With most of the other top clubs taking a conservative approach in the transfer market so far, it has been left to Chelsea to excite English football in the off-season. The West London club have taken advantage of their boosted status as Champions League winners to bring in a huge array of talent. The initial reaction was one of excitement – not unusual for the kind of talent Chelsea have bought; the second was how they would get around the impending Financial Fair Play rules, explained away by the allowance of amortisation techniques popular with Italian clubs; the last is how they are going to fit all these attackers into their team, which remains unanswered.
Chelsea’s European success was reminiscent of Internazionale’s in 2010: Roberto Di Matteo set up his side to be little more than a well-organised defensive blockade, sneaking past Barcelona in the semi-finals by ceding their attacking threat then doing the same in the final against Bayern Munich. The incoming transfers suggest he might be required to change his philosophy to something closer to his attacking, albeit leaky, West Brom side.
The friendlies of pre-season are by and large a poor estimate of how sides line up, but are all we have as a peek at what Chelsea will bring to the Premier League next year. Against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea seemed to be what is referred to as a broken team – a side whose duties are obviously split, with attackers attacking and defenders defending.
The issue with this is that, primarily, the players Chelsea may not have a strong enough defence to support those that aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive play. Although no better in defensive ability than the likes of Eden Hazard and Marko Marin, a willingness to prove themselves as worthy of a starting spot seemed to give Kevin De Bruyne and Gael Kakuta an energy that Chelsea’s superstar buys might not match when without the ball. Still, Chelsea’s defensive tactic seems to be to show the opposition players wide, then attempt to shut down passing opportunities infield from there.
This isn’t necessarily the first time they have attempted this rough sort of tactic though, with Carlo Ancelotti adopting a 4-4-2 diamond to great effect. Although dominating midfield, Ancelotti’s complete lack of wide midfielders was an obvious weakness that Manchester United made everyone aware of, and, assuming that the likes of Hazard will not provide a still developing defence astute cover, a repeat of the overload on the flanks that forced Ancelotti to change his ideas seems likely, especially since Brighton’s first two goals in their friendly victory came from wide areas. Forcing players wide is fine, but if they are willing to take on your players, and are given time to assume control without the tracking of opposition players, you may find yourself with an obvious weakness, and more importantly losing matches.
In midfield, Oscar seems the obvious long-term replacement for Frank Lampard and Ramires provides the energy that has been found lacking in Michael Essien as age catches up with him, but this doesn’t stop the fact that, despite their obvious talent, the new-look Chelsea are looking like a pretty top-heavy side. They have a fresh new wave of attacking talent but only six places for them to fill, and even some of those spots require a more defensive role. In defensive midfield, John Obi Mikel suited Di Matteo’s style more than Andres Villas-Boas’, especially with Oriol Romeu’s readiness and Raul Meireles’ suitability for a sole holding midfield role very debateable, yet even he still does not appear the ideal man to be protecting a defence with a fading John Terry, the adapting yet error-prone David Luiz and the inexperienced Gary Cahill – the increasingly likelihood of Cesar Azpilicueta’s mixed abilities joining him at full-back hardly offering stability (although it must be admitted Branislav Ivanovic will probably remain first-choice and offer him more defensive respite).
Another major issue is that, with Didier Drogba’s departure and Daniel Sturridge still unproven, Fernando Torres is the only clear choice as Chelsea’s main forward. At Liverpool, Torres proved himself to be one of the most complete lone frontmen in the world, yet his time at Chelsea has been largely disappointing, suggesting that injuries may have taken their toll on his permanent fitness. His form seemed to pick up a touch towards the end of last season, but remains far from world class despite his bizarre status as top goalscorer at Euro 2012. Hulk is an obvious choice to replace Drogba – his physical stature matching the Ivorian’s, and his link-up play probably an upgrade – yet, as of when this piece was written, he has been difficult to uproot from Porto. Without a guaranteed finisher, Chelsea may find themselves in a similar situation to Liverpool last year – creating chances but unable to finish them.
Depending on how you evaluate their squad, Chelsea are a side that could provide an attacking breath of fresh air to the Premier League or fail miserably. Unless thoroughly comfortable in your view, it seems best to be patient with and betting on Chelsea only once you can assess them properly when the proper season gets started.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.