Focus on Chelsea

Chelsea's gradual transformation

August 21, 2012
By Miguel Delaney

If the opening weekend of the Premier League was "crazy", as Roberto Di Matteo puts it, his team bucked the trend. Chelsea were the very model of sober professionalism. In every sense.

Roberto Di Matteo and Eden hazard Chelsea
GettyImagesChelsea have made some progressive summer signings but Roberto Di Matteo doesn't want to rush their integration

Aside from proving one of only two of the 'big' teams to win their first game, the victory over Wigan was in marked contrast to the chaos at Manchester City. Chelsea kept a clean sheet, they were generally competent and, although also quite constrained given the attacking talents now available, they had sufficient cutting edge to secure a creditable three points. It may not quite have been the explosion many expected, but it says much that Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United will be looking on somewhat enviously.

"It's always important to get off to a good start," Di Matteo said at Cobham on Tuesday. "First of all, I always think, in the first game of the season you will always find some crazy results and then they even themselves up a bit. On the first day, you can be caught a little bit after the pre-season and then you find your feet. I think last season showed it's a more balanced Premier League than in previous years. I don't think we're going to see crazy results every weekend."

As a result of the unusually high proportion of such scorelines in the first set of fixtures, though, you could forgive Chelsea's air of focus giving way to an element of excitement - for two reasons.

First of all, the fact that they are in the UEFA Super Cup against Atletico Madrid on Friday week means their fixture against Reading has been moved forward to this Wednesday, meaning Chelsea have the chance to go top of the league for the first time since November 2010.

Secondly, given the fact that it is a home game against a promoted team, there is the potential for Chelsea to finally cut loose. Not that Di Matteo necessarily sees it like that.

"I'm very wary of newly promoted teams like Reading. We saw at the weekend with Southampton how well they played against Manchester City. It's going to be a very difficult game to play a newly promoted team early on, given they are so full of enthusiasm and spirit."

Reading, in particular, are also guided by a very astute manager in Brian McDermott, as Di Matteo was quick to point out.

"He's done a wonderful job and had a great run in the second half of the [2011-12] season. They are difficult to play against, don't concede many goals, threaten on the counter-attack. I've always found it very hard to play against Brian McDermott."

Given how Di Matteo noted Reading's quality on the break, it would appear unlikely that he will leave too much space in behind his attack. As such, we may see a very similar approach to that which undid Wigan.

That very performance, though, cuts to the heart of a wider debate in the Premier League at present about how quickly you can change a team's style. One of the themes of the opening weekend of the season was transformation, with as many as four prestige clubs looking to either radically alter their philosophy or significantly evolve.

The majority, however, found that it isn't quite that easy. At Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers had a reality check. With Aston Villa, Paul Lambert acknowledged the amount of work still to be done. And, with Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas was forced to adapt his favoured system because of an absence of suitable players.

Of course, it was the Portuguese's struggle to do the same at Stamford Bridge that arguably led to Chelsea becoming the only such side to enjoy success at the weekend. From the experience of his predecessor, and his own experiences at West Brom, Di Matteo knows not to force change.

Roberto Di Matteo and Brian McDermott
PA PhotosRoberto Di Matteo is expecting a stern test from Brian McDermott's Reading on Wednesday

If Chelsea are to eventually evolve into an exhilarating side, it will be done subtly rather than suddenly. That was emphasised by the fact that, although Di Matteo had Eden Hazard and Juan Mata dovetailing impressively against Wigan, it was balanced by the presence of the more defensive Ryan Bertrand on the other side of the nominally attacking midfield three. Chelsea never allowed too much space in behind. Although, to be fair, that did allow Hazard to provide a hugely impressive debut.

"I think the general performance was good from the team and he [Hazard] certainly left his mark," Di Matteo said. "In pre-season and in training, he was showing this kind of quality. Now we are finally in the Premier League and hopefully there is more to come from him."

The key question then: with Oscar also now available from the start, will Di Matteo continue to gradually alter the side or will he keep a winning side?

"Sometimes you look at it and think not to change a winning team but it doesn't always work like that. We'll see for tomorrow [Wednesday] night. I haven't made my final decision yet. As regards Oscar, I think we are slowly looking to integrate him, like the other new signings. He's not been with us too long. We have to do tactical work with and him slowly put him in the team."

In other words, nothing crazy. Di Matteo will hope to keep it that way against Reading.