I have decided to do this preview by category to allow for easier reading. As with any season preview at this stage of the transfer window – almost 2 weeks to go – there may still be significant movement, and even one quality signing can alter the squad’s balance enormously.
Very little thought goes in to the tactical processes and requirements for a goalkeeper. Some goalkeepers are smaller with quicker reflexes, others are taller with a longer reach. Some goalkeepers are comfortable with the ball at their feet, and with passing the ball short, others simply aren’t. All goalkeepers have strengths and weaknesses, which can be exposed by tactics which don’t suit them, and conversely can look like world beaters when their strengths are highlighted by the demands of the tactics. Petr Cech is a perfect example of this. At the start of last season, Andre Villas-Boas favoured short build-up play from the back with short goalkicks, and a high defensive line. This meant greater demands on Cech to pass the ball accurately from the back. It meant he had to face a lot of one-on-ones with opposition forwards. And it meant he had to play as a sweeper keeper to cover for balls played in behind. Unfortunately, Cech is not outstanding at any of these things. AVB’s change of tactics in the latter part of his reign, and the tactics Di Matteo favoured – a deep defensive line, inviting pressure and long shots, and goalkicks being played long towards Drogba and attacking players looking to fight for second balls – all suited Cech’s strengths perfectly. Cech faced less one-on-ones, had more crosses to catch (his biggest strength) and faced a lot of long shots, which he is excellent at dealing with by using his reach. Unsurprisingly, he returned to his very best form. I expect similar tactics this season, and therefore similarly high performance levels from Cech.
The lack of any discernible cover is extremely alarming. Ross Turnbull is an extremely poor goalkeeper in every facet of his play, but especially his kicking and his command of his box. The lack of trust the defence has in him is visible for all to see. Beyond him, Hilario is a decent enough number 3 choice, but he himself has glaring deficiencies in his game. Hilario was not in Chelsea’s European Squad for the second half of last season, as his place was taken by Jamal Blackman, whose homegrown status allowed Chelsea to add Ryan Bertrand to the squad. I expect the same route to be taken for the entirety of this season’s Champions League campaign. This means that not only will any injury to Cech result in Turnbull possibly costing Chelsea league points, but it would also mean Blackman would need to be on the bench in Champions League matches. A red card for Turnbull (quite possible – he was sent off last season) would mean throwing a youngster in for his debut in a potentially crunch tie.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a middle to long-term injury to Petr Cech and the season could go up in flames. I was very much in favour of making a move for Rob Green or Jussi Jaaskelanein this summer to be our number 2 in return for a generous wage package, and the chance of winning some silverware. Both were available on free transfers. It was instead decided not to address this position, and all Chelsea fans will have their hearts in their mouths every time Cech receives treatment this season.
This is still an extremely strong area of the squad in terms of quality, even with John Terry and Ashley Cole both turning 32 during the course of this season. Jose Bosingwa has left on a free transfer, despite doing a very good job under Di Matteo (with the extra protection of either Ramires or Salomon Kalou in front of him). Andre Villas Boas said in a interview that he would offer him a new deal as good right backs are hard to come by. Calling Bosingwa a good right back may be a little generous (especially as he has since joined QPR after very little interest from Europe’s top clubs), but he wasn’t wrong about the difficulties of finding good right backs, especially as any right back Chelsea do eventually sign will not be an upgrade on Branislav Ivanovic. There is somewhat mixed opinion on whether Bane is a fullback who can play in central defence or a central defender who can play at fullback, but very little of that opinion is based on evidence. Ivanovic is an outstanding fullback whose attacking play is under-rated. His extra height would be greatly missed on set pieces and when defending crosses if a “modern”, short, pacy, attacking fullback is preferred (when one is eventually signed). He is capable of covering in central defence against the weaker sides, but with a ban for John Terry more likely than not, we will be one injury away from Ivanovic at centre back.
Even with the rest of the defence fully fit, Gary Cahill and David Luiz will need to develop a viable partnership. There were glimpses of one forming last season, but David Luiz needs to have his head screwed on more regularly. The criticism of him at times last season by Alan Hansen and Gary Neville was prejudiced by incidents in his early Chelsea appearances. You’d think he was a penalty or red card waiting to happen, but he only conceded one penalty last season and has never been sent off in a Chelsea shirt. It’s a tough ask for the excellent Cahill and Luiz though, as John Terry is as influential as ever, and the other two are still a long way off forcing Terry in to bench duty. We’ve found ourselves desperately short in central defence in both of the last two campaigns, and it’s a strong possibility we could find ourselves facing a similar problem this season. The one position in the back four that looks healthy is at left back where Ryan Bertrand’s somewhat meteoric rise has given the position very real scope for rotation, without a big drop-off in quality. AVB didn’t trust Bertrand enough to start him in a home FA Cup tie against Portsmouth. Di Matteo’s arrival saw Bertrand starting regularly – 9 starts out of 20 games – including an outstanding display against Theo Walcott and a European debut in the Champions League Final. An England debut has followed, and Bertrand is now an extremely valuable squad member, who may even feature wide in midfield on occasion. Ashley Cole ended the season back at his best. His decline under AVB isn’t a surprise – he was never rested and often played with no protection in front of him. This is a worry this season as Eden Hazard and Marko Marin are unlikely to provide a great deal of defensive assistance.
In summary, the best back four of Ivanovic-Cahill/Luiz -Terry-Cole is as good as any in the division, but the depth is worrying, even if another right back comes in. This could also mean two diminutive fullbacks – something which would invariably be targeted.
For me, this area is a big worry at present. The first choice is John Mikel Obi, one of the best holding midfielders around and criminally under appreciated by Chelsea supporters. His return to the side was as important as any other change Di Matteo made last season. The problem is that his partner is 34 year old Frank Lampard. Even though he has adjusted to a deeper midfield role admirably, and his defensive instincts are generally very good, a genuine deep-lying playmaker that is comfortable playing one/two touch football and initiating attacks, is something the club is lacking and that the 4231 really requires. Beyond the first choice pairing, Essien and Meireles are next in line. Neither is now more than squad player quality, and even though Essien had a good preseason, he’s unlikely to force his way back in to the best XI. This is a make-or-break season for him. Romeu is still very raw and is better suited to pressing football – he excelled when Chelsea were playing a high line and looking to squeeze the play – instead of a disciplined role closing off angles. Josh McEachran has the quick passing ability for a deeper role, but he’s still a long way off what’s needed defensively and physically in that area. Meireles, should he stay, is a decent all-rounder. He’s decent at quite a few things, but not very good at any one thing. Any suggestions that Ramires should be accommodated in one of these deeper roles is not based on him suiting the position – he isn’t comfortable under physical pressure, does not possess a good range of passing, and is very poor when facing his own goal. As the season progresses, Oscar may play the odd game in this deeper role, but any suggestions he may play there permanently are premature.
Another major drawback to using Lampard in a deeper role, is that his goal return will diminish enormously. It’s easy to forget that he scored 16 times last season. However, both his goals after he moved to the double pivot were from deadball situations. Can we really afford to lose Lampard’s goals with our issues at centre forward?
This was Chelsea’s weakest area last season. This has now been massively strengthened by the additions of Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar, with other wingers still being targeted. Ramires’ shift to a wide role in the 4231 has been an excellent decision. Without him Chelsea would look extremely fragmented, as a front four of inside forwards and number 10′s are left with either no defensive responsibilities, or defensive responsibilities they aren’t equipped to perform. Getting the balance right in the “third band” of the 4231 is incredibly important. Hazard is likely to start on the left, with Ramires on the right, and Mata in a number 10 position. I expect Oscar to initially rotate with Mata and Hazard as he settles in to English football. Marko Marin looks likely to be used as an impact substitute. As long as they get enough of the ball, these players should be exciting to watch, and more productive than Kalou or Malouda, who is still at the club and will be a squad player at the very best if he sees out the last year of his contract. Hazard’s dribbling and close control, Oscar’s vision and awareness of those around him, and Mata’s perception of space and weight of pass should mean more alternatives to breaking down ultra defensive opposition. Hazard will also hopefully take over as Lampard’s deputy on penalty duties as Mata hasn’t shown to be particularly good at them. Yossi Benayoun is still on the books, but is unlikely to still be at the club by 1 September. A loan move or permanent transfer appears likely, although he may be useful to keep around with his knack for scoring important goals at Liverpool and in his loan spell at Arsenal last season.
