Aw hugs! - Mike Hewitt
Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. Those names, especially combined, are already starting to assume special weight in the collective minds of Chelsea fans. The trio has, in fact, already acquired its own nickname in these parts: Mazacar (think phonetically, not automotively). And that's for good reason -- when Roberto di Matteo deploys all three at once he has a devastating, versatile attacking force on his hands, one that's transformed the way in which the Blues play football.
They're also extremely young (Mata is the eldest of the group at 24, while the other two are eligible for the under-21 side) and under contract with Chelsea for several years to come. They're the future of the club, and they're already making their presence felt in a serious way here and now. Hurray!
But this isn't entirely a happy cheerleadery post. As I found out last week when I contracted dysentery*, life is decidedly unpleasant at times, and despite the blistering league form, there's some trouble in paradise. The first time Mazacar were used together was against Stoke City in a 1-0 win. Since, they've featured four times in six matches (counting the 2-1 loss against Shakhtar Donetsk, which saw Hazard come in for the injured Frank Lampard with the Blues down 1-0 in the 18th minute). Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in none of those games.
*As excuses for missing two games on the trot go, I feel this is a pretty good one.
Of course, they've scored 12 goals against five since the Stoke match at home and they've faced some pretty tough competition, but the fact of the matter is that Chelsea's defence has been looking much weaker of late and at least some of that is to do with the lack of protection given by the third band. When the Mata-Oscar-Hazard trio has been used, Chelsea have kept a clean sheet once. Without them? Five times.
During the 0-0 draw against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, di Matteo was castigated in some quarters for fielding a conservative lineup (Ramires and Ryan Bertrand were on the wings). He's responded with a decidedly non-conservative approach, and although it's paid off the switch to a Barcelona-esque attack is opening up a series of different problems.
Out of the three, only Oscar, who's used in the centre, has any significant defensive value. And we have to qualify that by saying he has significant defensive value for a central attacking midfielder rather than for a regular one, remember. Meanwhile, Hazard offers relentless enthusiasm and Mata adds a statesmanlike gaze to proceedings when Chelsea don't have the ball.
If you'll cast your mind back to the early stages of last season, when Andre Villas-Boas reigned over the club, we were facing a similar sort of problem. Mata was reinvigorating the Chelsea attack (with the free-scoring Daniel Sturridge on the opposite flank), but the Blues were left repeatedly exposed whenever they lost possession and the fullbacks in particular suffered. Sure, they scored plenty, but they also leaked goals at an alarming rate.
Di Matteo solved this problem by playing Salomon Kalou on the left, Ramires on the right and pulling Mata into the middle of the pitch, where his defensively indifferent self didn't really compromise things thanks to the presence of two true central midfielders behind him. That option doesn't really exist anymore -- Chelsea don't have room in the centre if they want to field their strongest attacking team -- but it bears remembering as we watch goals fly in at both ends.
In order for the new triumvirate to be successful, the club will have to find a way to stop leaking goals. How they'll do that, I'm not particularly sure, but what is certain is that the defence has to get better. The last 18 months drive home the point that this unit is perfectly capable of defending at an elite level given the right circumstances, but can also be left exposed by the players in front of them.
This team has oscillated from free-scoring attackers who can't defend to bus-parking warriors and back within the span of one and a half seasons. The trick will be to find a happy balance between the two, and we haven't come particularly near managing that yet.