Not that it ever left, but football is back. The annual curtain raiser for the new domestic season took place at Villa Park, with league champions Manchester City taking on FA Cup and Champions League winners Chelsea. Considering the game was a glorified friendly, it was actually a very entertaining watch. There were some excellent goals, the game was played at a high tempo and both teams were committed, as shown by Branislav Ivanović’s sending off.
The sending off came shortly before half time and somewhat skewed the second half in favour of Manchester City, as it often does when one team goes a man down. Having been a goal behind at half-time, City came out in the second half and used their advantage well, scoring three goals before Chelsea grabbed a consolation at the end. However, the first half highlighted some interesting tactical issues regarding both teams.
Chelsea’s new point of attack
Since José Mourinho’s arrival we’ve become used to seeing Chelsea play with Didier Drogba as their attacking focal point. However, with his departure and the likelihood that Fernando Torres will be their starting striker, they require a new approach.
Chelsea’s signing of Eden Hazard was something of a coup. Having announced that his destination would be England during the second half of last season, it was expected that he would join one of the Manchester clubs. But Roman Abramovich stepped in and flexed his financial muscle once more, securing the signing of the Lille winger. Hazard has been one of the brightest talents in European football recently, being fundamental in Lille’s recent success and much is expected of him.
Early indications are that he is going to be Chelsea’s most effective out ball for now. Indeed, it looks already as though he and Ashley Cole are suited well together from an attacking perspective, with Hazard preferring to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, leaving space for the full-back to gallop into. With this in mind, it is likely that the left will be Chelsea’s most dangerous attacking area. Expect to Cole play a similar role to that which he performed at Arsenal, with Ivanović often tucking in the other side to keep the defence solid.
Opposition managers will have to be wary of this threat when setting up against Chelsea. The respective right midfielder/winger will have to be prepared to perform their defensive duty, while a central midfielder will have to occupy the space Hazard likes to drift into and be willing to drift across and double up on the Belgian.
Chelsea must learn to build attacks from the back more effectively
Part of changing the attacking strategy will require learning to play out from the back more efficiently. With Drogba in tow it was often an easy option to play a more direct ball to the Ivorian, who was capable of controlling it and bringing others into play further up the pitch. At times, especially in the first half, Chelsea’s defenders reverted to this by aiming longer balls at Fernando Torres, who was always going to struggle with that kind of service against Vincent Kompany.
That is not to say the centre-backs need to improve on their ability to distribute the ball. David Luiz is often better in possession than without it and John Terry has improved on this aspect of his game in recent years.
In fact, more is required from the deeper central midfielders in the system, most notably John Obi Mikel. I always feel that Mikel could offer much more in possession and for Chelsea’s attacking quartet to be effective, whoever they may be, the service must be good. Mikel must be far more willing to make himself available to receive the ball from the defence, even in tight spaces, as Alex Song does for Arsenal. Without that, it will be difficult for Chelsea to build attacks in a more structured manner, to suit the types of attacking players they now possess.
Three at the back for City
Is Roberto Mancini trying to be too clever? Manchester City have struggled to secure new arrivals over the summer and you cannot afford to stand still in this league, as the Italian has admitted publicly. Retaining the league title is an extremely tough task, so I can understand his desire to mix things up a little, but changes must be made in the right way.
Mancini continued with the formation he has been trialling throughout pre-season, using three defenders at the back. However with the resources available at the club, I’m far from convinced this is the wisest way to set up. As things stand, Stefan Savić is one of three recognised senior centre-backs at the club. The Serbian struggled during his first season in England, and was a clear weak link which teams identified and exposed when he started.
City’s pursuit of Daniel Agger suggests Mancini is fully aware of this, however with the season less than a week away there have been no new arrivals in this area. Even with another centre-back purchased, that would still leave Savić as first choice replacement and so at least two more will be required to make this work. The defensive solidity we are used to seeing from City looks to have been compromised by Mancini’s tinkering.
Obviously influenced by the trend in Italy last season, Mancini is looking to be revolutionary in his attempt to mastermind another title victory. However, it could be costly if it does not utilise the strength of the squad available to him.