Chelsea 1-0 Stoke City – Just Business


There’s been quite a large concentration of fuss and bother in the short space of three days. Unless you possess the sickeningly deviant predilection of watching that which you love falter at the final hurdle, a transitional Chelsea squandering a 2-0 lead against Juventus did not make for serene viewing. Since the Italian champions have gone undefeated in almost 40 games in the scandal-ridden Serie A, several amongst us understood that the nature of the match and final result did not warrant protestation or grievance. Some thought otherwise. The underworld of the twitterati, armed with mendacity and 140 characters, tarnished the post-match debate – and the reputation of Chelsea’s support – by forcing Obi Mikel to abandon his account. Lunacy abound.

More ominously, Uncle Roman conducted another inspection of Cobham. In recent years, his visits have gained infamy because they alluded to – and preceded – a ruthless sacking. While Roman must have merely sought a more in-depth explanation regarding three back-to-back, less-than-ideal performances, no one with an iota of business sense invests drastically in youth with provincial expectations of immediate, stellar returns from a new epoch still in its infancy. And neither has Di Matteo’s tenure reached such an odious stage. I do wonder, however, in what tone and demeanor an introverted Russian billionaire carries out an informal inquest into first-team matters. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve even heard the man speak. I have to admit, it is not what I had imagined in the slightest.

Genuinely embattled managers, as well as those under pressure contrived by the legion of sensationalists masquerading as journalists, have all had to relay the right impression of the unannounced stopover by the owner. But pressure does not seem to exist in the Matteon management school’s curriculum, and the imperturbable Robbie played it by the book, reiterating that such hierarchical surveillance remains customary and cordial. In other words, it’s just business. In this instance, prior to just the fifth matchday, it was.

Amid all the business-as-usual drama, Chelsea were expected to convincingly see off an outfit that has proved to be a peculiar opponent. In recent years, Chelsea sides experiencing an indifferent spell have laboured against a Stoke side that attempted only five through balls the whole of last season, according to Opta. Let that sink in. Five through balls in 38 matches. Tony Pulis’ agricultural brand of football troubled Scolari’s Chelsea, requiring a Frank Lampard stoppage time winner, stifled Villas-Boas’ tactics in his first outing as manager and, most recently, tested Di Matteo’s Premier League debut. Even a fully confident Chelsea under Carletto Ancelotti needed a Florent Malouda strike in the dying minutes. Certainly a fixture with a spot of bother and a pattern of late, decisive goals then.

Team selection

At a glance, the team appeared lightweight, but it was a progressive selection from Di Matteo and the backroom boys, with perhaps the creative trio we’ve all been waiting to see – Hazard, Oscar and Mata – behind a frontman who still has a little to prove, one feels. A bold, strategic and logical decision to drop the captain and second-in-command: the team must gradually wean off reliance on either, their legs must be used sparingly and Terry did betray his experience and ability during crucial moments in midweek. Perhaps more significantly, Chelsea’s talismans were rotated without a word, gesture or noticeable attitude of disagreement. That in itself is a measure of sustainable progress.

The first 45

Chelsea’s dynamic attacking calibre flew out of the chamber from the very start. Flair, verve and a keen understanding of what was required was on show. The creative trio all bring something different: Hazard offers a physical balance to his guile and Oscar, deservedly earning consecutive starts and brimming with confidence, could very well be Lampard’s successor given his penchant for a long range shot while instinctively prowling just outside the box. If you do not know what Mata is all about by now, you are beyond salvation. Speaking of which, Ramires, whose form needs a bit of salvaging, looked far more comfortable – and effective – in a central role where his stride and stamina can be utilized fully. Mikel, a solid central defensive midfielder worthy of his starting role, distributed and tackled assuringly.

Not for the first time, though, the day’s brightest attacking threat was Commandant Branislav Ivanovic. Is Chelsea’s play so intrinsically tilted to the left that the selected right full-back almost always plays a key role in the final third? I distinctly remember Bosingwa serving as an attacking outlet one too many times. Not that I’m complaining about Branna’s imperious marches down the flank.