The ages of some of these players – Hazard 21, Oscar 20, Mata 24, Marin 23, and Ramires 25 is an extremely encouraging sign. It’s doubtful that some sort of magical chemistry will instantaneously appear between them though. Patience is crucial.
How do you replace someone of Didier Drogba’s big match temperament and charisma? Well, the solution so far has been to install Fernando Torres as the first choice centre forward by default. Drogba scored 9 goals in 8 cup finals for the club, whilst Torres has 12 goals in 18 months, none of which have been of any great importance. This is clearly last chance saloon for Torres, as he will play all the big games this season, and will have a far greater supply line with the aforementioned signings. Can he deliver? I have my doubts, and I don’t know many who feel otherwise. What he has going for him is that he gets on well with Di Matteo and has generally performed to a good standard under the Italian. He also won the Golden Boot at The European Championships which is a decent boost to his confidence, if nothing else. One thing about Torres, since his arrival at the club he has been completely injury free. This is in complete contrast to the latter half of his time at Liverpool. Beyond Torres, there is only Daniel Sturridge. He is desperate to be given a chance centrally after only 45 mins as a central striker last season. He is also entering the final 12 months of his contract so any poor form could see him sold in January to guarantee a transfer fee. Romelu Lukaku has departed on loan, and it is still doubtful whether a move for another striker will be forthcoming, but my gut instinct says the club will start the season with what it has. Should injury or poor form strike, Eden Hazard in a false 9 position is the next likely solution. Otherwise, Lucas Piazon is the young player most likely to be given a chance in an emergency. When you compare our striking situation to those at Manchester City and Manchester United, we are light years behind.
“We have two very good strikers who can score goals and I’m sure they will. We need the other players to chip in – Mata, Oscar, Hazard, Lampard always scores goals, and Ramires at the end of last season scored some important goals – so we need to try to diversify it.”
Manager and tactics:
Roberto Di Matteo is a big advocate of the 4231 formation. In general, he likes his wide players to drop off and provide cover for their fullbacks. Ramires will do this exceptionally well, but Hazard or Marin may struggle with these duties. Generally, the team will defend deep and draw opponents out. This makes a counter attacking style most suited, although the club hierarchy will not accept ultra-defensive displays in the league.
When it comes to the big European games, do not be surprised to see Mata dropped to the bench and a third specialist central midfielder brought in.
Di Matteo will generally make like-for-like substitutions. Possible game changing options:
- Oscar shifting to the double pivot
- Ramires being sacrificed for a more attacking wide player, or for Daniel Sturridge as a wide forward
When protecting a lead, more defensive wide players will likely replace the likes of Hazard. Both Ryan Bertrand and Florent Malouda, on occasion, may be seen as defensive wingers in front of Ashley Cole.
Defensive set-pieces could be a very real issue this season without Didier Drogba around to head them away. This is an area of Fernando Torres’ game that is very weak. He regularly loses his man on set-pieces. Salomon Kalou was another useful defender of set-pieces and his height will now be replaced by Eden Hazard, who is of very little use in this area.
Any run at the league title appears unlikely, although anything less than a good third place finish, would be a massive disappointment. If the new signings click, key men like Terry and Cech stay fit and available for most of the season, and Torres can recapture some of his best form, then a push for the top two spots is possible. However, actually finishing above either of the Manchester clubs is probably just not going to happen this season. At worst, an injury to Cech, continued poor goalscoring form from Torres, and Terry’s cover at centre back being exposed, and a fight for 4th could be on the cards.
Prediction: 3rd place, with the chance of silverware coming in both domestic cup competitions. A decent run to the latter stages of the Champions League is not impossible if the draw is kind. The final at Wembley is an added incentive.