The Marathon Is Over
After a campaign of 69 matches, numerous flights to other countries and continents, and another managerial change, Chelsea will close their season at home to Everton on Sunday. It’s almost fitting that these two would finish the season together, One side will say goodbye to the manager that they love, the other says goodbye to the manager they didn’t want, but both sides acknowledging that a transition is coming.
For Everton, they will embark on their first manager search in 11 years, as David Moyes takes charge at Manchester United. To Moyes credit, he’s built Everton into a side that consistently challenges for the top 5 but with a budget that dictates a league position that should be much lower. It’s always been a mystery as to why he never took a bigger job, given his limited resources, but his patience has paid off in getting one of the biggest jobs in club football. But he leaves behind an Everton side that must address that their main assets, Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, will most likely be sold, and the team must get younger, with a large number of first-team players being over the age of 30.
For Chelsea, it’s another season with a trophy, though they did get seven chances at one. Interim manager Rafa Benitez will depart the club after the U.S. trip, but he will do so having met his objectives of finishing in the top four and winning silverware. Despite the fact that he’ll probably never be liked, there should be a sense of grudging respect towards the man. Quietly, he said the right things and re-established himself as a manager that can take a top job. His man management skills, which were so criticised as he left Liverpool, never were an issue, and he got the side through 67 matches before the muscle strains and injuries of that sort began to crop up.
For the future, it appears that a certain former manager will return, and his arrival should be buoyed by the foundation he has in place. Any manager would relish having three number 10’s at his disposal to build around, as well as a good solid nucleus at the back. With the usual new signings, Chelsea will more than likely look to close the gap even more on United next season.
It’s interesting writing this column for this match because there’s not much to analyse tactically because both teams will be fuelled more on emotion than tactics. Everton’s players will see the only manager that most of them have known in their time at Everton, while Chelsea’s players and supporters will say farewell to their ninth manager under Roman Abramovich and celebrating the fact that they hold both European trophies for another 6 days. Emotions will be high, but Chelsea will still need to win.
Since this is the last column for me for the season, I’m going to do much the same and look ahead to what I think the positives were from this season and also look at the Everton side.
Everton shouldn’t be underestimated, even though they won’t finish iin the top 5.
To look at Everton, you could make the argument that this is the best side that they’ve had in a long time under Moyes. Yet because of their budget, it’s very hard to compete when the teams around you are in better financial positions. To look at their situation compared to Tottenham, you could see Spurs making one or two big signings before next season, whether Gareth Bale stays or goes, but you can’t really say the same for Everton, unless they sell Baines and Fellaini.
However, this season, it’s not as if they haven’t developed a strong group of players that can win matches. Kevin Mirallas looks an inspired signing and may be the only player in that Everton side that is capable of creating his own instances of individual brilliance. Seamus Coleman will remain, though it remains to be seen whether he’s best suited further forward or as an attacking option coming from further back. Leon Osman has stepped in to prove what a valuable commodity he is in midfield. And Darron Gibson and Ross Barkley look as if they may be able to anchor the midfield even if Fellaini leaves.
All that underlines the talent that is there, though none of the names truly leap off the page. Given that this is Moyes last match in charge, I would tend to imagine that they’ll be looking to send him off in style with Moyes’ first win away over a “big four” side.
Kevin Mirallas is the player I most fear on their squad, but Victor Anichebe has started to deliver on his potential.
As I mentioned, Mirallas’ arrival at Everton has been a rather inspired signing for the Toffees. Even though I think his best position is as a second striker, he’s also more than capable of playing wider and coming inside to create the spaces needed to be a threat. He’s been very dangerous in playing through the channels to latch on to balls played through the lines, and he’s also more than capable of putting the fullback on his heels and creating chances by running at him. He’s also one of the few Everton players with genuine pace to leave defenders trailing and has the ability to finish his chances in one-on-one situations.
If he does have a drawback, it’s that he has been slightly prone to pick up knocks that put him on the sidelines. He’s made 32 appearances this season, but there are quite a few that he started but finished early due to picking up some kind of injury. However, when he’s on his game and fit, he can cause trouble to any side.
