Saturday, October 27, 2012
Di Matteo on the defensive
Roberto Di Matteo's press conferences have become notorious for their tetchy evasiveness but, on Friday, he finally conceded a point. During a quieter moment after all the loud questions about T-shirts, handshakes and John Terry had finally ceased, the Chelsea manager admitted that Sunday is a real test for his team. Possibly the biggest this season.
That's the case for two separate but semi-connected reasons. For a start, there is the fact that this is the first time in over a decade that at least one of Terry and Frank Lampard won't feature in a match against Manchester United. Secondly, there is the very type of team Chelsea are trying to become without them.
For all the credit the side's exhilarating attacking play has deservedly received this season, it hasn't yet received a truly difficult test in the league. In the fixtures where the opposition haven't already been forgiving, they've offered up enough gaps for Chelsea to expose. Arsenal's defence, for example, completely buckled with the most basic type of errors, while Tottenham tried to take the European champions on without their two most important players, as regards talent and structure, in Mousa Dembele and Gareth Bale.
For all that people will point to the table, too, it's worth noting how it looked at this exact point in 2008. Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea were undefeated on top with six wins from eight and many raving about the magnificence of their football. By February, the Brazilian was sacked. This is not to say that Di Matteo will suffer the same fate but simply to illustrate how illusory the October table can be.
Because, even in that latter game at White Hart Lane, a debilitated Spurs attack still punished Chelsea's soft underbelly. And this, really, is the point.
Last season, Di Matteo saved the club's short-term future as well as their season by building one last stand on the team's old Mourinho-era physicality and muscularity.
"It was crucial," Di Matteo acknowledged. "It was crucial for us as a club to be involved in the Champions League for many reasons: financially, being able to attract players and moving forward for the future. Without the Champions League, it's a totally different ball game."
Certainly for Chelsea. As Manchester United target Eden Hazard himself admitted, entry into Europe's elite competition allowed the club to sign premium players like himself and Oscar. In the inevitable move to alter the emphasis of the team and properly maximise their creative qualities, though, the rest of Chelsea's team has become stretched to the point it is not quite as strong or resistant as it once was. As has been argued on these pages a few times, the link between new attack and old defence can often look a little too light.
Note, in Europe, how easily Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk cut through them. On Sunday, they'll face the top-scoring team in the Premier League but without the two players most responsible for that old muscularity.
"We've had big games before but this is certainly a test for us, yes," Di Matteo said. "They [Lampard and Terry] are two influential players for us and we're going to have to step up and show them we are a team with character, a team with personality and we have the maturity to play these games."
By simply saying that, though, Di Matteo appeared to also be conceding that they haven't fully done so yet.
"I think as a team we need to improve the mechanisms when we have the ball and when we don't have the ball, to be disciplined with our organisation. It means we need to be able to cover the positions when we lose the ball. We want players to have some freedom but, without it, it's important that everyone is disciplined in defending.
"I said this a few weeks ago that we have to improve on our defensive responsibilities. It's something we know we need to work on. It's going to take time, for sure. We have shown we can do that because, in many games, it's been done very well."
The key, though, is whether they can do it in the big games like this. On that note, Shakhtar's Fernandino gave some interesting insight after his team's 2-1 win on Tuesday.
"So many times the offensive players did not come back to help the defence. The team who won the Champions League was more compact and worried about defending."
United, of course, may well make them worry. Since Sir Alex Ferguson recalibrated his line-up by withdrawing Wayne Rooney, the team seemed to immediately click in attack and have looked much more convincing going forward. And, while the two sides share a problem in defensive midfield, United do have a distinct advantage: whereas Chelsea been relying on only one forward - and one who is some way off his best - the Old Trafford side have four who are firing.
When Di Matteo was asked whether he had put in a bid for Robin van Persie during the summer, he responded with a terse "no comment". The Italian was a little more forthcoming, though, when it came to talking about the evolution of this approach that has put Chelsea in such a position. Although everyone knows that Roman Abramovich has demanded this style, it was odd to hear one of the club's managers publicly acknowledge that a football decision wasn't solely down to him.
"Of course we wanted to maybe change a little bit in the way we played from last season or over the years. I think that's the club's idea, everybody's idea, to try and change a little bit."
He also doesn't see the contrast between the two clubs' attacking talents as an issue. "We've been scoring with many players. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Sturridge, Torres. They've all been scoring goals so, whether they are a striker or offensive midfield player, it doesn't matter."
That does, of course, sound a lot like another attacking approach that Abramovich is known to appreciate: the Spanish/Barcelona style. For Di Matteo, though, a strikerless 4-6-0 is "not in the plans at the moment".
What is in the plans, however, is emulating Barcelona in another way: beating Manchester United in a big match. "We're playing at home and we want to try and keep our very good record and keep our distance from them."
Whether they do that remains to be seen. Sunday will reveal a lot.