The exaltation of Chelsea as firm title contenders following the 2-1 away win at Arsenal was accompanied by statements of praise from pundits who seemingly marvelled at Chelsea’s new intended style of football and declared that this ‘new’ Chelsea had arrived in the Premier League.
Indeed, only a combination of a defensive lapse in concentration and Gervinho’s singular moment of deftness, towards the end of the first-half, rendered the game closer in the second-half but the control and tactical nous displayed by this Chelsea team was deemed ‘formidable’ by the likes of Jamie Redknapp, Graeme Souness and Ruud Gullit who had conversely shared their concerns about the Blues in the pre-match build-up.
And what had been said about the Blues stemmed from preceding games, discounting the Capital One Cup thrashing against Wolves, against Stoke and Juventus. Juventus were well worthy of a point in the opening match day of the Champions League and some suggested Stoke likewise had merited a draw from their trip to Stamford Bridge in the Premier League.
Amongst such meritorious views of pundits and analysts were claims that Roberto Di Matteo was struggling to form a team identity; Hazard, Mata and Oscar playing together do not provide adequate width; Torres had been afflicted with his recurring malaise.
Yet the football exhibited by Chelsea on Saturday was nothing that has not been previously displayed by the Blues and the consequential praise for the performance seems overstated. In the games against Juventus and Stoke, Chelsea generally controlled the game, as they did against Arsenal, but it would be unfair on the former teams to dismiss them as inferior opponents to Arsenal.
Juventus, certainly, may lack the major names of yesteryear (and we can attribute much of that to the overall decline of domestic Italian football) but the Serie A champions went into the Champions League game unbeaten in 42 Serie A games and currently lead Serie A, albeit on goal difference. And surprisingly, Stoke were unbeaten in the Premier League until their narrow 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge, managing draws against Arsenal and Manchester City at home and Wigan and Reading away.
The criticisms that surfaced regarding Chelsea’s play following these results appear reactionary. Against Stoke, Chelsea faced a resolute side prepared to defend with 10-men behind the ball and Stoke had their chances, but Chelsea were largely in control and substantially more threatening.
The most compelling statistic from the game being that Chelsea had 13 corners against Stoke’s 3. Ashley Cole struck an 85th minute winner that was deemed lucky by some, but this was a match that Chelsea would have drawn, or even lost, last season under Andre Villas-Boas.
The resolve and determination of Chelsea was thus evident in this match, but went unnoticed. Critically, had this been Manchester City’s win it would have been labelled as ‘what Champions are made of’. More importantly however was Chelsea’s ability to carve out a win against a team prepared to draw without exhausting itself of ideas whilst in possession of the ball.
Roberto Di Matteo used an almost identical team against Arsenal – only John Terry was rested for the Stoke game – and what was on show was similar. This was a Chelsea team with players able to maintain the ball: the opening half of the London derby saw Chelsea with 60% of possession, which is a statistic that would have been incomprehensible in past match ups between the clubs.
Chelsea looked in control, but still occasionally open to conceding goals as Gervinho proved, and for all their potency in the counter-attack Chelsea’s goals came from set pieces. And besides, such potency in the counter-attack was only afforded by an Arsenal team that would leave their defensive third exposed.
The game at the Emirates only really served to showcase the same characteristics of this Chelsea team that had been on show in previous games. Chelsea can counter-attack, work hard, retain possession, and be stubborn in search for a win, but they can also look vulnerable and have not yet precisely gelled with each other to score flowing team goals.
Chelsea may not be as flawed as they had been previously perceived but nor are they as ‘formidable’ as what some claim them to be.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald