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joetweedie | April 20, 2015

The Harding Perspective

United (H)

Walking out of Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening was pretty special. The raucous atmosphere of the second half culminated in a cacophony of ‘Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!’ chants as the game came to its conclusion. It drove the team on to record a superb victory. Martin Tyler summed it up perfectly during his Sky commentary – “such a great ground for atmosphere this, probably the best in the south of England”. It was the type of noise that dispelled this ridiculous notion that our fans are inherently plastic.

Outside the ground the chanting continued well after the final whistle – the din dissipating only as far as the surrounding pubs before continuing once more. This was a proper day of football. It is fitting that the resurgence of “Matthew Harding’s Blue and White Army” has catalysed those at Stamford Bridge. Harding, who would never have believed where the club are now, is undoubtedly smiling down on SW6. Organic and distinctly Chelsea the chant filled the entire of Stamford Bridge cascading from the Harding End all the way to the Shed. United’s typically loud away support could not be heard.

The performance itself is being portrayed as Mourinho parking the bus, but inside the stadium it was one of those games you simply love to be at. Besides, the constant bemoaning of our style of football is also quite puzzling. We played some of the best stuff in Europe before January, but this seemingly has been forgotten. It is generally the reason we have such a commanding lead in the Premier League. Nevertheless, the fact we are now at the business end of the season and treating it as such, criticism for playing to win is raining down on the side and manager. Until you win points for artistic merit the score is the only statistic that matters.

The Garden of Eden

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It is a privilege to watch Eden Hazard play football; our number ten has taken his game onto a completely different level this season. Unquestionably the Belgian has elevated himself to being the difference on a weekly basis. Both technically and tactically his growth under Mourinho has been astonishing. Transitioning play from defence to attack, carrying the ball through midfield, Eden is evolving into a complete player.

Against Manchester United he was untouchable in possession and entirely selfless without the ball: diligently tracking runners, winning the ball back before launching the team forward were hallmarks of his game. The onus placed on him to deliver and his willingness to carry that burden is incredible. Personal accolades may not be at the top of his list of things he wants to achieve this season but it will make a mockery of the process if he is not anointed the Footballer of the Year.

In Eden Hazard we may be witnessing the greatest player to ever wear the shirt. There is much to achieve before he sits comfortably on that mantel. Yet, on talent, he is possibly already there. A quiet leader, you only need to read the comments Ivanović made about him to determine his worth. I like how he rarely complains; given the punishment his ankles take this is some feat. There is none of the preening Ronaldo attitude to be found in him (although he might improve further if he adopted a modicum of the Portuguese superstar’s selfishness in front of goals).

Mourinho has many detractors outside of SW6 (a few who follow the club as well fall into this bucket). The list of reasons is as familiar as it is long. Nevertheless, the development of Eden Hazard under José Mourinho’s stewardship is undeniable. Chelsea’s number ten is now equal parts tactical and creative. He understands how to win football matches and precisely when to burst into life. The way he pinched the ball from Wayne Rooney’s toes before driving from one penalty box to the other was magical. A moment that symbolised the disciplined team ethic of Mourinho blended sumptuously with Eden’s own unique talents.

This hybrid free role he has played in for 8 weeks suits him. Importantly Mourinho is building the team around his talents. Thierry Henry made some good points about Hazard in the post-match analysis portion on Sky. To paraphrase Henry wanted Hazard to realise that this was his time and his team, to play like he was the man. I feel Mourinho has been having similar words with Hazard. Casting your mind back to his first tenure and how he instilled belief within his players. He once told Lampard he could be the best midfielder in the world (and he was right).

For whatever the “average position” graphic is worth recently you will see Hazard moving centrally. Less content to stand on the peripheries and wait for the game to come his way he now looks for the ball regularly. One drop of the shoulder creates yards of space to either dribble into or pass. A shimmy, some quick feet and Hazard is running at the penalty box before playing a deliciously weighted through ball. We are witnessing greatness in the making. With a few choice additions in the summer and Hazard continuing to develop Chelsea’s number ten is only going to continue to improve. How scary is that?

Zouma, Zouma, Zouma

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“We had to put someone on Fellaini, especially for the long balls, so yes our style changed. I thought Zouma did extremely well. I think his future is as a centre-back but he can do the job very well in central midfield when it’s needed. He played very well against Spurs in the final of the Capital One Cup; he played well against West Ham away and again this weekend. He’s a top, top boy. He wants to learn, he wants to play” – Cesc Fàbregas on Kurt Zouma

I find it somewhat ironic that David Moyes’ philosophical vision for Manchester United is coming to fruition under a Dutch footballing visionary. Manchester United fans would never have accepted this direct style of football under the Scot, but appear to be acquiescing under LvG. Ultimately if you have Marouane Fellaini at your disposal you should play to his strengths. Technically deficient and clearly nowhere near the passer that Michael Carrick is the best use of Fellaini is as a target man. The revival we were sold before the game has come almost exclusively from hitting Fellaini long and often. I am not suggesting that Manchester United are the second coming of Wimbledon, but given the traditional style United play with this is a departure of considerable proportions.

