Though there’s been plenty of action to watch and become excited by over this summer’s pre-season, all of the promising signs we’ve observed were frustratingly offset by a lack of any notable improvement in sharpness or cohesion as the games accumulated. Any such related concerns however, were wonderfully done away with last night as we defeated Real Sociedad, not only with consummate ease, but also with some fantastically varied and intense attacking play, the kind of which we’ve only seen hints and glimpses of so far.
For the first time in far too long, we were using the width of the pitch effectively, with Filipe Luis working the overlap nicely with Eden Hazard and Oscar in the second half. Cesc Fabregas, through the brilliance and diversity of his passing range ensured our build up play from central midfield was far quicker, and more fluid than we’re used to, whilst Willian and Oscar frequently found and made use of pockets of space in between the lines. Diego Costa provided some exceptional all-round forward play, holding the ball up, dropping wide and making killer runs off the last defender into dangerous positions, not to mention finishing coolly for a brace on his home debut. Meanwhile Ramires and Andre Schurrle provided pace and incision on the counter attack when we won the ball back in dangerous areas.
Collectively, under the circumstances it was a hugely promising all-round performance. The key player behind all of the instantly evident improvements from last season though, was Cesc Fabregas. When the team sheet was released, many wondered how the Spaniard and Ramires would play together (whether Rami would sit deep and allow Cesc to play #10, or whether the Brazilian would go wide right). Ultimately their positions weren’t really fixed and Cesc got to show his ability in both roles, it was when he moved deeper that his influence on the game was most obvious and decisive however.
Arsene Wenger famously said when selling a 24 year old Fabregas to Barcelona, that though he may be young, he had a lot of football in his legs for a player his age. And there’s no doubt now, Chelsea have signed an ‘old’ 27 year old. This is another reason why I think he should play in midfield rather than as a part of the front four. As he gets older and less mobile, he’d be of better use to the team as a pure ‘regista’ type playmaker, in the mould of Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo. He certainly has the passing range and the intelligence to do so, and if there’s any coach who can instil the necessary tactical/defensive awareness, it’s Mourinho. Guile in that area of the pitch is what we were most desperately missing last year and it’s what Cesc can readily provide, it’s a no brainer for me that he start the season there.
The following are player ratings of the whole squad based on how ready they are to start the season, taking into account form, fitness and their individual capacity to contribute to this new look team…
Cech & Courtois – The Czech veteran has completely recovered from surgery on his shoulder, while the Belgian has shaken off a small knock. Courtois may be slightly less match fit but both keepers are ready and able to start the season and do a consistently brilliant job all year. Mourinho knows who he’ll pick on Monday night but won’t tell the players until Sunday (8/10)
Filipe Luis – Looks pretty close to the perfect full back, but may not be quite match fit yet, having not completed 90 mins once in pre-season so far. (7/10)
Azpilicueta – Our reigning Player’s Player of the Year, equally reliable on both sides, he may challenge more for the left back role initially until Filipe is fully fit, but it’s Ivanovic’s position he’ll be threatening more seriously long term. (7/10)
Terry and Cahill – Both have had long pre-seasons but haven’t played much together. Even with plenty of young competition at centre half within the club, their partnership looks unbreakable. (9/10)
Ivanovic – Having been here since the beginning of pre-season and being a favourite of the manager, he seems very likely to start the season in the XI. Azpilicueta represents a serious threat to his place though and he may be demoted to a reserve/utility role before the season is over (8/10)
Matic – In form. Match fit. Crucial to the team. Quality. (10/10)
Fabregas – Whether it’s in a deeper position or as the #10, he’ll be key to our title challenge this season. After a seemless integration, he’s already running the show. (10/10)
Van Ginkel – Given plenty of game time in pre-season and has looked good. He’ll have to ready to take his chances in the first team this year when they come along. (6/10)
Ramires – Whether the Brazilian starts the season the team I suppose depends largely on where Mourinho wants to use Fabregas initially. Having only been back two weeks, he might not be fully match fit just yet. (7/10)
Mikel Obi – Has looked his usual dependable self in matches so far, but remains merely a back up to Matic in the squad nowadays. With the club still needing to sell a foreign player, he may still soon be on his way out. (5/10)
Hazard – Not quite at his sharpest, but not far off. Still the best and most important attacking player at the club – this is a huge season in his career and he needs a good start. (8/10)
Oscar and Willian – The two Brazilians haven’t had as much pre-season football as they would’ve liked and have a horrifying World Cup exit to get over. They should both start off in the team but may find themselves in serious competition for a place if Andre Schurrle makes an expected step up this year (7/10)
Salah – The Egyptian has had a long and solid pre-season and looks a good squad player to have, but still evidently needs longer to adjust and develop to reach the standard that we’re aiming for (6/10)
Schurrle – Our World Cup winner. The German is unlikely to start the first few games having had such a short pre-season but he looks in decent form. All in all, his first season was slightly disappointing; he needs to kick on this year and prove he can contribute consistently. Rumours of him leaving the club sound like BS to me. (6/10)
Torres – It’s been nice not having to spend a pre-season wondering if this will be Torres’ year. It won’t be. He exists in the squad now primarily as back up to Costa but may be used in a wide role at times where his dribbling and crossing ability may still be of use. (5/10)
Drogba – Should recover from an ankle injury in time for contention, but quickly we may find this sort of knock being a regular occurrence for the 36 year old Ivorian, whose body obviously isn’t what it was. It seems impossible he won’t contribute at some point but realistically, he offers no threat to Costa’s place. (4/10)
Costa – In every sense, the ideal centre forward for Chelsea right now. After a great pre-season and fantastic home debut, he’s ready to lead this attack into the new season. (10/10)