While Roberto Di Matteo officially took over for Andre Villas-Boas against Birmingham on Tuesday, his first true test against Premier League opposition comes in the form of Stoke City’s visit to Stamford Bridge. As the Stamford Bridge faithful rise to welcome the legend to the manager’s seat, his players will have a chance to prove themselves against a team known for its grit and determination. Villas-Boas first test in the Premier League as Chelsea manager came against Stoke at the Britannia. Di Matteo’s first test is an exact mirror image.
However, I’m not entirely sure that a team short on confidence will welcome a visit against a team like Stoke. With Stoke, you know a fight’s coming. Here are the five things that I think about this match.
1) Stoke might just be the last team of the remaining fixtures that this team needs ahead of Napoli.
The fact of the matter is that Stoke are the masters of forcing you to play their style of football. Some say they park the bus, but it’s much more than that. They have a side built on strength, power, and determination. They play to that strength well. They have one or two players, like Jermaine Pennant, that are capable of great feats of skill, but largely they look to batter you into submission by forcing you to play the kind of methodical pace that masks their flaws, evidence being the 1-0 victory at the start of the season. That was by no means a technical masterpiece, but we were forced to grit out that victory.
2) You must exploit Stoke’s one weakness: Their lack of quickness all over the pitch.
Every team that’s had success against Stoke has beat them in the transition phase. The one major weakness that Stoke has is that they aren’t very quick in transitioning from attack to defence. If you let them have time to set up the attack, they will rotate the ball side to side looking for crossing opportunities in the box. If you let them have time to set up the defence, they will play with 2 bands of four and force you to try to get through. If you force them to have to transition between the two, they struggle. It’s when they transition that they’re the most vulnerable. It’s exactly why United have had success against them, but Arsenal have struggled. Stylistically, you have to use the transition phase to bypass their midfield, and that opens up their defence.
3) Set Pieces, Set Pieces, Set Pieces.
Let’s face it. Our set piece defending has been atrocious. The goal that was scored by West Brom came from an initial set piece that Cech could only palm away. Stoke’s most dangerous attack is their set pieces because they can trot a number of players into the box who are strong in the air and Jermaine Pennant can put in a good delivery. If we can’t deal with their set pieces, we’ll be in loads of trouble because when Stoke score first, Stoke make it really hard to peg back.
4) Who will Di Matteo choose?
Di Matteo insisted that Drogba, Lampard, and Essien were on the bench for rotation reasons. We’ll see if this is the case. The main positive to come out of the Birmingham match was the speed of the ball movement. For a large portion of the season, our ball retention was terrible. The ball moved too slowly from point A to point B, and we looked sluggish. Against Birmingham, we played quicker. Ironically, none of the above 3 played any part. One of the problems that Villas-Boas appeared to have been resting those players. Will Di Matteo do the same when the bigger matches come?
5) Last, but not least, the mandatory Fernando Torres post.
Every week, Fernando Torres finds himself in the news. Either he doesn’t score, or he’s unable to score. Now, according to the media, it appears that he’s unwilling to score. Torres declined to take the penalty in the 2-0 win over Birmingham, which would’ve given a chance for him to break his goalless streak. My question is, when was the last time you saw Torres take a penalty? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him actually step forward to take one. He was 6th on the list at Liverpool, and he’s definitely behind a number of players for Spain. Plus, when you’re low on confidence, do you really want to take a pressure-packed penalty? Sure, if he scores, he gets a goal. What if he misses? Just some food for thought.
I think this match ends up 2-0. I liked what I saw in the play against Birmingham, though I wonder if Di Matteo will restore some of the old guard to the lineup. Surely he has to think about that decision long and hard. One eye will be turned towards Napoli, and as Arsenal showed, anything can happen in a knockout competition.