Enter Kurt Zouma. The Frenchman has become something of a cult hero during his first season, but that label somewhat downplays the significance of both his role and talent. I doubt many could see such dramatic progress being made from preseason. Originally looking like an incredibly raw prospect with unique physical talents he has transformed into someone capable of bossing Agüero/Sterling. Zouma’s improvement certainly adds weight behind the argument that many of our young players will develop at a quicker rate training and playing with Chelsea.

I think a huge part of why Chelsea fans have taken Zouma so readily to their hearts is because of his attitude. Humble, hardworking, eager to improve, wanting to learn and getting the club go a long way in the fledgling steps of any player. I love how competitive he is, how physical he plays, how wonderful he is at nailing people in tackles and that he looks like the heir to John Terry’s throne. Personally, I am a big fan of my centre back being the first player to wade into any trouble on the pitch: Zouma does this regularly if a scuffle breaks out. A little thing but it is the type of thing that endears you to teammates and fans – Zouma will fight for the shirt and his team.

There was absolutely no surprise that Mourinho saw his young French defender as the panacea to Fellaini’s aerial prowess. However, it was still astounding that Zouma pocketed Fellaini so easily once the game settled. Every tussle, physical contest or ball towards the Belgian was fought for; Zouma having been instructed to reduce the game to “10 vs 10” by Mourinho relished the challenge. As the second half rolled on Zouma simply stepped up through the gears and reduced Fellaini to a beanpole unable to influence the game.

One piece of play where Zouma simply battered Fellaini off the ball before rumbling like a freight train down the touchline was impressive and also slightly comedic. How often do you see Fellaini swatted away like a fly? At one point, after Zouma had essentially worn Fellaini like a backpack for 30 seconds, Zouma stopped and turned to see where the Belgian was. Fellaini, clearly frustrated, had simply stopped in his tracks. How often do you see play just stop in a top level Premier League game?

I think Zouma is an incredible talent and potentially a lynchpin of this side for the next decade. If he continues to show the same attitude and application he can feasibly be pushing for more starts next season at centre back. There may not be a more physically capable player in the league. He destroyed United’s main weapon on Saturday and reduced United to passing the ball about for long period between McNair, Smalling and De Gea.

Philosophy Be Damned

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Vamos Anti-Football™! The wider footballing public were out in force again after Mourinho’s strangling tactics suffocated the life out of a Manchester United side bristling with confidence. Poignantly for all the talk of anti-football Chelsea scored from the best piece of play in the entire game. A wonderful goal started by a John Terry challenge brilliantly finished by the best player in the Premier League. Fàbregas’ pass bamboozled Ander Herrera who went one way before realising the error of his misjudged intercept attempt. Oscar’s delightful backheel released Eden Hazard who accelerated into top gear effortlessly before slotting the ball between David De Gea’s legs.

This notion that Mourinho plays inherently bad football is perplexing. We are where we are largely because of that superb run of form up until January. During this period we played teams off the pitch and aesthetically the football was excellent to watch. Teams do not play wondrous sparkling football for the entire length of a season. We entertained to start and as we enter the business end of the season we have rolled our sleeves up and gotten on with things. Why we need to entertain the neutrals is beyond my comprehension.

Football is a result business. How you get there matters, but actually getting there is the crucial part. Free-flowing football would be the ideal but the reality hardly ever matches up to the vision. Would that fabled Barcelona team have garnered the same reputation had they rightfully been beaten by us in the Champions League? History only remembers that Barcelona beat us and went on to become dominant. It is a fickle mistress and does not have time for the minutiae or Øvrebø’s scandalous refereeing.

We as a country have become obsessed with this mythical pursuit of the unobtainable. Every manager has a “philosophy” which for all intents and purposes is indistinguishable from the next. Teams buy into playing “the right way©” which loosely translates to passing-possession-based-football. The game has become awash with management consultant-ese, buzzwords and jargon masquerading as an in depth knowledge of the game. Are you running a football team or a project? Mourinho’s philosophy is to win and he can do so in many different ways.

Mourinho, for daring to strategically deploy his players in a way that puts them in a position to win football matches, sits at the polar opposite from these modern visionaries. Winning is everything – as it should be – how you achieve that is immaterial. We have worked extremely hard to obtain a 10 point lead over our closest rivals. Why would we compromise that for the sake of trying to play some vanilla “brand” of football? Was anyone at Stamford Bridge on Saturday not entertained by Hazard’s expert counterpunching? Football is unique in that it can be played in so many different ways. The homogenisation of football as a sport to create a jejune battle of possession and passing statistic percentages is what the philosophers want to see.

