Chelsea 2-0 Fulham – A Work in Progress

In advance of today’s Manchester derby, there’s been some high-profile nervousness about the possibility of tribal fury spilling over into violence. Managers, players, and officials have all been heard discreetly appealing for calm. Nevertheless, I expect quite a few of the Greater Manchester area’s plods are going to have pulled in a bit of overtime by the time the day is done.

The SW6 derby … not so much.

It’s hard to imagine what it would look like if the simmering antipathies of neighbouring fans erupted into full-scale anarchy and running street battles here among some of the country’s most expensive real estate. Blonde women in expensive white jeans waving rolled-up Boden catalogues and screaming taunts about how their seven-year-old has just got into Westminster? Slovakian au pairs attacking each other (but only with their left hands, since the right is permanently occupied texting their dodgy boyfriends in Brighton)? The streets littered with hydroponically grown kale snatched from Abel and Cole “Organic Selection” vegetable boxes? Finance directors of discreet companies registered in the Seychelles smashing each other over the head with bottles of Pessac-Léognan ’05 while their floppy-haired sons and implausibly long-legged daughters overwhelm police lines with their relentless vowel-drawling and their unshakeable faith that the whole purpose of existence is to permit them to have a FARKING GOOD TIME?

As it turned out, the Fulham fans didn’t even manage to fill the away section. Perhaps they were deterred by the costs of travel.

It’s appropriate that this least passionate of local derbies has in recent years thrown up results that are correspondingly meh. Fulham haven’t won at our place since some date that’s a pretty long time ago but not so distant it feels historic. And yet, though in recent years we’ve always been favourites, there have been a lot of faintly annoying draws, and a general sense that we’re just about maintaining the status quo without ever really managing to swat a lower-mid-table team away as comprehensively as one might expect.

Perhaps we needed a win slightly more than usual yesterday. A couple of losses hardly represents a crisis, and there seems to be a general acceptance that the long view has finally taken hold at the club — as a few of us have pointed out, José can’t really be fired, for the simple reason that there just aren’t any plausible managerial candidates left any more — but the inevitable selection issues have begun to generate some distracting momentum in the media, and a comfortable win or two should help everyone relax a bit and realise that the playing status of Juan Mata isn’t actually the thing that’s going to determine the whole course of Chelsea’s season.

The team

No Mata. Not even on the bench. Our need to win the game immediately doubles, or triples. Every single headline writes itself if we don’t win the game.

It’s odd, really. I mean, Mata is a wonderful player, and I’d love to see him in the team, and I desperately hope he’s a Chelsea player for a decade to come, but really: is that what everything is about? I wonder whether poor old Azpilicueta isn’t almost as annoyed about the fact that no-one’s making a crisis out of his non-selection as he is about the fact that he can’t get a start ahead of the reliably impressive Branners.

We all know Mata’s most natural position is as a no. 10, in the centre of our attacking midfield three.

We also all know that’s Oscar’s best position.

José has explicitly announced that he wants Oscar as his no. 10.

So if Mata played there and Oscar didn’t, would that be better? Would there be the same fuss if Oscar wasn’t being selected?

Really, it’s a non-story. We have two marvellous players competing for the same spot. (The same might be said of Branners and Azpilicueta, at a slightly reduced level of marvellousness.) These things happen. Oscar has apparently won the competition. Instead of being relegated to the status of permanent substitute, Mata has (according to José) been asked to adapt himself to play one of the wide positions. He appeared as a winger often enough last year: let’s hope he’s willing to do it again (as I’m sure Oscar would also have been had the decision gone the other way). It’s the sort of thing a manager with a squad like ours has to deal with.

Otherwise: Eto’o starts again, presumably in the hope that if he plays enough games he’ll eventually figure out what he’s supposed to be doing. Obi also starts alongside Ramires at the back of midfield.

The game

For the first 45 minutes it’s Wednesday all over again. Uncannily similar, in fact.

