Meireles in action against BenficaI don’t think we’ve yet seen as an inept and heartless display under Di Matteo’s reign as we witnessed at the Super Cup final. The doggedness and fight that epitomised our heroic Champions League run had seemingly evaporated in the Monaco sunshine. One side started like it was a preseason kickabout, the other had the burning desire to put their names into the history books. It must have hurt the dyed-in-the-wool Chelsea man to see his side so outfought and outplayed so quickly. We all knew about Falcao’s striking qualities (laying serious claim to be the best out-and-out striker in world football) which makes the sleepy start and lack of concentration all the more baffling. Cahill and Luiz had done an excellent job sniffing out the dangerous striking pair of Ba and Cisse the previous weekend for ninety minutes– there should be no excuses for the sloppiness on show against Atlético that made the game out of reach inside the opening twenty.
The performance was a step back from the promising form shown in the league. For once the early international break might have come at a decent time for the coaching team to assess what’s went well and what isn’t quite yet working. Given the attacking talent brought in over the summer we’re only too aware about the need to find the right balance in the side so that we’re not left too open at the back. Di Matteo has experimented so far with more defensively minded players in the forward wide positions (Ramires and Bertrand) to try and strike the right balance in midfield and, at times, found moderate success with the tactic. However I would much rather see us put an attacking threat in these wide areas, the likes of Moses, Sturridge, Marin and Lucas Piazon have the trickery and pace to turn defenders and cause problems in the wide positions. If we want to be on the front foot in games we should look to have all the attacking talent possible lined up in the final third. Oscar’s silky touch and eye for a threaded pass might be another option to try and work into that forward line. Hopefully we’ll start to see some the promising young players integrated into the starting eleven over the coming weeks.
However I think the main area of concern has to be the deep lying midfielders currently employed in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Lampard has admitted in the past he’s a slow starter to seasons and that it takes him a few games to find his match sharpness and a rhythm to his game. I thought he was actually more impressive in the opening two fixtures and his form has since slid to be somewhere between patchy and mediocre at best. Passes have been shoddily misplaced, he’s been slow to track runners and we’ve seen a general indiscipline in his overall defensive positioning and work rate. Similarly Mikel’s excellent form of late last season now seems a distant memory. Quite how he’s managed to find himself in the starting eleven in each game so far this season is beyond many. He’s lacked bite and aggression in tackles, shown poor passing and a clumsy touch that’s too often almost landed us in big trouble. All this can be put down to early season rustiness but importantly too often has not shown for the ball, either from the keeper or defenders, when he should be linking up with the defence and starting attacks from the base of midfield. A continued lack of confidence or composure on the ball in this position will unsettle our whole defensive unit. For me both players need to look at their performances and up the effort as the season will hinge on us getting the midfield discipline at the base absolutely spot on. I’d like to see Di Matteo try Ramires in one of these positions. Although he’s hardly started the season in blinding form either, his overall work ethic, surging runs and biting tackles would add some much needed drive to the midfield base rather than his qualities being somewhat wasted in a creative, forward role.
For the other anchor position Romeu impressed me last season as a number six. He offers some muscle and a physical presence in the middle, he’s played centre half and can win headers well and crucially, being schooled at Barcelona, he’s very comfortable in possession and receiving the ball under pressure. I think Romeu has the potential to be the side’s metronome, a player to get the passing ticking along and clever enough to spot danger and cover for it when required. We’ve not really had this type of player since Maka but Romeu has the potential to excel in this role over the next few years– all he needs is some minutes on the pitch and belief from the boss.
Of course our other options are now reduced on who can fill these roles. I think by surprisingly loaning out Essien and selling Meireles the coaching team do see Ramires’ future in one of the deeper lying roles and certainly this does suit the Brazilian’s game far better. For Meireles I think the price tag was far too good an offer for the 29 year-old for the club to turn down and is a sensible piece of business. In his first season he generally underwhelmed despite some bright performances and it was a struggle to see where he would fit comfortably into the new system. As part of a midfield three Meireles’ neat passing, creativity and movement are well suited but in a defensive base of two he was found wanting at times. Although comfortable on the ball his work rate, defensive positioning and build could leave us vulnerable. The disastrous performance as a midfield enforcer at the Stadio San Paolo only brings a shudder. There’s speculation that the club may see Oscar slipping into a deep lying playmaker role, à la Pirlo/Scholes/Schweinsteiger, but I can’t see this one happening. The Brazilian has been playing as the trequartista in the number ten shirt and it would be a big ask to move such a young player back to a more responsible and disciplined meia-armador role. Besides I think we all want to see Oscar’s creativity and pace in the final third rather than keeping things neat and tidy at the base. Maybe in the future this is a role Oscar could occupy and start attacks from deep but it won’t be this season. Another option that might be looked at is fellow countryman David Luiz in midfield. He has the tenacity, physical presence, passing ability and athleticism to do well in this position but considering he has yet to play any minutes in this role so far it also looks an unlikely call. Perhaps the forthcoming league cup will give us a pointer as potential back-ups otherwise we have to hope that Essien and McEachran have a recall clause in their loan deals as it could be an area we end up light in as the season progresses.
The final problem position to be resolved was once again right back. As Simon rightly pointed out on his ‘Super Cup, Super Bad’ blog the other day Ivanovic saw an awful lot of the ball during last Friday’s game and did awful little with it. Attacks slowed and ground to a halt when he had the ball at his feet as, understandably, wing play probably isn’t his greatest strength. Defensively Brana is too often caught out by a turn of pace on the flanks and doesn’t get close enough to prevent crosses in the same way Cole does at left back. Of course Ivanovic is a very good defender, and can still offer a lot from this position as well as centre back, but when facing a pacey winger or a stubborn defence we need to combat it. The answer hopefully lies with new boy César Azpilicueta, the quicker we can get the Spaniard acclimatised into the back four, the better our right flank will look. So although it’s not back to the drawing board stuff Atlético was a real lesson on where we need to improve and the coaching team have the international break to review performances. Hopefully the players will owe us a better performance (and a trophy please) when they’re competing for the World Club Championship in December.