At the back, Cahill and Luiz will form the club’s first choice central defensive pairing for the near and distant future. Matches like this are crucial to forming not only an understanding between the two, but a foxhole bond.

Match analysts are already labelling Ivanovic’s penalty claim as a dive. It is disconcerting that so many penalty shouts have been ignored by referees after Hazard repeatedly capitalized on his maniacal ability to lure opponents into a risky tussle in their box. Did we reveal too much too soon? Just to be clear, there is a fine line between exploiting the slightest contact and unequivocally diving. Blatant theatrics would have forced the referee to brandish a yellow card. He didn’t. Fair play.

There exists another thoroughly demarcated boundary between an efficiently beautiful performance and a traveling circus act. At times our play hinged on the latter. Despite however much it may arouse audiences, unnecessarily intricate, over-elaborate passing moves on the edge of the box constitute the greatest hamartia of an insatiable desire to attain sex appeal on the pitch. Indeed, attempting to play through the heart of a side whose key strength lies in its ability to centralize a deep defense only illuminates the innate flaws of haute football even more. The players do seem to be far too eager to keep up an unfeasibly fast passing momentum. That is a skill not easily mastered – and less so on a match day itself. The lack of a crisp final ball was telling and downright frustrating. One sincerely hopes the rapid change of philosophies still preserves a semblance of the power element so emblematic of Chelsea’s attacking play.

Leading the line once again, Torres, after an exquisite piece of chipped service from his diminutive compatriot, miskicked six yards from goal. Just business as usual?  Years prior I might have added, “…when it looked easier to score”. But I realized that my Saturday afternoons often consist of dark ales, darker stouts, rich, indulgent food and sinful levels of comfort. I, like many, haven’t the slightest idea what looks easier to score.

Lastly, the players, as has often been the case, were perturbed during set pieces – and Walters very nearly punished that very lack of vigilance. This is one area that, I’m sorry to say, has never been the same since Mourinho’s defensive staff left with him.

The second 45

As the referee recommenced proceedings, a solitary goal would indeed suffice given the stubbornness of the tie.

At one stage, the panic button seemed to have been hit as Luiz, Cahill and Ivanovic all took up attacking positions. Yet, there was no breakthrough. The finishing belied the buildup. The Vidal-like viciousness needed in the final third had just not crystallized. As I mentioned earlier, free-flowing, high risk football, is not easily inculcated. While the personnel is there in abundance, the seamless understanding isn’t quite. Hazard, for instance, seemed to be a few steps ahead of his teammates – his potentially penetrative back-heel pass to Ramires was of a pace of thought a few steps ahead of a team trained in the trenches.

Mata began to look increasingly uncomfortable on either flank. On the right, he is, at the very least, able to cut in on his favoured foot. While on Chelsea’s vaunted left hand side, the Asturian playmaker found himself having to make inroads to burrow for his central comfort zone.

As the team look ill-prepared on defensive set pieces, it looked equally incapable of conducting itself aggressively at the opposing end. The final corner tally was 13 to three in favour of home team.

But a smart summer made sure options lie in waiting. The ever-impressive Victor Moses and the indefatigable Frank Lampard replaced Hazard and Mikel, respectively.

In the 84th minute, when a second consecutive scoreless draw seemed the truest possibility, the pattern of late goals against Stoke City told once again. Take very special notice of Di Matteo’s established and altered tactics in securing all three points. While the selected substitutes exchanged passes, Robbie’s stringent policy of allowing both full-backs to remain further up the pitch as frequently as possible paid off yet again. Ivanovic played a key first-time pass to Mata. A shrewd tactical shift after Moses’ introduction allowed the frustrated Spaniard to float in a more central area in order to dictate play more decisively. A perfectly situated Ashley Cole dispatched Mata’s world-class touch with the same audacity and precision as his hairstylist’s trimmer to claim a rare league goal. Oh how we needed that.

Four minutes later, an even less familiar sight took shape on the sidelines. A fit John Terry waited to replace Juan Mata. When was the last time a fully fit John Terry and Frank Lampard were brought off the bench so late in the game, let alone to shut up shop? Surely it is a sight one will grow more accustomed to, but that had to be a first.

At the end of the day, Chelsea grinded out a hard-fought win over a stifling opponent after some frustrating link-up play and relatively minor defensive lapses to cement our top spot for the weekend. In the end, it was three points; it was a clean sheet; it was just Chelsea; it was just business.

Player ratings

The players will be rated according to their corporate identities:

  • Cech – FoxConn – very few know what it’s like to get past the gates.
  • Ivanovic – Evraz – the world’s largest steelmaker with operations just about everywhere. The man was
    everywhere, involved in virtually every attack of significance.
  • Cahill – BP – commanding, influential and is summoned more than once to clear up a mess.
  • Luiz – Facebook – a little too enthusiastic, a little too erratic with his decisions and a bit overbearing at times, but he has the support and knows what he’s doing.
  • Ashley Cole – Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
  • Ramires – Petrobras – because he is definitely running on an external fuel source.
  • Mikel – McDonald’s – a model supply chain.
  • Hazard – Pixar – creative, effective, entertaining and a heavyweight in his own right.
  • Oscar – Kickstarter – a start-up whose stock is on the rise.
  • Mata – The Economist Group – sharp, intelligent, analytical, sees things others do not.
  • Torres – Apple – slick, shiny, but improves his final product incrementally.
  • Moses (sub) – Colgate – fresh and outright necessary.
  • Lampard (sub) – Berkshire-Hathaway – a highly respected name in all circles.
  • Terry – TNK-BP (sub) – has gotten into some legally tiresome situations, has been expelled, you never know how long things will last, but will continue to dominate so long as they do.
  • And finally… Stoke City – The Agricultural Bank of China. No offence to China.

Man of the Match

Flip a coin for Juan Mata or Commandant Ivanovic. Ivanovic must be tails.

The press reports

The Observer, Paul Doyle: “Chelsea’s quest for style means more than integrating recent recruits: it also, apparently, entails teaching old dogs new tricks. After 85 minutes of frustration, Ashley Cole, who had not scored since an 8-0 win over Wigan in May 2010, popped up and finished like a natural striker, dinking the ball over Asmir Begovic to sicken valiant Stoke City and give Chelsea a three-point reward for an uncertain performance.”

The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Burt: “For much of this encounter Roman Abramovich had that look on his face — a mixture of bemusement and Roman Emperor-like displeasure — that suggested Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo should be shifting a little uneasily on the bench. In the end, Chelsea got the victory they desired, but did not necessarily deserve, and the club’s owner will have felt a pang of vindication that his visit to the training ground the day after the Champions League draw at home to Juventus had the necessary effect.”

The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “It took the collector’s item that is an Ashley Cole goal to ensure that Chelsea will still top the Premier League whatever their Manchester rivals manage from tricky assignments today.”

The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Ashley Cole’s first goal since May 2010 was enough to send the Blues back to winning ways as he scored late on to settle a keenly fought contest. The left-back’s previous strike had been an icing-on-the-cake moment on the day we won the league by thumping Wigan. This time his effort made the difference between one point and all three and in the context of this season, it could have immense value.”

The goal

85′ Cole
Match of the Day highlights

There are 27 comments

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  1. Nick

    Cracking stuff, Vik. I didn’t see the game and was slightly inebriated by the time the highlights were shown on Match of the Day. I have vague memories of watching Luiz do something silly and I think I got quite annoyed at Linekar et al for their so called punditry.

    Anyway, three points and top of the table. Lovely.

  2. Jacarandachick

    Informative piece, I’ve been keeping an eye on the timing of RDM’s subsitutions in this case Terry and Lamps swapping in so late reaped benefits but I’m still uneasy, time will tell whether RDM is cautious or clueless about how to redirect the game.
    It’s being said Mikel wasn’t too enamoured of Twitter and was going to kill his account anyway. The abuse sent his way is unacceptable, we respect our own. Online hatred can be reported to police website True Vision, their twitter is @true_vision_uk

  3. mark_25

    Excellent stuff Vik.