It’s not that the team’s playing particularly badly, or that they look confused. To my eyes it’s more tentative than anything else: everything’s happening a bit too slowly, with a bit too much effort and hesitation, as if they have to remind themselves all the time what they’re supposed to be doing. We dominate possession but to little effect. Parker and Sidwell, a pair of exemplary Englishmen who never quite seemed to have the more continental virtues apparently required at Chelsea, play an impressively simple and controlled game in the centre of midfield, and a steady defence easily deals with the rather optimistic crosses which seem to represent our only way of getting the ball anywhere near the goal. As against Basel it’s very noticeable that no one seems to have anyone to pass to once they’re in an attacking position.

Unlike on Wednesday, there’s no consolation goal to put a gloss on the first half performance. A few depressingly predictable boos serenade the players into the dressing room. (Really — is it now normal to boo every time we’re not winning at half time? Do we have to? I find this monumentally unhelpful.)

I can’t claim tactical expertise, but it seems to me that there’s a clear difference between the players who are familiar with each other and the rest. It’s striking that Eto’o always seems to be somewhere other than where the ball is being aimed, and Schürrle is getting isolated in dead ends far more often than Hazard on the opposite wing.

The beginning of the second half makes me think I might be right about this, because it’s immediately obvious that the linking play between Hazard and Oscar — who have a year’s familiarity with each other under their belt — is far quicker and more dangerous than any other part of the attack. Oscar’s having another good game, and as the second half gets going he’s able to organise some sustained pressure at the Fulham end, which eventually leads (via some good wing play from Schürrle and a couple of iffy touches from Stockdale) to a goal.

Basel all over again? For a few minutes there’s a palpable nervousness, but it gradually becomes apparent that Fulham are running out of puff. Bent is entirely isolated and goes long minutes without touching the ball, and Ramires and (especially) Obi are beginning to take complete control of midfield. It occurred to me as the second half would down that Basel were an awful lot better than Fulham (who weren’t by any means terrible: if they’d taken either of their two early chances, and/or had Berbatov to give them a bit more control towards the front, we could have been in trouble).

Meanwhile, over in the mythical room where the proverbial monkeys have been hammering away at their typewriters since the beginning of time in order to prove some baffling mathematical point about how they’ll eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, monkey no. 6742 (known to his friends as Derek) accidentally completes the final couplet of the epilogue of Shakespeare’s last known completed play Henry VIII (the epilogue almost certainly not written by Shakespeare himself, but our Derek is no textual scholar), and, to mark this momentous landmark of astounding improbability, at the very same moment John Obi Mikel (whose name is actually John Michael Obi) actually scores a league goal.

It’s a brilliant moment. It’s even funny when the crowd yells “shoooooot” the next time he touches the ball. Alas, it’s not funny when some of them are still yelling “shooooot” thirty touches later. Yes, we all get the joke that he doesn’t score very often. Thank you. That’s enough now.

In sum

A useful win in the circumstances. We’re still evidently a work in progress — I don’t agree at all with those who expect us to be better than the rest of the Premier League this year — but sometimes you need three points just to calm everyone down, and that’s what happened yesterday.

Oscar was the standout performer again. His energy is remarkable (no doubt one of the reasons José is so enamoured of him) and his ability to set the team moving made all the difference yesterday after a very sluggish first half.

Second to Oscar in my book was Obi, a player I’ve always rated. He retains possession under pressure better than any of our other defensive midfielders, and his ability to turn away from his marker and step forward into empty space makes a difference to the team’s momentum.

Ivanovic also had a good game at both ends of the pitch.

It was good to hear Damien Duff warmly applauded both before the game and whenever he went to take a corner at the Matthew Harding end.

Press reports

The Observer, Dominic Fifield: “So the worst start to a campaign in the Roman Abramovich era has condemned Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table. José Mourinho will not have been entirely satisfied by this rather stop-start display against rivals from down the Fulham Road but, deep down, the pragmatist in him will be relieved just to have curtailed a four-match winless streak that had drained early momentum from his return.”

