Concentration key for Chelsea
After two explosive meetings last year, Chelsea hosts Manchester United this Sunday in what could make or break their ambitions to be seen as credible title challengers.
The short-lived Andre Villas-Boas ‘era’ was exemplified by the desire to play a midfield passing game that he never quite got right. There were few games more typical of what he was trying to achieve, and what he failed to manage, than the two crazy fixtures against United last season.
First, in the 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford, Chelsea succumbed to defensive madness, before finishing the game in a barrage of free-flowing, attacking football that left many fans feeling they had won some form of moral (though ultimately pyrrhic) victory. In the return at Stamford Bridge, Blues raced to an incredible 3-0 lead, before being pegged back to 3-3 in what felt like a crushing defeat.
In both cases, Chelsea exhibited an embryonic form of what Alan Shearer has come to refer to (quite horrifically) as the ‘Chelsealona’ style. The difference between then and now is that the Villas-Boas defensive frailties – the high line and lack of cohesive cover – have been largely eradicated by Roberto Di Matteo and his pragmatic approach to shutting out the opposition.
‘Largely’ is of course a moot point: against Atletico Madrid in August, and Shakhtar Donetsk just this week, Di Matteo has shown he is capable of regressing the team back to the ‘bad old days’ of clueless disarray. What he needs to remember this weekend is that United are a team who, particularly away from home, pounce on precisely these frailties of the opposition. Too slow? Too indisciplined? These are the bread and butter of Sir Alex Ferguson’s guide to destroying teams on the break. The problem is that Chelsea’s present fashion of play is very difficult to pull off: requiring players to do very clever things very quickly, while retaining the utmost discipline.
Though Chelsea players win plaudits with their improvisation and innovation, they win games with their rigidity and adherence to a proscribed shape. Take the recent Tottenham game: cruising while concentrating, losing while lapsing from the game-plan.
Chelsea v Manchester United has all the ingredients for a potential classic: speed, attacking flair, big personalities and inventiveness in bucket-loads. Chelsea have the opportunity to show the world that this is not just beginners luck: that they really can play great football and beat top teams. But they can only reach for the skies if they make sure to keep their feet on the ground.