Safe to say nobody at Chelsea played particularly well yesterday, in fact practically everybody performed quite badly. The worst performance by a distance however, if you ask me, was that of the manager – everything about how we were set up and operating seemed to be making things twice as easy for a Man City team who had gone three league games without a win.
At the beginning of the season, Roberto di Matteo’s first choice midfield pairing was Frank Lampard and Mikel. He persevered with it for about a month until he eventually realised we were never going to have any sort of control in midfield against any decent side without either more players or more energy sitting deeper on the pitch. Yesterday, Mikel and Lamps were outnumbered and looked overwhelmed from the beginning, unable to deal with Toure, Rodwell and Garcia, all of whom regularly took up advanced central positions.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Benitez’ tactics was his use of Ramires. Another mistake that RDM eventually rectified was to take Ramires off the right wing and use him as a holding midfielder. Arguably our two best league performances of the season so far were our back to back away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham, were our midfield was Mikel, Ramires and Oscar (withdrawn from a #10 position) – the same midfield quite possibly could’ve gotten a result against Man Utd, with a bit more luck and managed to restrict City to just a couple of shots on target at home. So why was Ramires stuck out wide for the entire match and why was he made a right back towards the end (and easy pickings for Aguero to beat and assist the 2nd goal)? And why was Oscar when he was bought on stuck out on the left wing, so he was, like Ramires, stood watching his teammates lose a midfield battle and waiting for a pass in a position where could do nothing with it anyway, short of play a long ball up to Demba Ba, or work the overlap with a knackered full-back.
Another serious cause for concern was our defending from corners – usually one of the most reliable aspects of our defending. And yet in the first half on three consecutive occasions, 19 year old Matija Nastasic was the first to reach the ball, forcing two reaction saves from Petr Cech. It doesn’t matter how big or how talented he is, a 19 year old shouldn’t be out jumping or out witting Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz or Mikel from at set piece delivery. Bearing in mind these are the players who would head away practically every single cross and corner last season, it would appear the zonal marking system for defending set pieces Benitez so strongly advocates, isn’t working particularly well. Either it needs abandoning or a lot more work.
As for our defending for the goals – I think in the eyes of most, both were extremely preventable. The time and space Yaya Toure was afforded on the edge of the box and the pathetically half-hearted efforts of Mikel and Cahill to close him down made what looked like an impressive goal, in actual fact far too easy for the Ivorian. The situation with the Tevez goal was practically identical. The finish was world class but the space and time he was allowed to take the shot was criminal from our point of view. The standard of our penalty box defending, particularly against counter attack this season has been atrocious; the fact that it can have been an issue this long and have improved so little is a real cause for concern.
The performance of Juan Mata was also questioned by some after the game. Once again, against top opposition the Spaniard’s influence dropped considerably and yet his first touch and dribbling skills were as immaculate as ever. To say that Mata goes missing in these big games I don’t is so much a criticism of the player but rather of how he is being used. You have to assume that he is being instructed to stay in between the lines and wait to be given the ball. If he didn’t maintain this advanced position then our only attacking outlets would have two diminutive wingers (one of whom is out of position) and a target man with a broken nose. There isn’t a number #10 on the planet, (not even Ozil, Sneijder, Pastore or Kroos) whose influence won’t decrease as their team surrenders the majority of possession. Criticsim of Mata in this situation is unjust I feel, as long as he’s being asked to maintain his ‘trequartista’ position by the coach, if the rest of the team can’t move the ball forwards, what is he supposed to do?
I guess we’ve now reached that miserable stage of the season where we have to start caring about Arsenal and Tottenham’s results. Assuming the latter are our biggest threat to a top 3 position, at the least the fixture book makes for considerably better reading on our side. Before we meet Spurs at Stamford Bridge, we play West Brom, Fulham, West Ham, Southampton and Sunderland, whilst AVB’s side have to face Arsenal, Liverpool, Fulham, Swansea (A) and Everton. Assuming they drop at least six points, I think that gives us a good opportunity of wrapping up a top four position with a derby victory at the Bridge on the 14th of April. As for Arsenal, I think the only set of supporters who want Arsenal to finish top 4, ahead of Chelsea less than we do, are the Arsenal fans! Given the most likely consequence would be a five year contract extension for Wenger.
When Benitez took up the CFC manager’s position in November he straight away pointed out the lack of balance in this team. Three months later does anyone feel this imbalance has been addressed? Very very slightly, maybe. Top 4 has to be the only objective from this stage; cup runs would be nice but are not worth the level of attention that could jeopardise our spot in the Champions League next season. I think it’s clear now the only way these issues will be fixed is with new signings and a fresh start in the summer. It’s too early to say hopefully with Mourinho back at the helm – shit! I just said it.