    Regarding the dives I think Ivan’s was a definite and Oscar’s a possibly.  In any event I abhor diving regardless of who’s doing it and would like to see it stamped out of the game, a view shared by Luiz apparently.

    However what I abhor even more than diving is being giving a lecture on player behaviour by Tony Pulis.  In fact I’d rather take advice on ethical interest rate setting from Bob Diamond or tips on how to complete my tax return from Jimmy Carr.  To eradicate diving I think there should be a weekly panel to review the recent misdemeanours and those found guilty should be required to dive from the top board in the Olympic pool.

    Your player rankings are entertaining but I have to take issue with Apple Torres.  Apple shares are a rising stock and now the most valuable company on the planet.  Only hindsight will reveal whether they’re at their peak or will keep rising.  Personally I think they’re at or near their peak and Microsoft will make a comeback with Windows 8, particularly on the phone.  However Torres may once have been the most valuable player but surely he’s well past his value peak and a better example would be a builder, like Taylor Wimpey, which has fallen miles from its peak and we wonder whether it will ever recover and surpass past glories.

  4. limetreebower

    Terrific read, Vik, thanks. “Luiz – Facebook”: lovely, perfect.

    On the Obi front, it’s worth noting that he played well and was warmly applauded when he came to the bench to be substituted. I hope he knows that the Bridge crowd appreciate what he can do. I was at the game with one of my kids, who first started paying attention to Chelsea three or four years ago. He made the interesting comment that the only outfield players on the pitch who were part of what he thinks of as the “old” Chelsea were Cashley and … Obi. You don’t think of Obi as having been at the heart of the team for a long time, but in fact he’s almost an éminence grise compared to most of those who’ll start games this season.

    Having spent the whole game confident that we’d get a goal eventually, I’d just about abandoned hope when one of the tricky tiki-taka edge-of-the-box moves finally worked.

    A lot of people were complaining about the lack of width but in some ways I can understand Robbie’s approach. After all, we were never likely to score from crosses; the only hope from the wings would have been to get people running around behind the defenders, as Branners did once in the first half to good effect, and Stoke were usually back in time to put a stop to that anyway. It’s always difficult to play against them unless an early goal goes in. I think the team can take some credit for trying to play through them, though no doubt the reaction would have been hysterical if it had ended up 0-0.

    I absolutely agree with Vik that Ramires looks much better as one of the deeper midfield 2. He had a good game as well. And I’d vote for Branners as MotM.

  5. Blue_MikeL

    Great writing Vic, simply great! Thanks for your report mate.With each game it feels more and more that we are virtually strikerless . I am giving up on Torres, he has got so believe from us that I think no one in the history (let alone SB) of football ever had. We have to rely on Daniel and hope for good.  We haven’t got anything else 🙁 

  6. Blueboydave

    Well, I guess we should be pleased with the 3 points, something no one else has managed against Stoke in EPL so far, including Citeh and Arsenal.

    I’m trying to make allowances for the work-in-progress argument, but a bit worried that our “creative herberts”  [analysis courtesy of Podding Shedders] seem to be turning into Arsenal, while our back four are dedicating themselves to putting the wellbeing of those blameless souls sitting in row Z at both ends at severe risk from their long-range efforts.

    One other point I’ve noticed in last couple of home games is that Mikel seems to have been freed to venture forward much more – indeed I was having visions of Micky Droy in the dying moments v Juventus as he seemed to take up residence in their penalty box looking to get on the end of punts into the box.

    Finally, have to agree with Mark that it is beyond a joke for Tony Pulis to complain about aggressive play by the opposition and ridiculous that MOTD allowed him to set the agenda for discussion topics as the Luiz tackle and diving Chelsea players.