The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Burt: “Chelsea top of the Premier League courtesy of a west London derby victory – so what could possibly be wrong? Except if ever there was a performance crying out for a tricky, creative elusive midfielder then this was it. Except Juan Mata, player of the year, model professional, did not even make Jose Mourinho’s squad and sat watching in his jeans and hooded top. Strange days at Stamford Bridge. Fantasy Football? This was functional. Little more.”

The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Afterwards Mourinho pointed to the League table in defence of his decision to leave Juan Mata not only out of the starting XI again but out of the squad. The manager has made it obvious that he regards the gifted Brazilian Oscar as first-choice for the creative playmaker’s role just behind the main striker, one which he grew into today, improving during the second half as the rest of his team did. On Mata, Mourinho said: “He must work and adapt to a certain way of playing and has to learn to play the way I want – be more consistent and more participative when the team lose the ball.””

The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Oscar’s third goal of the season and John Mikel Obi’s third of his Chelsea career put the team back on the winning path in Saturday’s tea-time game. The Blues had to wait until the second half for the breakthrough after a first period in which the performance improved towards the interval. The Brazilian found the net from close range shortly after the restart but the biggest cheer of the day came late in the game when the identity of the second scorer became clear, Mikel netting for the first time since January 2007 and for the first time in the Premier League. Chelsea had a couple of worthy penalty claims turned down and although Petr Cech denied Darren Bent twice early in the game, overall our visitors from down the road cannot complain about the result.”


52′ Oscar 1-0
84′ Mikel 2-0

There are 18 comments

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  1. Cunningplan

    Entertaining match observations LTB, unlike our first half which you summed up perfectly.

    Highlight of the evening for me was Jose telling Jamie Redknapp to basically fuck off you’re talking through your arse, with regard the Oscar/Mata conundrum.

  2. Blueboydave

    First half I was convinced I’d slipped into a time-warp back to some of our ponderous displays under Mad Rafa last season, with an endless series of misplaced and blocked passes.

    Unless I was hallucinating when I checked out some of Sky’s coverage when I got back home, their stats claimed we had a pass accuracy rate of 88% overall, so I guess things improved a lot more than it felt like at the time in the second half.

    One win seems not to have calmed the “Iberian tensions” as far as the gutter press are concerned. This morning they are citing a list of clubs supposedly lining up with offers, ready to take Mata off our hands in January as we will clearly want to offload him.


  3. bluebayou

    Very entertaining LTB and nicely understated. The hot brick of crisis has very quickly passed to the residents of Trafford for now, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Fulham were devoid of ambition, but ahead of a bigger derby next week a win was important.

  4. GrocerJack

    Cracking report sir! I’m a bit more positive about the display, in fact I think it was far more Mourino-esque from the first reign. Lots of ‘reting on the ball’ and stepping up through gears at appropriate times. And Mikel was superb again. I’ve been a big fan for sometime but surely even the biggest naysayers can see how he’s blending Makalele and Ballack type skills together…..we look so much calmer when he’s in the midfield.

  5. PeteW

    Mixed feelings about Mata but appreciate Jose’s full and frank explanation even if I don’t entirely agree. Some criticism that he is being disrespectful to Mata in discussing this, but I like the fact he doesn’t just tell the press it is none of their business and try to ban them – it’s also one of the reasons the press find Mourinho so good to deal with. Can you imagine any other manager talking so openly about tactics? It’s respectful to the fans.

    Also, Oscar has been incredible. Not sure he helps the team mesh quite as fluidly as Mata, but we are kidding ourselves if we think everything last season was hunky dory (as the press seem to be suggesting). There were frequent diabolical performances and the football was very ugly for the main part. Mata was superb, yes, but the team was horrendous for a lot of the time and perhaps we need to find a way round that. It may not work, but there’s no reason not to try it.

