Despite a somewhat sluggish start to the season, new manager Andre Villas-Boas already appears to have made his mark on the Chelsea side. After stumbling to narrow victories at home to Norwich and West Brom, as well as a single point away at Stoke, Chelsea put it in what was their best performance of the season at Old Trafford on Sunday, contrary to the story the score line tells, more than matching their in-form opponents for the 90 minutes. It can even be argued that Chelsea were the better side, just undone by a combination a bad luck and poor finishing. The performance was unlike any other in recent Manchester United-Chelsea fixtures, and has drawn [largely undeserved] criticism from certain quarters, but has left the majority of Chelsea supporters enthusiastic about what is to come.
One of the most notable features of Chelsea’s play this season has the been the speed at which the side gets the ball back into play in nearly every opportunity, whether it be through quickly taken throw-ins or by Petr Cech releasing the ball early. Chelsea’s goalkeepers – both Henrique Hilario and Cech have featured in the league this season – have averaged 16.8 successful distributions per game over the course of the start of the season, compared with 9.4 last year, illustrating a tendency to roll the ball out early and simply, rather than hitting the ball long in the hope of forwards winning the ball in the air. This number (16.8) is comfortably the highest in the league.
Another significant change from seasons past is the introduction of an extremely high defensive line, a tactic that Villas-Boas used successfully at Porto. While in the early season games Norwich and West Brom exploited this significantly, the same cannot be said about Sunday’s game at Old Trafford, despite the extraordinary pace United are blessed with across their attacking line. With neither captain John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic being the quickest of centre backs, it was to be expected that the tactic would take some getting used to, and David Luiz appears to be key to Chelsea’s prospects for the season. Villas Boas was quick to praise Luiz after his match winning contribution against Bayer Leverkusen, describing his an ‘amazing talent’, as well as rubbishing any suggestion that he is at all susceptible defensively.
Two of the major criticisms of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign as Chelsea manager were his inability to affect games with telling substitutions, as well as reluctance to veer from his preferred starting 11, even during periods of poor form, refusing to drop underperforming ‘stars’. In yesterday’s game against United, Villas Boas showed he was more capable than doing each of these, by substituting Frank Lampard at half time [for Nicolas Anelka] and switching from a 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea scored within a minute of the change, with Anelka providing a wonderful through-ball for Fernando Torres. Whilst Chelsea didn’t actually play particularly poorly in the first half, Villas Boas’ willingness to change formation and personnel with immediate affect was very encouraging.
What to do about Frank Lampard is a notable conundrum that Villas Boas faces over the course of the season. One criticism that could be actually levelled against Villas Boas from the United match is actually starting Lampard in the first place (especially as not doing so would have allowed Raul Meireles to play further forward, with John Obi Mikel – much more competent defensively than Meireles – tracking Rooney) given the midfielder’s lack of form and the inevitable high intensity of the game. In the first half Lampard was nothing more than a passenger, unable to match the energy of Ramires, Fletcher and Anderson in the middle of the park. A quick look at Lampard’s distribution from the first half highlights a clear tendency for sideways and backwards passes, despite him supposedly meant to be the ‘creative’ player in the middle of the Chelsea midfield.
Fernando Torres’ now infamous interview detailing Chelsea’s “slow” players, as a reason for his poor form, appear to be a direct criticism of the likes of Lampard, who unquestionably haven’t been able to provide Torres with the sort of the creativity from midfield he thrived on at Liverpool. A problem identified by Miguel Delaney back in April, long before Torres’ comments.
While Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were (and still are in the case of the former) able to contribute significantly to the success of United in recent years, despite being well into their thirties, is Lampard capable of doing the same? As a player who’s built his career on his phenomenal levels of natural fitness, rather outright footballing ability, it seems unlikely, at least certainly not to the same extent as Giggs and Scholes.
Lampard’s future could also be affected by Villas Boas’ apparent willingness to incorporate younger players into the side. While he is still far from the finished article, Daniel Sturridge’s involvement in the Chelsea starting XI, even at Old Trafford, highlights this focus on youth, much unlike his predecessor. It’s a refreshing change from watching the hapless Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou struggle away on the wings. Even 18-year-old Romelu Lukaku was preferred to Malouda and Kalou as Chelsea strived for further goals at Old Trafford. Villas Boas’ confidence in Sturridge bodes well for the likes of Josh McEachran, an immensely talented young playmaker, who certainly seems more Villas Boas’ style of football than Lampard.
Chelsea’s two major summer signings, ignoring the many younger players signed in the summer, have both made an immediate impact. Since the introduction of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles into the starting line-up, Chelsea have progressed from a side struggling to beat Norwich and West Brom at Stamford Bridge, to a side who’ve cruised past Sunderland – the scoreline, again, didn’t reflect the dominance – and Bayer Leverkusen in the past week, as well as more than matching the much hyped Manchester United at their home ground. Both players have added a different dimension to Chelsea’s play, allowing the ball to move much faster through the midfield – with the help of the extraordinary energetic Ramires, a far cry from the ponderous football played under Ancelotti, and many of his predecessors, with the midfield trio of Mikel-Lampard-Essien.
So long as Villas Boas continues to get things right both on and off the pitch, Chelsea fans have every right to be optimistic about the season(s) to come under their new Portugese manager.