    • Austin Solari

      Exactly where is it please as when I clicked on that link, I found lots of info on the programme but no direct link to watch it?

  7. limetreebower

    Grauniad suspects that it means he knows he’s going to be given some kind of sanction at the upcoming hearing, and is therefore getting his retaliation in early (and avoiding the inevitable demands for him to be dropped from England).

    Which to be honest sounds about right.

    I love JT as much as the next Chelsea fan but he’s made a complete arse of himself over this business, to be honest. There’s just no mileage in any version of the “yes but I didn’t really mean it” argument any more. Once he effectively admitted that he used the language he did, he was in the same situation as Suarez: any attempt to defend himself was always just going to make it look worse, and the only sensible option would have been to find some form of apology — “I abhor all forms of racism, there’s no place for it in the game, I still insist that I never intended a racist insult but I acknowledge that even in the heat of the moment I shouldn’t have used those words under any circumstances, I hope all football players and fans can work together to kick racism out of football, etc.” Really not that hard and would just have involved swallowing a bit of pride, but I suppose they’re all conditioned to think their manhood depends on never giving an inch.

    [I feel like I mixed clichés there to rather unfortunate effect …]

    • Ryan

      JT giving a few inches of manhood was another episode entirely I believe.

      Great report Vik.

      4 wins and a draw from 5 games is as good a start as I would’ve thought possible. Lots of red-top shit (hold your hand up Martin Lipton) around today about Arsenal being the first real test of our Championship credentials. Just like Newcastle was a few weeks ago and Juventus last week. Never-mind Stoke who have already held Arsenal & City.

      So on we go. Whilst it’s important to beat those around you (City, Utd, Arsenal) a draw never does any harm. It wasn’t losing the big games that left us languishing in sixth last year, it was all the appalling performances against teams that we really ought to have beaten. All those 1-0 wins Utd ground out while we were giving points away left, right and centre formed the basis of the points gulf between us last year.

      Looking forward to Wolves tomorrow night, as it will (hopefully) give us a chance to see some of the players who haven’t got much of a look in so far. Might give us some idea why we aren’t seeing them or alternately give us some more options going forward.

      I’m on twitter now so if anyone here would like me to follow them just let me know.

  8. mark_25

    Looking forward to seing who plays up front tonight.  With the LegueCarlingMilkCapitalOne Cup being the opportunity to play the second string, who is the second string forward if Sturridge is still injured?

  9. Dylbo Baggins

    Hard to know what to think about the whole JT thing. On one hand, I think he has done it to himself over the years. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of someone who loves playing for his country more. The guy is a gladiator and he must be absolutely gutted.

    If it keeps him just that little bit fitter for Chels then all the better, I guess.

    Maybe we’ll play without a #9 a la Spain for tonight’s game?

  10. Blueboydave

    I’ve just been looking at the sports pages of one of the tabloids while waiting in the hairdressers. 

    Once I’d got past the pages of guff on the Terry FA inquiry and Rio’s classy jumping up and down trying to resurrect his England career already I find a comment from Wolves manager saying that after playing 3 games in a week his first choice squad are knackered and he’ll be sending out the reserves tonight.

    If even the lower division sides treat this competition with such contempt you have to wonder why it’s allowed to keep clogging up the fixture lists.

    I guess because ultimately there’s a Wembley Final, which if your team wins magically transforms the tournament from an irrelevance to an early piece of silverware in the cabinet 😉 

    • Ryan

      RDM did point out recently that Oscar, Hazard and Mata need more time together to work things out (due to interrupted/non-existent preseason) so he is aware of this problem. Moses/Marin/Ramires/Bertrand are possibly more naturally suited to wide roles. Guess we just wait and see what happens. Relieved to actually have some attacking options though.

  11. limetreebower

    On the striker front, I see Lukaku scored again for West Brom at the weekend. Great that he’s getting to play regularly.

    • Ryan

      Yep he seems a lot more relaxed now that he is getting time on the pitch and actually is acknowledging the groundwork (weight loss, fitness, conditioning) put in last year.

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