It may not have gone unnoticed that despite the Roman Abramovich’s desire to produce attractive attacking football, the most successful periods his Chelsea stewardship have been through the defensive solidity of the Jose Mourinho era and the backs-to-the-wall displays that lead to last season’s Champions League title. However, you have to admire Abramovich’s persistence. Chelsea have returned to their big-spending habits on the back of their first European triumph with a series of high profile signings leaving Roberto Di Matteo with arguably the club’s finest array of attacking talent in years.
Yet here lies Di Matteo’s dilemma. His successful spell at the end of last season that earned him the permanent job was largely due to him finding a defensive shape that protected Chelsea’s creaking back four. Andre Villas-Boas was ultimately undone by the team’s defensive failings and in terms of personnel these issues have still to be addressed. Di Matteo is unlikely to impose the aggressive pressing that the Portuguese demanded, but he is still left with an ageing John Terry and Ashley Cole, and in Gary Cahill and David Luiz two players that are far from finished articles. Branislav Ivanovic is a fine defender but years of use as an auxiliary right back – a gaping hole that is still to be filled – may have detracted from his qualities in his favoured central position. That Chelsea have spent upwards of £60m and have failed to reinforce their defence may be something they live to regret.
Clearly Abramovich will want to play more expansively this season, but that can only be at the risk of leaving the defence more exposed. Di Matteo With playmakers such as Juan Mata, Oscar and Marko Marin in the ranks, Chelsea are unlikely to field the screening three man midfields of their Champions League campaign, so it will probably be down to a central pair to provide the midfield stability that will allow the club’s new forward line the freedom to attack. The signings of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marin point to a change in style from the direct approach built around the power of Didier Drogba. With Drogba gone Chelsea will hope Fernando Torres can profit from the creative talents around him and rediscover the form that made the Spaniard arguably the most feared striker in the world.
While Chelsea hardly played like Stoke before they were still a long way from the Barca-lite that Abramovich craves, and Di Matteo only needs to ask Andre Villas-Boas how difficult it can be to change a team’s style of play. For the second season in a row the Chelsea manager may have to decide whether results or style will be the most effective way to stay in the job. Di Matteo has traditionally been a conservative manager and has warned against expecting ‘radical changes’, but the pressure will be on to develop a style of play that will make the most of his attacking talents and satisfy Abramovich.