Roberto Di Matteo finds himself in the very unique position of having just won the ultimate prize in European club football yet still needing to prove himself. From the day in which he replaced Andre Villas-Boas there were murmurs surfacing from various camps questioning the extent of the Italian’s influence over the team.
To a point, this is understandable. This Chelsea squad has built something of a reputation for being able to self-manage itself since the departure of Jose Mourinho, the man who instilled the utmost confidence and self-belief in the group. That’s not a criticism necessarily since it can help to galvanise the players into producing excellent performances, although Villas-Boas will testify it can work the other way too. Let’s not forget that Chelsea were only a penalty shootout away from winning the Champions League in 2008 under the stewardship of Avram Grant, and only a mad man would try to convince you he was a great manager. During that campaign, there were rumours of players holding secret meetings without the manager to discuss tactics and match preparation, so they certainly have history. That is not to suggest that happened to Di Matteo last year, but merely to highlight where the doubts have stemmed from.
After the euphoria that enveloped the club last summer, he was deservedly offered the chance on a permanent basis with a two year contract. Having been backed by Roman Abramovich with the funding of several signings, notably Eden Hazard and Oscar, Chelsea have made a good start domestically. Saturday morning was the toughest test yet for this new look Chelsea, taking on an in-form Arsenal, and by mid-afternoon Di Matteo left the Emirates with a well-conceived tactical victory under his belt.
Chelsea harried and pressed the Gunners in central areas throughout the game, with Oscar briefed to stifle Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard has upped his game a notch this year, after an already impressive debut season in North London, and has been a vital cog in Arsenal’s passing machine. Leading up to the weekend, he had completed the most successful passes per game of any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues, highlighting just how important he has become as a base for Arsenal’s attacks.
Arteta’s most impressive performance came at the Etihad last week where, as well as performing his defensive duties superbly, he attempted 106 passes during the game. At Anfield he produced similar stats by attempting 92, with percentage completion rates over 90% in both. Oscar’s constant pressure worked perfectly however, and Arteta was limited to attempting just 63, his lowest this season comfortably. Of more pertinence was the nature of these passes. Whereas he was able to distribute the ball forwards against Manchester City and often from advanced positions, he was restricted to playing mainly sideways or backwards on Saturday, from much deeper positions. With Arteta stifled, Arsenal failed to take control of the midfield area and only marginally shaded possession.
The choice of Ramires over Frank Lampard was also undoubtedly the correct one. The recent Champions League game against Juventus highlighted the flaws of the Lampard-Mikel axis as a defensive base, with The Old Lady able to carve their way through the Blues midfield far too easily. The Italian champions were able to feed the front two regularly through the centre of the pitch and deeper runs were going untracked. If Juventus had been more clinical that evening then they would have left Stamford Bridge with three points. The pairing simply lacked the mobility and defensive nous to cope.
Against the movement and deft touch of Santi Cazorla that duo would have struggled, so credit to Di Matteo for making the right decision by drafting in the Brazilian. Due to his superior energy and speed, he snuffed Cazorla out of the game and rendered him ineffective. On the weekend in which the Sun pathetically tried to undermine Villas-Boas at Spurs, it was interesting to see the lack of outrage from the tabloid media at the decision to leave Lampard out compared to what the Portuguese manager faced last season. But then, just as was the case last year, he is no longer suitable for every opponent.
Chelsea altered their shape further to congest the middle third of the pitch, with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata all playing very narrowly. With Gervinho occupying the central striker role and therefore posing absolutely no aerial threat, they allowed Arsenal’s full-backs to constantly advance knowing that they posed little danger. Indeed, Arsenal attempted a staggering 36 crosses in the game (Chelsea made 15 in comparison) with only six reaching their target.
Arsenal’s two full-backs were probably their most impressive players as a result of this tactic, but it was a sacrifice Di Matteo seemed willing to make. Although their goal came from the wide right position, it required a drilled accurate cross by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to find the feet of Gervinho, who still had a lot to do before beating Petr Cech. It was highly unlikely that Chelsea would concede from these wide areas with Gervinho being the only target, unless it was something relatively special like the goal itself. Nevertheless, it was a conceived plan to allow Arsenal to exploit these areas and on the whole it worked.
The Gunners were by no means at their best, especially after they lost some of the dynamism and power that Abou Diaby brings to their midfield, but Chelsea deserved their victory. The two goals came from excellent deliveries from Juan Mata, which should have been defended better, but credit must be given to him for the excellence of his free-kicks.
Regardless of what you think Di Matteo’s impact actually was last season, this was undoubtedly a tactical victory for the new man in the Chelsea hot seat. He will have been very pleased with his work this weekend.