The other big development this season is the emergence of Anichebe as a reliable striker. It won’t show up in the stat sheet, but his ability to play a more physical hold-up game than Nikica Jelavic while scoring the same amount of goals has been vital for the Toffees. Anichebe was one of the players that tending to get lost in the shuffle at striker, with Moyes preferring others ahead of him. This season, he’s started to show a bit more of what he’s capable of doing, and it’s been vital since Jelavic has really not had a good season.
Looking to the future of Chelsea, I’ll be interested to see how the new manager shapes the future of one or two of the players.
Let’s face it. Chelsea essentially have three players that want to play the same position. Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, and Oscar all three want to play behind the striker in that number 10 role. Of the three, only Hazard is just as effective out wide as he is in the middle because of his abilities on the ball to put the fullback under pressure. Neither Mata nor Oscar is as effective playing wide because it does limit their influence, and after the season Mata had, it’s hard to see moving him elsewhere.
That leaves the new manager to decide what to do with Oscar because he clearly is more effective in central areas. For me, I still think that long-term, he is the successor to Frank Lampard. He does have that touch of pace, but he’s also got the ability to pick out any pass and generally finds similar spaces between the lines that Lampard does, though not with the ability to arrive late in the box. Given that he’s more effective when he sees the play in front of him and his positional sense, I think the time would be right to move him a little deeper in order to accommodate all three players and possibly field a more attack-minded player on the right side.
What will the striker situation look like next season?
Whether bringing back Romelu Lukaku or buying someone, Chelsea need a third striker going into next season. The real question will be, what do you do with the two existing ones and will they be happy if a big name comes in?
For all the criticism of Fernando Torres, I think he’s had a pretty good season. He broke the 20-goal mark for the first time in three seasons, and I think has started to adapt to a style of play that is not always designed to get the best out of him solely.
From going back and watching clips of his goals for Liverpool, it was amazing to me how many came from raking balls over the top or through the lines that set him free. Most of them weren’t quite as route one as the Benfica goal, but many from similar types of play. Chelsea doesn’t play that way. Because we tend to try to press the issue more than Liverpool did, the spaces behind are much less and he’s had to adapt in different ways. I think it’s more telling that even though his goal totals don’t leap off the page, five other players finished with double-digit goal totals, which accounts for something.
As far as Demba Ba is concerned, I think he’s a bit of a work in progress. This is the first top side he’s played in during his career, and I think he also has some adapting to do. Too often, he looks to make the central run for the ball played over the top and doesn’t always create space for others around him. However, his finishing is out of this world at times, and I think he’s got a role to play in the squad.
If another striker comes in, I could see Lukaku going back out on loan one more season. Despite showing some very good things at West Brom this year, there were still a few times when you wondered why he was in the position he was. However, most of his issues are things that need match time to hash out, and I think if his return means that he’ll see bit-part duty, it may be best to send him back to West Brom for one more year.
Farewell, Rafa. I may not care much for you, but I do respect the job you’ve done.
I may not be the greatest fan of Benitez, but I will acknowledge that he has maintained the progression of the side. While it’s the great “what if” to ask whether Roberto Di Matteo could have done the same, it’s important to look at a recent interview with Sports Illustrated here in the U.S. and the fact that Benitez mentions rotation and the lack of it under Di Matteo. He’s right. Di Matteo in his time at Chelsea generally played the same 13 to 14 players with very little rotation in the starting 11. That’s not conducive to a campaign that easily could reach 70 matches if your ambition is to compete for everything, so for that, I think Benitez’s insistence on rotation has kept the squad relatively fresh with one or two blips along the way.
Judging Benitez on lack of title contention also may be a bit harsh. Last season, Chelsea finished 25 points off the top of the table in 6th. This season, the gap currently stands at 16. The improvement has been slow, but you have to consider that we were more than just four players away from challenging last season and bringing in Hazard, Oscar, Victor Moses, and Cesar Azpilcueta narrowed that gap. But I’d have to say it would be very optimistic to suggest that title contention was in the future.
So I will say farewell to Rafa, but I will acknowledge the fact that he did a fairly good job. He didn’t put in a world-beating performance, but for the manager that nobody wanted and nobody liked, he has also not torpedoed the side or made it any worse for the wear in his time here.