It felt quite bizarre to be reading tweets after the game against QPR on Saturday and again lat night, criticising Roberto Di Matteo. He was the man who turned a sinking ship into a team of European Champions in under three months, so should be untouchable right? However, two games without a win in the league and some already start jumping on the bandwagon. The question is though, is he too defensive to be successful in the long term?
The 4-2-3-1 system adopted by Di Matteo in his time in charge has brought him sixteen wins, six draws and five losses so far, with a win percentage of 59% and of course two trophies. This is the preferred formation of many of Europe’s top clubs nowadays, as it is also the tried and trusted method at Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint Germain, and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. It could be argued that it’s a swanky new name for the 4-3-3 system, with the midfield three split into two holding midfielders and one playing off the striker. Success in Europe is often gained by defensive cohesion and organisation, so the two sitting in the middle protecting the back four could of played a big part in leading to that glorious night in Munich in May. However, it is these two positions which are splitting opinion currently.
John Obi Mikel may cause more debate than any other player in Chelsea’s squad. Personally, it has infuriated me throughout his six years with the blues whenever he gets caught in possession and fails to give the team the drive and class that the likes of Michael Essien and Claude Makelele once gave us, and what currently Yaya Toure and Paul Scholes are doing so effectively for the Manchester clubs. Those on the other side of the fence point to his performance in last season’s Champions League final, where he finally gave us that solidity that he was meant to bring when signed for an eventual cost of £16 million in 2006 from Lyn Oslo. You have to give credit to Di Matteo for bringing him in from the wilderness last season and getting that out of him, but has he really needed to play him every game so far this season? Thus far this campaign, we have faced Wigan, Reading, Newcastle, Athletico Madrid, QPR and Juventus. As we are one of the established elite in the league, and I mean this with all due respect to our opposition, we won’t need two holding midfielders against the Wigans and Readings of this world, so we could need more flexibility there
I do also understand that Frank Lampard is not moving as freely as he once did and his age is catching up with him. His game used to consist of pulling strings left and right, while commanding the space outside the penalty box and shooting on site in that area of the field. Nowadays, he is restricted to keeping things ticking over. But the way I see it, Lampard and Mikel playing as the two in the 4-2-3-1 system does not work. While I appreciate that the Super Cup spanking we received in Monaco was not a competetive game, the difference in pace between the two sides was laughable. This was in large part due to the lack of speed from turning defence into attack, which Athletico did so briskly and efficiently, catch us out on numerous occasions. This is why Ramires would be better used in this role. He gives us energy on the right wing, but this season he is running into blind alleys and his performances, dare I say it, have had a touch of the Kalou (Kalouless) about them at times. His level of stamina is frightening and the drive he could give us box to box, as he did very well for us last season, could be what we are missing.
While last Saturday’s game at Loftus Road was always going to provoke the endless handshake debate, which almost makes me yawn even writing about it now, sadly was amplified due to a what was on the most part a drab, uneventful game. I have to admit I was worried as soon as I saw the teamsheet. Not only did we lack movement coming forawrd from the likes of Lampard, Mikel and Ramires, but I wonder whether selecting Ryan Bertrand over Daniel Sturride or Victor Moses was the wisest move. Don’t get me wrong, Bertrand is a fantastic talent with so much potential, and did a satisfying job in Munich as defensive cover to Ashley Cole. But this was not Bayern Munich. This was a team who before last season hadn’t been in the Premier League for sixteen years, and no, I do not see them as rivals. In the three games he’s played in that position this season, I can’t see what effect he has had as a winger. He has gone missing in games, and while I’m prepared to give him the time he deserves, because he seems the natural successor to Cole, perhaps it was too defensive a selection for that specific game.
Daniel Sturridge is just not fancied by our Italian manager, as was personified by the number of selections Kalou was given at the back end of last season, due to giving us more when tracking back. Sturridge has not started once yet this season, but in the two games he has come on as a substitute, against Reading and on Saturday, his fresh legs have been electrifying. I keep saying that while it is frustrating that he doesn’t pass enough, he is only 22 and has world class ability. He can score goals, can beat a man, and it upsets me when our fans get on his back, because not so long ago he was arguably our best player under he who must not be named (AVB). I constantly urge people to see how good he is in five years time. But Di Matteo’s refusal to play him could be another sign of a defensive mindset, or tactics that benefit the team as a whole, or perhaps a bit of both.
Cynics may also look towards our performace at home to Benfica in the second leg of our Champions League quarter final last season. A man up, 2-0 up on aggregate and being at home did not stop us from getting men behind the ball and knocking it long, and while we did eventually come through a stern test, at one stage it was looking very nervy. However, those who knock the tactics used in the semi final and final must be claims born out of jealousy, as you’d have to be mad to play open,expansive football against Barcelona, and we had to admit we’re not as good as we once were and build from a solid base at the back. Quite frankly, who cares how we played in those games, we still went home with the trophy and priceless memories.
The first three games of this season showcased a slick passing movement and flair that we haven’t seen at the Bridge since the days of Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Joe Cole in their pomp, which is why it has baffled me that we’ve gone back to direct tactics recently, particularly as we no longer have a target man in Didier Drogba. But then let’s remember it’s only the last two games that haven’t gone our way. Roberto Di matteo has worked wonders so far, and while I have to admit I wasn’t entirely convinced by his tactics at times last season, I can’t argue with what he achieved, so I won’t be too hasty with any teething problems our new brand of football has to make.