Roberto Di Matteo was handed a two-year deal to take over Chelsea in the summer on a permanent basis after a hugely successful six-month interim spell in charge last term, but is talk of a title challenge premature? You only have to look at their rotten pre-season form to realise that this is a side caught in transition.
Owner Roman Abramovich has invested heavily in the squad this summer, spending £65m on the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, while Marseille right-back Cesar Azpilicueta looks to be getting closer to completing a move. All four of these players have one thing in common – they are all under 25 years of age and the long-term nature of these deals is worth drawing attention to.
You can never truly gauge a team’s form solely from pre-season – Tottenham for years dominated all before them year after year only to then go on and struggle in the league, but you can begin to make a judgement on the shape of the team and where the club’s new players are going to settle in. It looks as if Di Matteo is staking a hell of a lot on Fernando Torres being a success this coming campaign and there are simply too many things up in the air to treat them as serious title contenders.
Andre Villas-Boas was accused of trying to do too much, too soon, which may be true to an extent, even if his sacking for that very same reason can be considered extremely harsh. Nonetheless, the very same job that he was brought in to do still needs picking up and finishing off as they simply reverted back to the tried and tested old guard during their Champions League and FA Cup triumphs.
The club looks to have a settled number one goalkeeper in Petr Cech, while Gary Cahill’s form towards the back end of last season was magnificent and in Ashley Cole they have one of the best left-backs in the world. Branislav Ivanovic is a sturdy and versatile squad player and John Terry, despite being hugely flawed, still has some use to him, while David Luiz has vastly improved. It’s only really at right-back where the troubles come in and they’ll definitely make a signing there this window.
However, you can’t ignore the fact that the club kept just 10 clean sheets last season, compared to Manchester United’s 20 and Manchester City’s 17, with even Arsenal (13) and Tottenham (14) achieving more. They failed to score in eight separate fixtures, again more than all of their rivals and some systemic problems still need addressing, even if some are willing to get carried away by the glitz of new signings and promise of more, with FC Porto forward Hulk still on the horizon.
They conceded 46 goals last campaign, more than Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs – just because they’ve signed a few eye-catching creative talents, this problem doesn’t suddenly just go away and there’s no magic wand to this issue and the club could do with some more strength in depth at the back, even if on paper, the first-choice side looks decent.
There’s also an onus on changing the side’s style of play and they’ll need to integrate the likes of Hazard and Oscar slowly into a new league. The pace and physical demands of the Premier League will far exceed what both of them are used to and while they may be wonderful, world-class players in the making, right now, the pair are little more than potential and should be treated as such, rather than the world-beaters capable of helping to bridge a huge 25 point gap on both Manchester-based clubs.
Di Matteo will not be able, particularly given the money spent, to rely on such a defensive outlook that helped them to their success at the end of last season. He’s essentially just warming the seat until Pep Guardiola wants the job at the moment, which explains the relatively short contract he was offered which only increases the pressure on instant results. It’s a huge job to take on, especially for someone with as little managerial experience as Di Matteo, but patience is the key and expectations must be dampened.
In midfield, Ramires was a huge success last year and Oriol Romeu showed some promising signs too, but doubts still remain over the likes of John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien and Raul Meireles, while Yossi Benayoun and Florent Malouda look they’re going to be heading towards the exit door. The sheer volume of incomings and outgoings are just not conducive to a title challenge, that is not to say that the signings that the club have made this summer will not go some way to improving their chances of mounting one in the future, but for the time being, pragmatism must reign supreme.
The role that Frank Lampard will have over the coming campaign also provides food for thought, and at 34 years of age now, he must begin to accept that he’s no longer first-choice, otherwise we may see another display of his much-vaunted ‘professionalism’ as we were treated to last year, when he repeatedly complained to his media chums about Villas-Boas benching him.
They do have a tantalising front four on paper, with Torres and Mata dovetailing beautifully at times last year, supplemented by the likes of Hazard, Oscar, Sturridge and Marin, but they will need time to gel together and the club’s bumpy pre-season form, during which they’ve won just one of their five games so far, has seen Hazard shifted about in numerous different roles, which points to Di Matteo struggling to find where he’s best placed.
A switch to a more fluid system to suit the players at his disposal coupled with the need to let new players settle and a fresh emphasis on stylish, aesthetically pleasing attacking play all points to an inconsistent season ahead for Chelsea. When it clicks, it will be quite something to marvel at, but Di Matteo has inherited the job that Villas-Boas failed to see through and trying to change too much, too soon could see results become erratic.
At this stage, that in itself is no bad thing, as long as expectations align with the realisation that this is a period of transition. Last season’s success should be seen as the end of an era, the dawning of a new one is just beginning, a potentially exciting one at that, but as the club’s pre-season form has shown so far, Di Matteo has been left with just as many questions as he has answers going into the new league campaign and talk of a title tilt is unrealistic at this stage in the club’s rebuilding process.
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