    Interesting that the mood around me on Sat was pretty upbeat – fans happy to let JM do what he wants to try and get things right. We seem to generally be of the view that things need to be shaken up, and there was no residual animosity at the dropping of Mata, just a little frustration that the team were so drab – as I said before, last season suggests the two things may not be connected and players like Hazard and Schurrlie should still be able to sparkle whether playing alongside Oscar or Mata. Would we be better with Mata in the team? Not judging by performances so far, but it’s very very early. I love Mata and hope he comes good, but replacing him with Oscar is hardly AVB replacing Lampard with Merieles.

    So back to Saturday – the performance was pretty meh and we are still very ponderous on the ball, break too slowly, not enough guile at the very front – I don’t like Eto’o. But the defence has looked much tighter in general (the odd hiccup aside) and overall we look like more of a unit than before, There’s still something not quite clicking in the centre midfield though. I do wonder if we would be better off with a 4-3-3 – a Mikel, Ramires, Oscar midfield would be pretty vicious and then we have a great choice of wingers to go from. I’d like to see us try this, because the two deep midfielders and three playmakers thing just doesn’t get the best out of our CM and particularly weakens Ramires who is a massive attacking asset in the correct formation.

    Sorry to be a tactics bore there.

    • bluebayou

      You didn’t mention the high block, low block or double pivot and are therefore not officially a tactics bore. I do agree that the current set up doesn’t seem to make the best use of Ramires.

  6. Der_Kaiser

    Good report, LTB, very enjoyable.

    Going to be fascinating to see how we develop as a team; certainly expect a few bumps along the way, but if we can keep things together over the next 3-4 years (and, dare I say, keep the same man in charge for more than 12 months) the potential is huge.

    Fulham game itself wasn’t the most interesting but it got us back on track which was all that was required in the circumstances. 4 aways on the bounce in less than a fortnight, all of them with their own potential pitfalls, is hardly ideal but it will be decent experience for some of the youngsters and a good test of the depth of the squad. Hope to see the likes of Kalas perhaps get a chance at some point, along with those on the fringes – Azpi, De Bruyne et al. Also be interesting to see where and how Mata plays too.

  7. Blue_MikeL

    Good report, indeed.
    While I completely understand that we are work in progress and totally understand that Jose has to do this work. I still think that letting Lukaku go and getting Eto’o wasn’t an exceptionally clever move. I am seeing us playing and don’t really understand where the goals will come from? Three of our strikers are not up to the level of our club (understatement). I would have preferred to develop Lukaku in Chelsea and let him play more. I see him playing for Everton and can’t really understand why did we send him away and kept Ba, for instance or brought Eto’o.

    • Der_Kaiser

      Think Eto’o will contribute – he’s only had a couple of games so far after not playing for about a month and has generally averaged a little over a goal every other game throughout his career. If Oscar keeps the no. 10 role he could quite easily get 15-20 for the season and we have plenty of other players who will chip in with a few. Even Torres managed 22 last season…

      Can’t remember the exact stat but in all competitions last season we scored about 30 goals more than United managed with RVP and Rooney. Even in Drogs’ final season when he was hardly prolific we didn’t struggle for goals.

      • Blue_MikeL

        I definitely hope that this will be the case. However, based on what I see so far it doesn’t look so 🙁 Out of 22 goals Torres scored last season; 8 goals were in EPL and 6 in Europa league. Torres hasn’t scored against any of top four sides and all his goals cam against either EPL or Europa League minnows, although he has scored in the final. I don’t want to look or sound like a gloom merchant, but so far I don’t see where the goals will come from. Call me myopic, if you want to. Let’s see what we do tonight against Swindow, although it can’t be representative of our form and abilities, it is League One side. We MUST be able to dismantle them on any given day.

        • Der_Kaiser

          To be entirely fair to Torres – and I appreciate it is all relative – he did score against Arsenal and got one in European final last season, and one against Bayern last month. He’s certainly not the long term answer, but he is in something vaguely like a bit of form and was OK last night (granted it was League 1 opposition).

          • Blueboydave

            The other thing I noticed is that Torres appeared to be attempting to re-write history in his post-match interview last night, claiming that he “mainly featured in the cup competitions in previous years”.

