After hitting a purple patch of consistency during December the start of the year has been a pretty miserable one with only one win in three and two hugely disappointing defeats at the Bridge. All of the good will and cheer that Rafa had managed to build up during the Christmas period has since melted away quicker than snow on a radiator. The shock defeats to QPR and Swansea have left our season in a soggy mess but there is hope yet that some glory can be chiselled out of the current predicament. If the December fixture pile up was nauseating to traverse than January fares little better. We had to play a calendar squeezing nine games last month, this month a mere eight. Undoubtedly key to getting the wins we require will be careful planning of players workload and making the right decision of when, or when not to, rest players.
The interim manager unfairly had to take a lot of stick from the media from the changes that he made for the home game against QPR but, as he rightly said, he had to trust those players to have enough quality to get a win against the bottom side in the division. For me the side he put out wasn’t too far wrong with the exception of one or two amendments. The key one was the omission from the starting line-up of both Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, undoubtedly our key creative players this term. We know both work their socks off for the team and as such are well aware that they can’t be expected to start every game – but if they need to be rotated then it seems somewhat obvious to only leave one player on the bench at a time. Without both we lacked that zip and spark that comes so effortlessly to the pacey Belgium and Spanish magician. Also, after two hard-fought victories away at Goodison Park and Carrow Road, it would have been a good opportunity to bring in Ramires’ drive into the midfield engine room rather than the more tired combined legs of David Luiz and Lampard.
There is a fair argument that the starting line-up for the first leg of the Capital One Cup worked very well. Against a notoriously possession focused side we dominated the percentages, pressing the Swans into mistakes and hasty decisions that gifted us the ball back. As against West Ham, there were enough first half chances created to have made sure the game was out of sight – instead mistakes proved very costly. It was the tireless pressing from the likes of Oscar, Ramires and Luiz that restricted the Swans passing game to mostly ineffectual tippy-tap along their backline and for me these were the right players to have started the game. Where Rafa went wrong in this one was the lateness of his tactical changes. In need of a goal we left the more clinical pair of Lampard and Ba on the bench until it was almost too late to affect the game. As ever the changes seemed like-for-like and it would have perhaps been more effective if the team shape changed to accommodate another attacking player. Luiz could have easily slipped back into centre half at the expense of a defender or Demba Ba could have lined up front alongside Torres. I’ve spoke before about fortune favouring the brave and you could be sure that in a similar position Mancini or Ferguson would send on every bit of firepower they had to grab a goal. Rafa needs to take a few more risks with his changes if we’re going to be bold enough to claim silverware.
Looking at the next three games – Stoke away, Southampton at home followed by Arsenal – and it’ll be vital that the management have learnt what has worked and what hasn’t. Against Arsenal we can expect to see our strongest line-up but the other two games afford an opportunity to rotate within reason. Against the muscular play of Stoke the return of Lampard into midfield should be a given. Ramires would add further presence by playing him in a wide right midfield role and I’d argue for this one that the brilliant Mata should take a break and allow Oscar to be handed the number ten position. Given the listless displays from Torres against QPR and Swansea Demba Ba didn’t have to do too much to warrant a start – thankfully he’s already looking at home in the number nine role. We can expect a rearguard performance from Southampton and I would argue we’ll need Mata at his crafty best to unlock the defence in that fixture. The tricky skills and low centre of gravity of Marin make him a strong contender to come in for Hazard and perhaps it’s game to take another look at Oscar in a deeper playmaking role to help stretch the Saints defence. With so many games coming thick and fast over these two months it’s clear that no player can be involved in them all – we just have to hope that any previous mistakes are not repeated.