Thankfully Mourinho sees past the nonsense and his team have bought into the end goal. He famously quipped “would you like to enjoy the game or the celebrations after?” when preparing his team for a FA Cup Final versus Manchester United. In a world of philosophically obsessed managers having the arch-pragmatist at the helm is almost unfair. While they quibble and seek public favour Mourinho goes about his job winning points in the easiest manner possible.

Titles are not won by the team who passes the ball well, but by those who gain the most points. As this team continues to develop Mourinho will look to increase the flexibility he offers during bigger games. Until that point comes then Mourinho will invariably outthink his opposite number, nullify their strengths, counterpunch and win football matches.

Chalobah – The Forgotten Man

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Perhaps lost in the furore of our weekend result was the excellent performance at Wembley of Nathaniel Chalobah. The Chelsea Academy product has become something of a forgotten man and an example of how poor loan selections can derail progress. Yet, Wembley was something of an arrival moment for Nate. Playing against Arsenal’s first choice midfield he ran the show: dominant physically, exhibiting a wonderful range and pace of passing and looking like the player many of us think he could become.

Upon asking an Arsenal colleague in work how the game went he quipped that “their number fourteen is a quality player, the best midfielder on the pitch. We couldn’t really deal with him. I bet someone buys him in the summer”. I then told him he was already a Chelsea player.

Many people will know that I am incredibly passionate about establishing a core of Chelsea Academy players in the first team squad. Chalobah, in this respect, should have been the first player to make the step up. At 6’1” and having filled out a lot this season the 20 year old has the required physicality to play in the Premier League. Moreover, it is his technical ability as both a passer and tempo setter that make him someone who could feasibly slot into Chelsea’s midfield. He possesses the range to play box-to-box but has more technique, height and presence than someone like Ramires. I would imagine if the Brazilian moved on this summer, that Chalobah could easily fill that squad role.

With things not working out at Burnley, due to Dyche’s loyalty to his own players and Chalobah being a footballer not a street fighter, the immediate thought was to discount him coping at the Premier League level. Ultimately players play for managers they respect, who can get the best out of them and who utilise their strengths. Dyche rarely built play up through midfield and repeatedly picked trusted water carriers ahead of Nate. It was a partnership that was never going to work. While it has taken both a settling in period at Reading and time to adapt to Steve Clarke’s methods, Chalobah is shining once again.

Chalobah stamped his authority on an FA Cup semi-final against the form team in the country. It was a performance that suggested that not only is he comfortable at the top level but that he thrives on it as well. He won plenty of challenges, passed extremely well, had a couple of decent attempts at goal and generally outplayed those around him. It might just have been enough for Chelsea to consider giving him an extended look in preseason. He is just 20 years old with such a high ceiling in terms of what he could become. It would be stupid to continue to fritter that potential away on endless loans. Look at Zouma and how much he has benefited from playing and training.

For a player to be here since the age of 10 you get the impression that he understands the club. I can never stress enough the importance of having that type of player in the team. You never doubt the commitment of Terry, even when those around him seem to dip. That, in my eyes, is largely because of how he got into the first team. Terry understands the fans and is our link to the first team. Nate, from interviews and people who know him, shares this mentality. He wants to play for Chelsea.

If the summer continues to be one of rebuilding for Mourinho he could do a lot worse than to offer an opportunity to Chalobah to prove himself. Mooted departures include Ramires and Mikel; both could more than adequately be covered by Chalobah. This is not wishful thinking on my behalf – he really does have the potential to not only boost the technical quality of our midfield but athletically as well. A midfield destroyer with quality on the ball is a rare thing to find, so when one has come through your Academy you might want to try giving him a game.

It is easy to forget the hype that surrounded Chalobah when he was coming through the Academy. I once saw him completely outplay Paul Pogba as a kid. Certainly the loans he has undertaken have not entirely benefited him, but that is the case for a lot of youngsters. Lewis Baker, for example, is thriving at a team who actively try to play football. Chalobah, unfortunately, rarely seems to find a club willing to play to his strengths. I feel all he needs is an opportunity and 20-30 appearances a season – with injuries, hopefully a better rotation system and a focus to develop talent in cup competitions this is achievable. (Obi Mikel and Ramires have made around 37 appearances this season).

We are now producing some of the best young talent in world football. It is about time we tried to utilise some of that considerable investment of time, money and emotional capital. Who knows? We might save ourselves £30m in the process. Watching Chalobah’s performance against Arsenal confirmed that he is ready to make the step up to the Premier League. I hope the club feel the same and give him an opportunity, like they have done with Zouma, in an area of the team we lack depth. He will take it and like Zouma he may very well contribute straight away.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.