With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Chelsea.
AJ: Have we checked into the UEFA Champions League final as a remedy for the common cold? Malaria? Swine flu? Because that trophy is a cure-all. Right up until May 19, the 2011-12 season was a complete and unmitigated disaster for Chelsea. Then they beat Bayern Munich and it all got wiped away — the embarrassing sixth-place finish for a club of its means, the messy divorce from Andre Villas-Boas, the decline of key players so critical to the Blues’ ascent to the apex of English football, the fact that a number of those players quit on AVB during his final months as manager. It’s all gone — a fleeting memory whisked away.
As a noted Chelsea hater (sorry Mark), it was pretty hard to swallow. This team thoroughly deserved its sixth-place finish last season, thoroughly deserved its banishment to the desert of the Europa League. It feels like they didn’t get any of the merciless justice they tell us football is supposed to dole out. Again, as a Chelsea hater, I feel like I got screwed out of a rare chance to watch this team get humbled.
That’s especially tough to take because now the prospect of all that happening all over again seems faint. In are bright, young, new playthings Eden Hazard and Marko Marin — both skillful wingers with mouthwatering capabilities — along with Brazilian phenom Oscar. Didier Drogba is gone, yes, but it’s hard to conceive of Chelsea being as poor again as they were last season. Are they title challengers? I’m not all the way there. But their place in the Champions League for another year seems relatively secure, and there isn’t much farther to go from there to be jostling with the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City.
Mark: Well, I suppose now it’s time for me to prove my worth to this little project. Just let it be known that Ben and I have tickets at the shed end for the Chelsea-Newcastle tilt in Week 2, and my excitement about that has so far stripped me of all ability to logically examine this team. That said, here goes nothing.
Haterade aside, Chelsea’s run in the Champions League last season was nothing short of miraculous. Consider: Down 3-1 in the quarterfinals to a charged Napoli team, they stormed back in the second leg to win 4-1 at home. In the semifinals, they went up 1-0 against Barcelona in the first leg, only to have their dreams seemingly dashed by an idiotic John Terry red card and two quick goals from Barcelona, they again stormed back at the Nou Camp to tie the second leg 2-2, sealing a date with Bayern Munich in the final. Which was in Munich. In the final, after a scoreless 82 minutes, Bayern makes the breakthrough, only to be pegged back in the 88th minute from a scorching Drogba header. No worries for Bayern though, because Drogba concedes a penalty to a German team so used to putting them away… only former Chelsea man Arjen Robben has his attempt saved from Petr Cech. Then, despite going down early on penalties in a shootout, they come storming back and eventually seal it on the final kick of Didier Drogba’s Chelsea career, avenging a Champions League final loss from four years earlier, which also went to penalties, and for which Drogba was disqualified because of, you guessed it, an idiotic red card.
You may liken it to a zombie movie. For me, it’s more like Rudy, only if Rudy Ruettiger were born with Mitt Romney money.
I’m going to spend very little time rehashing what went south last season off the pitch (though feel free to talk about the Villas-Boas drama or the dark cloud hanging over the since-resolved John Terry racial trial until you’re blue in the face), though it’s clear to any observer that Roberto Di Matteo deserves a whole heap of credit for steering a drama-free end of the campaign, particularly given that he was part of the backroom staff that was allegedly so toxic in the first place. On the pitch, Chelsea suffered from a lack of versatility in the midfield and up front (Juan Mata and Ramires excluded), given that Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Drogba, and Fernando Torres were one-trick ponies for much of the campaign. This is where the additions of Oscar and Hazard should really help, as both of them can play multiple positions, allowing the attack to take a much more unpredictable (for opponents) shape than last season. The question that many are asking is where Lampard fits in currently, with the glut of attacking midfielders.
