On Sunday, Chelsea travel East to take on a Norwich City in a match that last week could have been a battle between two managers under pressure who really shouldn’t have been. What a difference a week makes in football, as the pressure has been relieved from the shoulders of both Jose Mourinho and Chris Hughton.
Despite all the plaudits for Hughton for finishing comfortably in 11th and staying in the Premier League for the third year and in his first year as manager. However, this season, he’s come under a bit of fire for poor results and questionable team selections. The Canaries sit in 14th position in the table, though they have gained just 7 points from 6 matches, recording 2 wins, 3 losses, and 1 draw. Last year, it was expected that there would be a period of adjustment in going from Paul Lambert’s attacking style to the more measured approach of Hughton, but in his second season, such leeway will not be afforded. Norwich have started to right the ship a bit last week with a 1-0 win over Stoke, but there is still pressure on Hughton, though I don’t think it should get worse this week, as getting a point will be hard.
Jose Mourinho was in a similar situation of being under pressure, but I’m not quite sure why. While he has had the worst start to the season of any Chelsea manager in recent memory, it isn’t as if the rest of the league isn’t struggling, also. Despite the somewhat poor results, the Blues sit just 4 points off the top of the table with the real possibility that the teams above them won’t sustain their current form. In addition, Mourinho’s team is still a work in progress, but he’s also still a master motivator. Chelsea stormed out of Romania with a 4-0 win over Steaua Bucharest after a “storm out” by Mourinho during the pre-match press conference.
The downside to that win was the loss of Fernando Torres to injury, though he wouldn’t be available for this match after his sending off last week. The Spaniard showed a fire and commitment that hadn’t been seen in a long time at White Hart Lane and in the 10 minutes he played against Steaua. Three weeks isn’t a long time with international break coming, but it will be interesting to see if he comes back with that same level of play.
Hughton’s teams have, and always will be, good with structure and defence.
Last season, as I mentioned, Norwich initially had a major bedding-in period at the start of the season as they adjusted to the new conservative style of Hughton, as opposed to the more risk-taking style of Lambert. That was no more evident by last season’s start that saw them win just twice in the first two months of the season.
We saw firsthand that adaptation on display. In the first meeting in October, we completely played them off the park at Stamford Bridge and ran out 4-1 winners, despite conceding a Grant Holt goal early on. The next time we faced them on Boxing Day, it was a much different proposition with Norwich being very hard to break down defensively, and a Juan Mata goal late in the first half was the only scoring that took place.
I would assume nothing less from Norwich this season. Despite their poor point total, they have only conceded a total of 6 goals in the league, tied for 7th best in the league. Defensively, they have been very solid and showed that against Stoke last week, which never really troubled their defence at all. However, there have been a few touchy moments for them defensively, but I chalk that up to a rotating system of holding midfielders and the injury concerns of Sebastian Bassong robbing them of a solid defensive structure. Again, part of that is due to injury. The other part is Hughton not having settled on his best midfield pairing.
The biggest problem for Norwich is scoring goals.
This is probably the biggest surprise in terms of the problems Norwich has had this season. I didn’t think their defensive midfield areas were particularly strong last season, but they still scored just enough goals. They brought in Luciano Becchio from Leeds United in January last season and signed Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper, and Johan Elmander this season to shore up their attack.
However, the Canaries have scored just 4 goals in their first 6 matches and none of the strikers look particularly threatening in attack. Given all their pedigrees in both England, Scotland, and abroad, you would expect more out of that attack. However, they are also a much different breed of striker to Grant Holt, who is much less mobile than their current four strikers.
It’ll be interesting to see how they cope with the Chelsea midfield and defence because Norwich have found it very hard to figure out how to get the proper service into their striker, and things won’t get easier against the combination of David Luiz, John Terrry, and Gary Cahill, who have combined with Petr Cech to concede just 3 goals in the league this season and have looked much more solid than last year.
Speaking of David Luiz for a minute, he’s looked much more solid since being dropped completely for the match at Fulham (back heel against Swindon aside)
David Luiz has always been a bit of a conundrum for me and probably for Jose Mourinho, as well. He has all the tools to be a great centre back, but there are times when he takes it upon himself to step into midfield and try to break down a defence. That’s all well and good for a centre back to do that when the opposition is sitting deep. However, Luiz’s willingness to get back quickly when possession is lost and he’s caught too high has always been inconsistent at best. Likewise, when he plays in midfield, he doesn’t really do enough running for a central midfielder, despite his ability to play the passes. He tends to tire out chasing balls around the midfield, and I chalk that up to him really being a centre back.
The most interesting thing is that he doesn’t play this gung-ho for his country. One of the stabilizing forces for the Brazil team is that Thiago Silva and Luiz have struck up a solid defensive partnership, and that has allowed their attacking players more licence to attack and not worry as much in defence. When he’s doing that, he doesn’t step into midfield as much and tends to play in a more restrained, positionally disciplined way. Perhaps the biggest thing for Mourinho is to figure out how to bring that out of him at club level, something that no one at Chelsea has done. However, he has shown signs of moving that way.
Getting back to Norwich, their attacking players behind the striker have been a rotating hodgepodge of bodies.
We’ve all seen the abilities of Wes Hoolahan over the past two seasons. Despite not being a big name, he’s always been a very solid attacker, especially since the decision to bring him into a more central number 10 role from the wing. While he’s still the man pulling the strings, it’s the players around him that have been a bit iffy and have maybe limited his success. In add Nathan Redmond has come in this season from Birmingham and has replaced Anthony Pilkington on the left. The problem becomes that Redmond likes to come inside an awful lot on his right foot, and I think the best of Hoolahan comes when he has more space and doesn’t have to be as clever in negotiating a host of bodies in the midfield, which is more than likely why he’s only featured in 4 matches all season.
Robert Snodgrass, amongst all these changes, has not made a ton of impact this season, but it could very well be due to his role changes every week. Sometimes he’s been played as the wide man with a playmaker behind the striker and two holding midfielders. Sometimes he’s been played as a right-sided player with two strikers in front of him. I think Snodgrass plays much better as an out-and-out winger, but the fact that the center midfield has been rotated and the formation has changed hasn’t really helped him.
I think the possible return to the 4-3-3 that they played last week against Stoke will occur to try and get between the lines, but that once again means no spot for their captain and possibly best chance at carving Chelsea up on the counter.
Who will step up? Demba Ba or Samuel Eto’o?
I’ve said before that I believe that Torres is the best option up front for right now because his overall skill-set lends itself towards the style of play we want. Well, with him out, Eto’o and Ba will get to try and change my mind about who the best striker is.
However, this is a big concern for me because I don’t know that either one is quite up to par to score the goals and link the play. I like my strikers to contribute to all areas of play so that if they don’t score, they’re at least making a contribution. In Ba and Eto’o, you have two players that present, really, two different problems.
Ba stays too high and tries to score goals, but does little else in terms of tracking back and linking midfield to attack. Instead, he’s always the highest man up the pitch, making the midfield more static and allowing few runs in behind. When he’s not in the center, he can be found roaming out on the wing.
Eto’o plays too deep, such that he ends up playing more like a number 10 and less like a number 9. He doesn’t quite have that burst of pace that he used to, which can be attributed to his age, so his desire to come deep and make the ghosting run isn’t as effective without it. In addition, Frank Lampard likes to play a similar game, so I do wonder if he gets in the way sometimes, and Eto’o is also so desperate for a goal that he’s been taking some shots from areas where the percentages are low.
For the next two matches, one of them will have to step up and prove their worth to the team. For what it’s worth, I still think that regardless of how they do, Torres is still the better option.