This new look Chelsea side have made a strong start to the season, domestically at least. Although they’ve produced disappointing performances against European opposition in the form of Atletico Madrid and Juventus, they have been near flawless on home soil. With only a frustrating away draw against QPR as a blemish on their record, they sit top of the league with 19 points from their seven games. And, whilst they’ve been afforded a relatively kind start by the fixture compilers, as the old adage says you can only beat what’s in front of you. Indeed, they came away with three points from their toughest test so far, an away trip to an in-form Arsenal side.
What is most impressive is how quickly the new players and new style have bedded in. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I thought it would take them a while to adjust from the power-based game, developed around Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, to this new approach but it’s been a smooth transition. It wasn’t so much that I doubted the quality of the additions, most notably Eden Hazard who I’ve been watching closely for two years, just that it can often take time for players to settle into English football. And when you throw the required change of style for the whole team into the mixture then it’s reasonable to expect some patience might be required.
However, Chelsea has been impressive and increasingly entertaining to watch. Hazard’s quality has shone through immediately, Oscar has shown glimpses of his excess of ability and Juan Mata has found the form that made him one of my favourite players of 2011/12.
In front of them is the man that provides an endless whirl of discussion though, with almost his every move inspected. Stepping out from underneath the undoubtedly intimidating shadow of Drogba, Fernando Torres has enjoyed/suffered a mixed start this year (that is not a slight on Torres by the way, merely an acknowledgement of the great presence of the Ivorian). There are certainly some good signs – he has a renewed sense of vigour, is making the right runs into dangerous areas and has five goals to his name in his 11 appearances – but there have been some moments which remind you of his problems. Chances have been wasted by his hesitancy and the lack of confidence can be seen bubbling underneath his fragile surface.
It’s interesting to listen to the views of neutrals with regards to Torres. Some find it funny, almost revelling in the fact that Roman Abramovich’s latest toy is following the same pattern as Andriy Shevchenko. Personally, I’d love to see him rediscover that form which made him unplayable during his best spell at Anfield. We watch football for those moments of magic, where the very best produce their very best, and he is amongst the elite who can conjure that up.
Roberto Di Matteo has banked quite heavily on Torres to rediscover that form. Although large amounts of money were spent during the summer, no replacement was sought for the outgoing Drogba or previously departed Nicolas Anelka. Should the Spaniard’s form dip substantially or he suffers a long-term injury the manager has few viable alternatives, until January at least.
It’s an often discussed topic amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful and there are varying suggestions. With the recent dominance of Spain and Barcelona, the False 9 formation will always crop up into these arguments. Within the ranks, Chelsea has two extremely talented players in Hazard and Mata and it is sometimes suggested that either could fulfil the ‘Messi role’ in a blue shirt.
Although it is stating the obvious, Lionel Messi is unique and without getting into the tedious debate about who is best player ever, he is certainly amongst one of the greatest to ever grace a football pitch. To drift seamlessly into different areas of the pitch and affect the game from different angles is unbelievably difficult and it can be easy for that player to struggle to influence the game.
Spain obviously managed to cope without Messi but they do so under different circumstances. Their utter domination of possession and fluid movement of the entire team means that they can afford to play without a recognised striker. The ball is moved so quickly and so accurately over such a long period that gaps inevitably appear in the opposition’s defence, and they have the players capable of playing that special pass to find even the tiniest of gaps. Even then, a fit David Villa will walk back into that team and Vicente Del Bosque has often chosen to use one of the other strikers in his squad in Villa’s absence, including Torres himself.
You also have to factor in the effect it would have on the performances of Mata or Hazard if they were switched into the most advanced central area. Mata would almost certainly be wasted as he is at his best with the ball at his feet and players moving in front of him. He shares the trait of this great generation of Spanish midfielders in being able to play the perfect pass at the perfect time, so having him potentially ahead of all his teammates for large portions of the game would be a waste. He also probably lacks the clinical eye for a goal that would be required.
Hazard would appear to be the most naturally suited of the two to perform this function – he is certainly a more natural goal scorer as his time in France proves – but even then I would question whether it would act as more of a hindrance than anything else. His strength is running directly at players, using his acceleration and trickery to cause them all sorts of problems and this would be lost somewhat by moving him into a false nine position. Whilst Messi gets ample opportunity to still run past players at will, it must be remembered that La Liga is played at a different pace and in a different style to the Premier League which facilitates this to an extent.
The option left to Di Matteo, and probably the most effective until reinforcements could arrive in January, would be to find a direct replacement for Torres. Given that Romelu Lukaku is out on loan at West Brom, he would have the choice of either Daniel Sturridge or Victor Moses to lead the line. Moses would be an incredible risk, being that he is still acclimatising to his new surroundings and his finishing can often be on the erratic side. Although, he finished the season in incredible form with Wigan it should not be forgotten that his shooting accuracy during the first half of last year made the Liverpool strikers look like Gerd Müller.
Like Theo Walcott, Daniel Sturridge has made noises about his desire to play in a central role, most notably during the tenure of Andre Villas-Boas. Again this would represent a risk but, given the possible choices available, he would probably be the safest bet. Although I think his best position is as an inverted winger, where he has the opportunity to use his pace to make defence-splitting runs from deep and the goal scoring burden is reduced, he did enjoy a successful spell at Bolton in this role.
As it stands, Roberto Di Matteo’s eggs are firmly placed in a Torres shaped basket, reliant on the Spaniard to continue with his improvement and most importantly stay fit until the transfer window opens at least. Rumours of moves for Falcao and Fernando Llorente will continue to rattle around the newspapers until then but, should Torres be unsuitable for selection, Sturridge looks to be the best alternative.