With the Community Shield game against Manchester City just one week away, this seems like a good time to review Chelsea’s pre-season 2012. In short – not good. Okay in terms of promoting and expanding the franchise stateside it was certainly a success; in terms of achieving match fitness and getting everyone minutes on the pitch, you could say ‘objective achieved’, performances however have left a lot to be desired and have arguably left us with more questions than we had before. Only a stupid person would start drawing conclusions but only an ignorant person wouldn’t have any concerns.
Especially in defence, I think we have really seemed to struggle picking up where we left off. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say all 10 goals conceded in pre-season were easily preventable. Some you have to admit were the consequences of sloppy passes that match fitness and form will eradicate, but some however were the result of just plain poor positioning and decision making from experienced players and it wasn’t good to see.
One thing that will have to improve this season is our ability to defend on the counter attack. Last year, Andre Villas-Boas tried to get us playing attacking, possession football with the defence pressing high up the pitch; we all know how successful that was. Now though, with all the young attacking talent we’ve bought in there’s pressure on Di Matteo to make this possession game work, and it won’t work with the back four sitting deep and offering no support to the midfield at all. We need to get better at winning the ball back quickly, defending as a team, making sure we cover for the full backs and David Luiz when they move forward – which in an attacking, possession based system, they will be fully entitled/encouraged to do.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Chelsea can successfully defend in the Premier League with a high defensive line, our defenders are quick, know each well and we’ve got defensive midfielders disciplined and experienced enough to help make up numbers at the back when we need them. It might mean we’re soft at the back to start with, but we’re going have to persevere I feel to get the best out of our new signings. I think it might have slipped a lot our minds, the defence will need time to adapt as well, with all the changes being made to our attack this summer.
Yesterdays disappointing loss to Brighton and Hove Albion, definitely resurrected some dark memories of watching Chelsea fail to break down weaker opposition, with a midfield three and ineffective wingers. Some suggested Di Matteo should take the performance as proof 4-3-3 simply won’t work with this group of players and just forget about it. Personally though I think it’s important we show tactical diversity/flexibility next year. My logic – if you have the players for numerous formations, use numerous formations. The benefits of a set-up don’t go away just because it doesn’t suit you the best. Particularly against the likes of Fulham and Sunderland and Manchester Utd (who still play with fairly flat midfield 4s) having three midfielders in the middle gives you a clear advantage.
I’m definitely with the consensus on predominately using 4-2-3-1 next season, but to completely lose touch with the formation that’s bought us so much success over 8 years would be a mistake in my opinion.
Now let’s have a look at various individual pre-seasons:
Eden Hazard: For me, new signing Eden Hazard was the stand out player of the US tour. From the first whistle he looked sharp and eager and threatening every time he got the ball, making dangerous runs and picking up good positions as part of an attacking three behind the striker. Even without playing exceptionally, I think he showed his quality and proved what an asset he’s going to be this season. Yesterday though against Brighton, he disappointed. Jason Cundy correctly pointed out on Chelsea TV that without more experience and tactical/positional discipline he is going to struggle to play as a wing forward in a 4-3-3. His link up play with Ashley Cole was bad, and he moved out of position far too often. Not that this really should concern anyone, with Eden still being so young and in all likelihood, not going to be playing that role much at all next year.
Ramires: I was disappointed not to see Ramires get a chance to play in what I think is his best role in pre-season – more centrally and deeper set. Personally I don’t like the idea of using Ramires as a winger next season, which looks like what Di Matteo is planning. In a similar fashion to Hazard, the runs Rami makes and the positions he picks up are excellent, but his decision making from wide positions are pretty bad – almost Theo Walcott bad! He also is not a great crosser of the ball. Regardless though, I think Ramires has got the talent and the work ethic to adapt and improve his games to play wherever Di Matteo wants him to. I predict he’ll have another good year.
Other players: Looking at the rest of the squad, I think both Raul Meireles and Michael Essien didn’t play brilliantly, at times both looked laboured and indecisive on the ball. I thought Josh McEachran looked very good on the ball though and I was disappointed not to see more of him in America. It was a shame not to see more of Marko Marin as well, whom I think is probably the best natural winger we’ve had at Chelsea since Arjen Robben. Fernando Torres hasn’t played much and was starved of the ball at Brighton yesterday, but still has looked good I think – clearly he knows what a massive, make or break year he has coming up. Kevin De Bruyne struggled to really impact the games he played in on tour but still looked energetic and showed his class in moments. I think his loan move to Werder Bremen is a smart decision, I think he’ll have a good future at Chelsea. Finally, I think a loan out would also be a good move for Romelu Lukaku who showed us all of the pace and power and raw talent we knew he had in pre-season, but still didn’t show us any of the finesse or discipline we all knew he was lacking. There is a lot of hard work needs to go into his game if he’s going to be a top striker at Chelsea, which I’m sure he knows and is prepared to put in. He said only a few weeks ago he intends to play for Chelsea his entire career – good luck to him.
So overall, things aren’t looking too promising for the Community Shield next week, with not a lot going for us at the moment. Di Matteo still has problems to fix and decisions to make before the season gets underway. Strangely I’m not particularly worried or confident about our first few fixtures, I think we could fall flat against Wigan and Reading just as easily as we could steamroll them. (Apologies to any fans reading this, looking for reassurances, I’m not being too helpful am I?)
Whilst there is a real pressure on us to perform this year, as Champions of Europe, I would still urge all Chelsea fans not to get impatient with the side or Di Matteo for the first few months. Just try and sit back and enjoy watching some of the best young players in the world become a great team together – a process that won’t be hurried up by immediate disparagement and open criticism.
To sign off, just a quick well done to Oscar who was brilliant again in helping Brazil reach the semis of the Olympic football tournament, and also commiserations to Ryan Bertrand and Daniel Sturridge who lost on penalties to the South Koreans. It incensed me to read abuse for Sturridge last night after what he went through to be prepared for this tournament. Some people need to look in the mirror. I just want to get everyone back together now and get this season started; pre-season always drags on too long for me.