The answer is two-fold. First, Di Matteo’s preferred 4-2-3-1 can take a few different forms, and while Hazard seems to be most well fit to play the Lionel Messi-patented “do whatever the eff you want” role, he and Mata are natural wings who can be pushed into playmaker roles if need be. Oscar is someone who is more comfortable playing deeper in the hole, defending (in the highlights of Brazil’s Olympic tune-up against Great Britain, I was shocked how much defending he did). This essentially allows Lampard, who excelled later in the season when asked to play a little deeper, defend (particularly against Barcelona) and spray the ball around rather than play the marauding attacking mid role for which he became so famous, should feel more comfortable doing exactly that instead of the in-between role he’s been charged with the past few seasons. If I had to venture a guess about the lineup, it’d be that Oscar takes over for Lampard when his 34-year-old legs need a rest and makes some starts on either wing. Obviously, Chelsea is one of only a few teams that can splash £25 million for someone who won’t be a focal point of their attack, but as a long-term move I think it’s one of the shrewder ones they’ve made in years.
The most important player to this team though, for me, is Ramires. By the end of last season, things were really clicking for him as he finally figured out how to harness his speed and spacing ability. The fact that he outshined most of the Barcelona squad, can play nearly any position on the pitch outside center back, and has developed quite a killer nose for goal, makes him cover for a squad that hasn’t exactly found the fountain of youth.
Sam, I’ll leave it to you to discuss the wonder that is Hazard and soon-to-be-loanee Romelu Lukaku [Ed. Note: He joined West Brom this week], and I have many more thoughts — specifically on the backline, Torres and Sturridge (not to mention Josh McEachran!) — but I’ll leave it there for now to give other classmates a chance to speak.
AJ: If there’s a notable flaw in this side, it has to be at striker. I’m not sure it matters with the pace and skill of Marin, Mata and Hazard and just one center forward, but there it is. We need to talk about the defense, but it just doesn’t seem much like as much fun as talking about Chelsea’s new talents.
Mark: While I agree with you, AJ, that striker is the most worrisome position in this side, I have some things to say about the elephant in the room — Fernando Torres.
This is an unpopular opinion, but here’s why I think Torres might shine this season. Last year, Torres was involved in 23 Chelsea goals, or more specifically, over 20 percent of the team’s goals overall. One may quibble that most of those were on assists, but a goal is a goal is a goal and 20 percent is not wholly useless, particularly considering he served a three-match ban (in the same game he scored against QPR) and was the second choice to Drogba. Now that Drogba is gone, Torres will see more volume which should increase his goal tally in the absolute sense. That said, the real reason I’m relatively bullish on Torres this season is that he’s not going to be required to receive the ball and run at defenders — something at which he’s never particularly shined but Chelsea often has made him do due to Lampard’s declining speed and Torres’s delight at running like a wild man all over the field. Rather, if all goes according to plan, he’ll play higher up the pitch with service coming in from any of the Mata/Hazard/Lampard/Ramires quartet, and enough pressure will be relieved that he’ll be able to operate in a position that suits him. Will he ever make good on the £50 million that was shelled out for him? Probably not, but I’d pip him to have a good season nonetheless.
The striker that actually worries me is Sturridge, whose form dropped off quite a bit to the point that the since-departed Saloman Kalou was Roberto Di Matteo’s first choice for the stretch run. Granted, Sturridge is still 22 and was often deployed on the wing last year, when by all accounts he is much more comfortable in a traditional striker role. His inconsistency is troubling all the same, particularly if I’m wrong and Torres simply doesn’t have it anymore. The problem with Sturridge has never been his athleticism or even his ability to put shots on target, but rather he seems to not quite understand when he should take on his man, shoot from distance, or leave the ball off to a steaking Torres (or formerly Drogba). He sucked up too much of the ball in promising situations, which I suppose is something that can be remedied, but also is slightly alarming for a team that didn’t actually have the number of attacking situations to which they were accustomed in a single game.
Right back always seems to flummox this team as well, as Branislav Ivanovic has been playing out of position, if serviceably, for some time. This is a position that might be shored up before the end of the transfer window (with the latest target seemingly Marseille’s Cesar Azpilicueta). Central defense is a bit of an enigma — sometimes looking stout about brilliant and sometimes coming apart at the seams (often in the same game) — but seemed to be remedied once Di Matteo did away with Andre Villas-Boas’s high line. David Luiz is the X-factor here; he played brilliantly against Barcelona and seems to have put his penchant for thinking he’s a striker mostly behind him. But he’ll have to step up his marking if Chelsea are not to get burned on the break as many times as they did in 2011/12.