            My immediate reaction was that this was clearly nonsense re last season when he started constantly in the face of poor form, confirmed when I checked the stats to see he had 28 starts + 8 sub appearances, more than every other outfield player in the EPL.

            Furthermore, while he may have been psychologically living in the shadow of The Drog in 11/12, the relevant yearbook tells me he had 20 (+12) EPL appearances for his 6 goals and 12 (+5) for 5 goals in all other competitions, significantly more games than The Drog actually played.

          • Der_Kaiser

            I think that overall he’s a fairly honest and straightforward bloke, but I’ve no idea what goes on behind the scenes, of course. He’s been a pretty disastrous signing for us – not just in terms of the price and his decline but the subsequent fallout and what it has meant for other forwards, both the ones that have been here and the ones we’ve perhaps wanted to sign.

            I do have some sympathy for him, as it can’t easy dealing with the fact that your personal form and ability is moving on to the downward slope (and has been for some time) when it should actually be hitting its peak. Overall he’s been a signing that has had a huge affect on the club – much of it negative.

          • Blue_MikeL

            Hard to disagree with your assessment of Torres situation. However, still, I just hope a miracle of some sort happens and he plays again, restores his form in some way and performs for us in crucial moment. may be tomorrow…?
            Actually speaking about tomorrow. I don’t have a bad feeling, but I am nervous to tell you the truth.

  8. limetreebower

    Thanks for the kind words everyone.

    I’ll be tuning in to my iPad (where I can watch Sky) with extra interest this evening. Sending out a bunch of international-class players with a point to prove against Swindon … It could be interesting. I’m by no means expecting a massacre, though. It’s the kind of situation where people could tighten up pretty badly if things don’t go their way after half an hour or so. A bit like on Bake Off, which I’ll be trying to watch at the same time.

  9. Day Tripper

    Forgive me if I have a little rant here. I
    was not at all convinced by the performance against Fulham, nor that of last
    night by the most expensive ‘B’ team of all time. How would the Fulham game
    have gone if Bent had converted that chance in the first half? And last night
    there were some classy moments – that’s the least you can expect against a D3
    team – but the confidence of several of the players seemed completely shot
    through. Willian and De Bruyne were two notable examples. Mourinho keeps on
    saying that the players have to adapt to a new style of play – ie his style –
    but is there not a case for the manager to adapt the style to the players he
    has available? I do not like this mechanistic type of football where everyone
    has to track back, everyone has to cover, get behind the ball etc. The creative
    players have no energy left to express themselves with these demands being
    placed on them. Even Oscar will not be able to keep up this pace for ever.

    And I’d like to know who has been
    responsible for the transfer dealings over the summer? Mourinho, Emenalo, or a
    combination of the two? I don’t see what need buying Willian fulfilled, nor
    Schurrle for that matter given that we were going to recall De Bruyne. Why buy
    the inexperienced Van Gingkel, when there were plenty of players ready to be
    blooded from the youth team – I’m particularly thinking of Ake and Chalobah?
    And 32 year old Eto’o, who needs time to adjust to the premiership after the
    lesser demands of the Russian championship? Looking at the highlights of the Everton
    game over the weekend, I would say that Lukaku was premiership-ready. Letting
    him go out on loan may prove to be the biggest error of judgement of all. But
    then he is just a ‘kid’. I have to say, if I were one of the younger players I
    would find being constantly referred to as a kid particularly grating. Finally
    there is the treatment of Juan Mata which is just beyond my comprehension. I
    can see him leaving if he continues to be left out in the cold in this way.

    I’m not at all optimistic about our trip to
    Tottenham on Saturday. We might grind out a draw if we’re lucky but I cannot
    see any way we will beat them (I sincerely hope I’m wrong in this). And I’m
    very worried about how the rest of the season will pan out.

  10. Blue_MikeL

    I just hope Jose finally realized what is his starting 11 !!! He is the only one to blame for the first half performance.

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