The year 2012 was a dream year for Chelsea. The mercurial Andre Villas-Boas who was touted to be the “next big thing” after Jose Mourinho was failing miserably. But Villas-Boas' tactics of creating a Chelsea team that was focused on “beautiful football” backfired spectacularly. Chelsea's enigmatic Russian owner craved the attractive brand of football that was advertised by the likes of Barcelona.
Villas-Boas’ downfall began when he alienated the senior players in the club like Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard. The form of the squad suffered and they lost several crucial matches which resulted in them dropping out of the top four. To add insult to injury, the club were in the precarious position of dropping out of the Champions League as well after a 3-1 loss in Naples to a very strong Napoli side. After nine months of his appointment as manager, AVB was axed by the Chelsea board and the reins were handed over to Roberto Di Matteo – the once Chelsea player, who was still very popular among the supporters. Now Di Matteo, realised where AVB had slipped up and immediately reinstated the “old guard” to the lineup. Rallying his troops, Di Matteo engineered a historic comeback by beating Napoli 4-1 at Stamford Bridge with the likes of Drogba, Lampard and Terry among the goals. The story however, did not end there. Di Matteo went on to beat Benfica and Barcelona on the road to the final at Munich.
May 19 2012 – the day no Chelsea fan can forget. Roberto Di Matteo led his Chelsea team to victory in what was to be one of the most talked about matches in the Champions League era. Chelsea winning the Champions League seemed destined as they bounced back from a one goal deficit to drag the game on to penalties and eventually win it.
Now the reason I have led you on this flashback of Chelsea’s past is to point something out. In all of the above matches there were a two key factors in common: tactics and Drogba.
We look back to a period that is considered to be one of the most successful in the club’s history. The 2011-2012 season (the latter half anyway) and the 2004-2007 seasons.
In the latter part of the Champions League campaign there was one key tactic that Di Matteo employed. Fondly dubbed as “parking the bus” by several critics this tactic was one of sublime defence. If you have watched Chelsea over the years, the one thing that stands out is their defence.
That is Chelsea’s one major strength. When asked to defend as a unit against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, that’s when they seemed to be at their best. The club seemed to be displaying football of the highest quality when they played against those two European giants. But when we break it down, that’s all there is to it. Good solid English defending.
That’s the mentality that the club have cultivated over the years and that, in my opinion will be the mentality that lasts. It is perhaps even Chelsea’s club culture to defend. Now I know there are people out there who will not agree with me. But I am not done here.
Look back to the times the club have seemed to slip up, when it seemed that they were suffering from a lack of form. You can see that those times coincide more or less with the seasons when Chelsea have appointed a manager who was attempting to change that core mentality embedded in the team.
Most recent evidence is the infamous Andre Villas-Boas. He tried to change the core mentality by advocating a high line of defence, slicker passing and exploiting the pace of the players. Now, in order to do this he had to eliminate the “old guard” who were prone to slowing things down in the middle of the park.
When Chelsea lost their defensive mentality and attempted to play “attacking” football they failed.
Another example of failure is Luiz Felipe Scolari. The ex-Brazil coach attempted to infuse some Samba style into the football that Chelsea failed. He ignored the defence and focused more on the offensive side of football. This approach backfired too as a leaky Chelsea defence ultimately ended up losing games.
On the contrary, when a manager has advocated the defensive principles in football he has generally been successful at Chelsea football club. There can be no greater example than the one they call the “Special One” – Jose Mourinho. He understood the club culture and what the club mentality was. He played Chelsea to their strengths and was rewarded with two league titles. To a less inconspicuous extent, the same mentality was followed by Carlo Ancelotti as well during his successful tenure at the club.
As a club, defensive frailties have been exposed this season primarily due to the fact that Di Matteo attempted to slightly tweak the tactics and Benitez doing the same. The defend and counter-attack tactic was displaced from Chelsea’s playbook.
The big Ivorian left England last summer after establishing himself as one of the most fearsome strikers in Premier League history. The reason was his age (Drogba is 35) and the fact that the squad was being revamped. The loss of Drogba was a huge one from Chelsea’s point of view.
They lost a match-winner, the big game player to whom they could look to when games were going bad. Fernando Torres sadly, is a poor replacement for a player of Drogba’s calibre. The way Drogba almost single-handedly won Chelsea the final at Munich is evidence enough of the impact that he had on the club.
One thing to be noted is that, ever since Drogba moved to Chelsea from Marseille in the July of 2004, the club’s tactics have been adapted to fit around Drogba. They exploited his physical strength and his pace during lightning quick counters. The problem was, once he left the same tactics did not suit Torres who was unable to adapt to suit the tactics either.
This has been one of the major failings of the 2012-2013 season as the Chelsea strikers have been unable to flourish. With the signing of Demba Ba, who although is not Drogba but is Drogba-esque if I may say, his physicality and pace will suit the Chelsea attack a lot better than Torres.
In order for this lean phase to end these two issues have to be addressed by the football club. Just like every other Chelsea fan, I hope to see Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge this summer. Reports emanating from Spain indicate that all is not well with the Special One.
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