The bottom line for me is that this team should sit a comfortable third in the league this year, as I generally trust the infusion of youth at Manchester United and the Manchester City juggernaut to keep rolling, but if we assume that all that can go wrong in the clubhouse won’t and that Hazard, Oscar, Marin, and right back X will adjust to life in the EPL like we all think they will, we’re talking about a team that should contend for every piece of silverware out there.
AJ: I’m going to crib from my own half-drunk musings that you’ve all already been exposed to, but let’s talk about the striker situation. Mark, I’m cautiously optimistic about Torres too, though he’s always been a bit fragile and he’s now approaching 30. I think it’s safe to say Chelsea could use some depth even with Sturridge, since I’m not convinced he can be the lone wolf that this system deserves/needs (what am I Commissioner Gordon?). So why not go out and get Robin van Persie right now? You’re Chelsea. Fuck it. You have the means. You need depth there, and RVP provides that and then some. Oh, and it would also keep a player from three of your direct rivals.
Further emboldening me is the fact that Lukaku is going out on loan this season. By my count, that leaves Chelsea with precisely two center forwards. One way or another, they have to add at this position, don’t they? What happens if/when Torres gets injured (even presuming he returns to form)?
Mark: Having not seen Lukaku’s West Brom contract, I’m going to assume they’ll have a recall clause in there in case of emergency. The fact that they haven’t been in for Van Persie is heartening to me — despite your points, AJ — because that’s the exact type of move that hasn’t worked out for Chelsea in the past. A move for Victor Moses does seem to be in the offing, but he’s more likely be used out wide. If they’re going to sign a center forward, I am fully of the opinion that they need to add depth, not someone who is going to contend for a starting gig, because I feel Di Matteo will have trouble resisting the urge to push Sturridge out wide when he excels in a No. 9 role and because I truly want to see what Torres does when he’s “the man” rather than worrying about whether a club legend like Drogba is going to take his place for weeks at a time. Much as I hate it, mental makeup is so much a part of a striker’s game, and I’d prefer to see them see the Fernando experiment to fruition. This whole issue is a really tough circle to square though, and may be the reason that they’ve been so hot and cold on players like Porto’s Hulk, for example.
Can this team get by with limited depth at striker when it has so many freaking options in the attacking midfield? Maybe, but it’s an awfully big gamble.
Ben: What evidence is there that Sturridge “excels in the No. 9 role” other than Sturridge saying that he excels in the No. 9 role?
AJ: You’re probably right, Mark, that they need to let Torres be the Alpha dog at least for a little while here, but that still leaves them perilously short of even Omegas. I like both Sturridge and Moses enough, but, piggybacking on Ben, there’s little evidence that either can be a No. 9 (and in fact Moses is much more cover for Hazard/Marin/Mata et al. in my mind).
OK, maybe Van Persie isn’t the right choice in that sense, but they still ought to find someone.
Mark: Two things about that, briefly: One, while I shouldn’t put much stock in the Olympics, Sturridge was impressive in a central role for Great Britain, scoring two goals and generally holding the ball up well (a part of his game that has thus far been a bit iffy). Two, Sturridge was pushed out to the right for much of last season despite the fact that his left foot is quite a bit stronger. This leads to goals from cutting in, but makes it so he plays a very weak cross from that space. They’re not going to put him out on the left, what with Hazard/Mata/Marin/Malouda/Bertrand owning a monopoly on that side, and so for functionality’s sake I’d love to see him pushed into the middle. It’s not so much that he’s poor out on the right, but I really would like to see what he can do in that role, particularly given that the platonic ideal of a Hazard/Mata attacking midfield should provide him with enough room and time to do his thang.
Ben: How many defenders in the Prem are under 23? Moreover, how many pairings are under 23? He hasn’t proved it against men yet. I’m a Sturridge guy, so I think he’s got it in him. But he hasn’t proven a thing yet. I have my money on him to be the player most hindered by Chelski’s wheeling and dealing. Don’t forget that he fell out of favor by the end of last season, as he’s much better suited out wide in a pressing 4-3-3 than in Di Matteo’s system. Which is too bad, because he’s fabulously talented.
Mark: The flip side of that is “how many winger/strikers in the Prem are 21?” But I see (and agree with) your point.
AJ: I’d wager Sturridge is fairly jealous of Danny Welbeck right about now …