea versus Barcelona in 2012 or even the final in Munich. We did not deserve to win because we played tactically disciplined defensive football and rode our luck. It is, therefore, with some sadness that I now look at this Chelsea side and realise we actually play good football.

Okay, the sadness part is a lie and I am unsure what passes as the global standard of “good football”, but if a benchmark exists we are surely exceeding it. As José Mourinho does not play “good football” or attacking football we clearly are doing something to contravene the laws of physics.

Everything that the universe has created memes for seems broken. The inimitable screeching of buses being reversed into garages is a piercing sound. Graphics of Mourinho playing a back ten with Diego Costa the lone forward have disappeared from the internet. John Terry jokes, Diego Costa flopping, laughing that we re-signed a player etc., all gone. Have we broken football?

For me good football is winning football. Unsuccessful teams hide behind possession stats and passing completion percentages to masquerade the fact they are not actually that good at the objective. Even amidst Mourinho conspiracy theories you would need to have an agenda to state that this Chelsea side are not brilliant to watch. The pleasure of seeing Eden Hazard skip past people, Cesc Fàbregas playing passes that should only really exist in computer games and the intricate one and two touch play of an attack so in sync it feels almost automatic at times is as good as football gets.

Mourinho is, at the heart of it, incredibly pragmatic. Conversely, it is now practical to play our opponents off the pitch. Against Swansea there were acres of space: we passed, we dribbled, we moved and we played with such attacking purpose that we made Swansea look like a Sunday League team. This bodes well for the business portion of the season.

Perhaps the most important element of the first half was not anything on the pitch but Mourinho’s touchline demeanour. Instead of settling for a decent lead the camera panned to Mourinho and he was visibly telling his team to go for the kill. Everything from his eyes to his gestures suggested he wanted more and that his team were going to deliver it. It was been a season and a half into the second coming of Mourinho. Are we now at a point where he is ready to unleash his team to kill games? We have been tentative at times this season, but Swansea could mark a turning point. Mourinho pushed for us to not only stick the knife in, but twist it and wrench it out. No mercy.

Final Thoughts

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Filipe Luis is looking better with each passing game. It is likely that he has required a run of games in the side to fully acclimatise himself with the demands of the Premier League. Defensively he is not going to be an Ashley Cole or César Azpilicueta, but his performance against Swansea was encouraging. Luis seemed to be into his man much sooner than he has previously, not allowing them to turn. Engaging in attack and thoughtful in defence – does Azpilicueta walk back into the team?

My relationship with Ivanoviæ is back on the mend. For all his faults he is bloody effective. Another assist for the season and a better understanding with Willian helped (who should have scored. When he underlaps and overlaps, we just need him to be in areas where he can play cutbacks rather than big out-swinging crosses. His run and pass for Schürrle’s tap-in was world class and he kept everything solid at the back. Ivanoviæ is a nightmare to match up with due to his size and power. He made some excellent runs during the game but more importantly his final ball and decision making were vastly improved. Ajde Branna.

Onwards to Liverpool where I expect a strong side to be named ahead of multiple changes for the Bradford game. Hopefully we can put the tie to bed tonight and then worry less about the return leg. Whatever anyone says about the League Cup, at this stage of the competition Wembley is Wembley. If Tottenham win their semi-final what better way of avenging a 5-3 defeat then to batter them in a final?

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.