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Seven games into the new season, and Roberto Di Matteo's side are sitting clear at the top of the Premier League. But their placing betrays their predicament: how best to fit in all that exciting attacking talent they now possess.
There is a famous saying by Liverpool's iconic manager Bob Paisley, where he suggested "win the game first, worry about how we played later." It would have been an apt motto for Roberto Di Matteo to adopt in the aftermath of Chelsea's stunning Champions League win in May. In becoming the first London club to win the prestigious trophy, Chelsea‘s remarkable victory signalled the culmination of an extraordinary season, one which had seen them swing perilously from one extreme to another.
The short-lived Andre Villas-Boas era at Chelsea was characterized by the Portuguese's attempts to transition Chelsea to a new style of football, with some games often verging on the absolute insane, as players were instructed to constantly stream forward and as a result leave the defence hideously exposed. It was an approach that was never going to be sustainable in the long term, and amongst other "footballing reasons" which remain shrouded in mystery, he was sacked.
In stark contrast, his replacement turned the side's fortunes around by resorting to deeply pragmatic measures, playing exclusively on the counter attack and relying on supreme organisation. While his tactical boldness paid off, this was again a flawed approach, as Chelsea were too reliant on some wayward finishing, with special mention to Mario Gomez.
Instead, Di Matteo's tenure as full-time manager - he was only employed in a caretaker capacity for the first six months of the year - has been characterized by the search for balance. "To win games you need a good balance to it," said the Italian in the aftermath of an exhilarating 4-2 win over Reading. "That's going to be the challenge."
That challenge was made especially harder in light of Roman Abramovich's summer spending on creative, versatile attackers. No manager would ever reject having the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Victor Moses and Marko Marin in their squad, but it does pose an interesting dilemma for Di Matteo. Chelsea needed to find a system that fosters the attacking brilliance of their technically gifted players, but also retain the defensive solidarity required to win football games.
The use of Ryan Bertrand on the left flank has been an interesting, if not polarizing solution. The use of the young defender in that role during the Champions League final was widely seen as an aberration, reacting to the immense attacking talents of Bayern Munich. However, the strong relationship between Bertrand and his compatriot Ashley Cole during that match may have informed Di Matteo's decision to select the partnership for Chelsea's opening league game against Wigan. With Bertrand sticking to the left wing, Juan Mata and Hazard constantly switched positions, and the majority of Chelsea's attacking threat stemmed from that zone.
The use of defensive wingers is a relatively new concept, but it is a fairly effective tactic for sides looking to negate a specific threat from the opposition (as Sir Alex Ferguson did regularly in matching Park Ji-Sung against the storming runs of Ashley Cole) or looking to protect a defensively weak full back. Ramires played the role so effectively for Brazil, where he played a central midfielder whose job was to manfully cover the marauding runs of right back by shuttling into the right wing position in attack. He also played as a defensive winger so famously against Barcelona in the semi-final, where he was able to close down the attacking forays of Dani Alves from right-back as well as break past him as an outlet on the counter-attack.
In a game like that, where Chelsea had no choice but to concede the possession battle, the selection of two defensive wingers was permissible. It is matches where Chelsea is expected to take the initiative, as they are in the majority of the games in the Premier League, where there is little need for Chelsea to deploy two defensive wingers. Therefore, criticism of his team selection against Queens Park Rangers, where both Ramires and Ryan Bertrand were selected, was perhaps justified. Although Chelsea comfortably shut down any threat from the flank, they did so at cost to their own attacking ambition, and the game finished as a goalless stalemate.
The natural solution, then, is to play the one defensive winger, and this has been Di Matteo's preferred system. In turn, this has freed Chelsea's fullbacks to storm forward into attacking positions, adding width and depth to the attack. On the flipside, we know how this harms our ability to keep clean sheets, and against a top tier side, Chelsea will come unstuck. We've already seen that with the European Super Cup, and I'd hate for those flaws to again become painfully clear after Saturday's match with Arsenal.
There isn't a permanent solution, at least for now. A big part of this issue stems from the midfield zone, where Chelsea lacks the combination that can control the tempo of a game and retain possession when under pressure. In this regard, the opportunity to strengthen in January will be useful. But solutions also lie elsewhere. Victor Moses was Chelsea's cheapest signing of the summer, but he just might be the key. His two cameos have shown him display a remarkable desire to track back into defensive positions - a moment in the Stoke match where he was chasing Matthew Etherington into the penalty area was a telling image. Furthermore, Moses injects width and directness into the attacking trident, as was evident against Stoke, and his versatility would also allow for the fluid interchange to remain a constant.
Chelsea are still torn between two extremes. They are often too cavalier and therefore have glaring defensive weaknesses in the space in front and behind the fullback. At the other end of the spectrum, they are too reactive, inviting too much pressure from the opposition and limiting the ability of their new signings. We're seeing that far too often this season, but it is reassuring to see Di Matteo experimenting with different formations and combinations to find the right solution. There will be no perfect starting eleven - we will always have to adapt in some way to our opponents - but that's exactly what makes the season ahead so promising for Chelsea fans. The versatility and varying attributes of our new signings ensures plenty of tactical flexibility for Di Matteo to tinker with.